When I was young, my friend told me he recently saw a 1951 film called The Day The Earth Stood Still. This was many countless years ago, and being the uneducated filmmaker wannabe that I was, I asked him if he thought it was funny. In my mind, I thought an old horror film would be more funny than horrifying because of the outdated special effects. It was only until recently, when the remake came out, that I heard some comparisons between the two and realized that not only was The Day The Earth Stood Still not a horror film (in any shape or form), but it was actually incredibly fantastic.
The film opens with a space ship landing and two characters emerging: Klaatu, a very humanlike alien from a nearby planet, and Gort, a robot who doubles as a very powerful weapon. Because the military becomes increasingly suspicious of the pair’s intentions, Klaatu goes into hiding and befriends a young boy and his mother. It is a very human and personal story as Klaatu works through the conflict between what he came to accomplish and how the world views him. This is ultimately the strength of the film, as it does not try to be too flashy or action oriented.
The film incorporates the world’s fascination with the media, which allows it to subtly stretch into a film of more epic proportions, while retaining a personal feel to it. In addition to the media allowing for this, it is also very political. Set in the aftermath of World War II, under the swift rise of communism, and the beginning of the Cold War, it deals with the fears of warfare, nuclear threats, and communism in general. In the beginning, Klaatu attempts to hold a meeting between every nation on earth, but this idea is quickly shot down because the world is on edge. Klaatu is essentially giving the world an ultimatum: Join together in peace, or face extermination. The fact that he cannot easily gather the nations to a meeting about world peace tells us that his efforts might be for naught. However, despite Klaatu being aware of this possibility, he pushes on because he has faith in his message and in humanity. This is presented in a subtle manner, but it is powerful once it is analyzed. Because of these dualities (such as the epic versus personal story and the subtle versus obvious story elements) allows for another duality to exist: the fact that the film can be viewed as fun and entertaining on the surface, but contains enough layers of complexity under its exterior to be dissected into a very interesting array of politics and sociological ideas.
The Day The Earth Stood Still remains as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, and for good reason. It plays off political situations that have remained troubling even today, and it allows for a modern audience to really figure out the world of 1951. We are able to connect to these similar political situations, while being introduced to a foreign world that we have only glimpsed in our textbooks. And we truly care for the film’s characters. Klaatu, for example, is a very interesting individual for the film to follow. He’s incredibly smart and powerful, but he acts very normal and caring. He does not see himself as a superior being, but instead as a teacher, educated the galaxy’s next generation of civilizations. He understands that to feel superior would be to contradict the purpose of education. The Day The Earth Stood Still is not only about the bond between Klaatu and the young boy that he meets when on the run, but the bond between Klaatu and the entire planet.
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(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Acting: **** 1/2
Art Direction: ****
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: ****
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: ****