The Day The Earth Stood Still: Humanity Isn't Exactly the Most Gracious Host

We're about to watch the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951.  Not the vastly inferior Keanu Reeves one, with stilted acting, a confused environmental message, and the annoying spawn of Will Smith.  Just so we're clear.

The United States is tensely making its way through the Cold War, when all of a sudden a UFO lands on the Mall in Washington DC.  While some people are immediately suspicious of the Russians, it's pretty clear that Klaatu, the man exiting said UFO, is not from around here.  After getting shot, he uses a salve from his home planet that heals the wound overnight.  I love how the doctors are all disgruntled that his medicine is better than theirs.

His demands are simple: he wants to address the leaders of every country on Earth, because he has a message for them and it's too important to be trusted to only one nation or group of nations.  Of course, this is at the beginning of the Cold War, which means that the likelihood of having a peaceful worldwide conference is roughly the same as my Chapstick has of acquiring the powers of speech.  Which is to say, not very likely at all.  Klaatu quickly gets irritated with this petty, childish crap and breaks out his holding facility.

He moves into a boardinghouse, under the assumed name Mr Carpenter (OMG Klaatu is a Christ allegory Klaatu is a Christ allegory).  He befriends a little boy who also lives there, and asks the boy to take him to the smartest man on Earth (conveniently, this scientist also lives in Washington).  I ponder why the little boy didn't mention Einstein, who is still alive at this point, when asked who the smartest man on Earth is, but I suppose that's unrealistic within the confines of the production.

So Klaatu meets up with Dr Barnhardt the scientist, and together they plan a meeting of scientists and other leaders to discuss Klaatu's message.  Only trouble is, the government and military are on super high alert, trying to track down the mysterious spaceman.  What the US military wants, the US military gets, and what it wants is apparently to assassinate the intergalactic ambassador.  Klaatu is killed, but through spacey technology Gort temporarily brings him back to life so that he can deliver his speech.

Klaatu shakes his finger at all of us, and tells us we need to cut the shit or risk being eliminated.  As in, planet destroyed.

Random Musings:

  • You know what the best thing to do when a technologically advanced alien comes to Earth and tells you that it comes in peace?  Shoot it.  Because that could have no negative repercussions for all of humanity.

  • "It was a gift for your president.  With this could have studied life on other planets."  Well, boy is my face red.

  • "Metallurgical experts have found his huge body impregnable."  *snicker*  Sorry, I've apparently reverted to my 8-year-old self.

  • You have to admire the gall of the US government in trying to keep him locked up against his will.  It's like they genuinely don't understand that he doesn't have to do a thing they say.

  • Love the delicious awkwardness of Klaatu sitting at the breakfast table while they all discuss the alien menace.  It's very Batman/Bruce Wayne of him.  And I'm amazing at how paranoid people were of the Russians, to think that the spaceship belonged to them when it was so obviously outside the realm of what human technology was capable of at the time.  And then Klaatu suggests waiting until there's more information before they formulate an opinion and they're all like LOL you crazy?

  • It's definitely a good idea to leave your little boy with a strange man you barely know so that they can go wander around the city while there's a national crisis going on.  What are you thinking, woman?

  • I like the scene when the reporter asks Klaatu if he's scared.  Klaatu says that he's fearful when he sees people substitute reason for fear, and the reporter quickly moves on to someone else.  So like the media...they don't want to hear people who are reasonable and thoughtful, they want to hear from the conspiracy theorist who's convinced that the commie bastards are behind it all and we should blow up the whole Soviet nation as a precaution.  True story: when I was in high school, there was a massive power outage that affected a lot of the northeast, and my family was sitting around listening to the radio.  Someone called in, convinced that the Russians were behind it.  In 2003.

  • I'm very interested in Klaatu's message, because in a lot of ways it mirrors our own stance on countries like Iran and North Korea.  Klaatu's society has advanced technology, and they take responsibility for policing other civilizations.  They could care less about the primitive in-fighting that took place on this one planet, but now that they're developing atomic capabilities, their fighting has wider implications and therefore needs to be prohibited.  What's the difference between that and our official policy towards Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs?  It's the same kind of well-intentioned hypocrisy.

  • I'm actually pretty impressed with the boy playing Bobby.  Yeah, he belongs in a 1950s time capsule, but the way he tells his mom, "I'd never call you a liar," after she doesn't believe him about Mr Carpenter is really well done.

  • Of course we kill Klaatu.  If there's one thing I'll say about humanity, we're not great at avoiding these little diplomatic gaffes.

I actually really like this film.  I think it's pretty atmospheric and tense, and it's all such a product of its time.  The idea that we now had atomic capabilities spawned a billion sci-fi stories, all about the dangers of the technology we were messing around with.  It's an obvious reflection of the public consciousness at the time, at how fearful people were of the bomb.  For me, the film works as a piece of social history more than anything else.

That's not to say that this isn't a technically strong piece of film, because it is.  I especially like the eerie shots of the spacecraft, and the detached but not unlikeable performance of Klaatu by Michael Rennie.

I think the time period this film was made in is exactly the reason why the new version didn't work. Atomic fear-based science-fiction is so intrinsically tied to a specific era, and when you try to take it outside of that, it's going to suffer.  I know they tried to replace it with the environmental fears a lot of people have right now, but the type of tense paranoia found in the Cold War is so specific and can't really be replicated. 

Thanks for reading, and be sure to come back next time!

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