Classic Film Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

‘A wonderfully told story with an ending full of missed possibilities’

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951

Directed by: Robert Wise

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe

 

Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a humanoid alien, arrives on Earth with an eight-food tall robot, Gort (Lock Martin), to give a warning to a group of world leaders. Klaatu’s arrival, though, isn’t greeted too kindle on Earth as he is shot almost immediately after landing despite not posing ay real threat up until then. After escaping from the hospital where they healed him (and were subsequently keeping him locked up) he escapes and integrates himself in human society, still aiming for his moment to address Earth’s world leaders.

Among all the alien-invasion films, this stands out from the crowd in that it focuses more on Earth’s reaction to an alien, rather than any plans of world domination he may have. There are some wonderfully written moments of sadness (towards Klaatu) as the population make their feeling known (with Klaatu’s identity a secret to them). Radio reports warning he should be murdered and dinner table discussions over how fearful they are of him are just a few of the examples of hate and prejudice aimed at Klaatu for no reason; and that is one of the film’s strong points. Our own planet is full of moments of people being evacuated from their homes or enslaved for no specific reason other than they were different; and that is being mirrored with Klaatu’s arrival on Earth.

Gort is also fantastically written; standing at an imposing height with a menacing look, he’s unmovable, unmoving and indestructible. He also stands guard outside Klaatu’s spaceship for the majority of the film waiting for Klaatu to succeed in his mission on Earth. He’s a bodyguard figure with unbelievable powers (which helps fuel the hatred towards Klaatu).

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2

Klaatu, while disguised as a normal human living on Earth, befriends Helen (Patricia Neal) and her teenage son, Bobby (Billy Gray), and the chemistry between all three is beautiful, especially between Klaatu and Bobby, who strike up an immediate friendship; it offers the film a respite from the dangers they both face (Klaatu from humans and Bobby from Klaatu, supposedly) and offers the film some light-hearted comedy (such as Klaatu selling Bobby some valuable diamonds for $2).

It’s not perfect, though. Klaatu is told more than once that he has no Earthly money yet can afford to rent a bedsit, Gort isn’t presented as strong as he could have been and the film does drag its feet a bit during the middle. The ending, though, is where my main issues lie with the film; while I obviously won’t spoil anything there is an opportunity for Gort to be presented as this monstrous being that Klaatu, only moments earlier, warned Helen that he could be. He’s a law unto himself and his mission is to protect Klaatu. Yet we see him kill two guards (good start) then immediately cut to where Klaatu is being held and he breaks down the door and takes him back to the spaceship. I understand you can’t have a massive CGI-fest in these films in 1951, but he could have killed more guards at the prison or frightened people while walking, instead it feels like a missed opportunity. And that is followed by a slightly downbeat ending with a speech. It’s a wonderfully told story with an ending full of missed possibilities.

 

Personal: * * *     Acting: * * *     Writing: * * *     Presentation: * * *

Overall Rating: * * *

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