#49 — The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Flying saucers raced across the movie screen with impunity in the early nineteen-fifties. In the first two years alone, there was Flying Disc Man from Mars, The Flying Saucer, The Man from Planet X and The Thing from Another World. That doesn’t even take into account all the movies dependent on more conventional rockets to get eager youngsters into the mayhem of their weekend matinees. Most of these sci-fi offerings (and “sci-fi” seems far more appropriate a term than “science fiction” in this instance) show off their dashed-off, cash-in quality, abdicating any responsibility for engaged, sensible storytelling because, hey, all anyone watching really cares about is the vessel soaring through space, and maybe a monster or robot. For as much derision is heaped on Ed Wood for Plan 9 from Outer Space, its inferior to its brethren by only a matter of degrees. And then there are the instances, rare and blessed, when a full-fledged film actually arises from these shiny spare parts, as much a relief as a modern blockbuster that has depth to go with its kinetic CGI falderal. That’s not to argue that celebrating such a film is simply a case of grading on a curve, which is preface to noting The Day the Earth Stood Still is a terrific film entirely on its own merits.
The main reason the film is a cut above is that the filmmakers treat it seriously, despite the genre trappings. Certainly there’s no shortage of Cold War paranoia subtext to be mined from a story about alien invaders with ultra-powerful weaponry, and the script it packed with the sort of religious symbolism that can give just about any narrative added weight. Though those bits provide some extra satisfaction, the ultimate explanation for why The Day the Earth Stood Still is strong is far simpler and more direct: director Robert Wise knew how to put together a picture. A steady studio toiler with over a dozen films to his credit by this point (and nearly as many as an editor), Wise was part of that breed that approached filmmaking as a job, a task to be completed. He approaches the film as someone with a responsibility to deliver something satisfying to an audience, implicitly understanding all the beats–comedy, thrills, drama–that need to be served up. Wise was editor to Orson Welles on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (on which Wise was one of those enlisted by studio RKO to modify the director’s original cut), and it’s hard to conceive of a better classroom for a filmmaker. Wise may not have his former boss’s ingenuity (few did), but there’s an admirable command of the rhythms of cinema that bespeak his experience.
Wise reportedly believed in UFOs and strongly agreed with the general anti-military sentiments in Edmund H. North’s script (adapted from the short story “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates). That conviction surely informs the film, which may be occasionally silly, but never stoops to mocking the material, throwing the audience a metaphorical knowing wink. It has a sleek sense of design, both the alien spacecraft and the towering robotic figure that emerges from it. That steely behemoth, dubbed Gort, remains one of the coolest to cross the cinematic cosmos. Is the film a little cheesy? Sure it is. It’s almost an inevitable byproduct of this kind of movie in this era. But it’s also lively, entertaining and surprisingly artful. In the grand science fiction tradition, it even offers some painfully pertinent commentary on the very nature of mankind. There’s not much else to add about The Day the Earth Stood Still, except maybe “Klaatu barada nikto.”