The Day the Earth Stood Still

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The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), still playing in cinema revivals in the 1990s, at outdoor summer festivals, and regularly on cable channels, was at the forefront of the science fiction film explosion of the 1950s. A number of its basic elements, from its moralizing to its music, from its fear of apocalypse to its menacing robot, are aspects of the genre which remain today. Though the film did not bring all these elements to science fiction for the first time, the film's strong and sophisticated visual and aural style was to have a lasting impact on how the scenario of alien visitation has subsequently been presented. The Day the Earth Stood Still outlined creatively, some might even say factually, the images of alien visitation that have fascinated increasing numbers of people in the second half of the twentieth century.

Between 1950 and 1957, 133 science fiction movies were released. The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the earliest, most influential, and most successful. Its story was relatively simple: the alien Klaatu (with his robot, Gort) arrives on this planet and attempts to warn Earthlings, in the face of increasing fear and misunderstanding, that their escalating conflicts endanger the rest of the universe. The film was unusual as a science fiction film in this period in that it was produced by a major production company (Twentieth Century-Fox) on a large budget, and this is reflected in the pool of talent the film was able to call upon, in terms of scripting, casting, direction, special effects, and music. The commentator Bruce Fox has even claimed, in Hollywood Vs. the Aliens, that the film's resonance in the depiction of alien visitation reflected testimony and information withheld by the government from the public concerning sightings and contact with "real" UFOs at the time.

Director Robert Wise had worked as an editor for Orson Welles (1915-1985) and directed a number of Val Lewton (1904-1951) horror films. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise is restrained in the use of special effects (though Klaatu's flying saucer cost more than one hundred thousand dollars), maintaining their effectiveness by contrasting them with scenes showing a claustrophobic and suspicious Washington in a light we might usually associate with film noir. Edmund North's script, based on the story "Farewell to the Master" by the famous science fiction magazine editor Harry Bates (1900-1981), emphasizes distinct religious parallels while balancing the allegory with Klaatu's direct experience with individual humans' hopes and fears. The film's mood of anxiety is underlined by the score of Bernard Herrmann (1911-75), who was to do the music for a clutch of Hitchcock films and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Herrmann's use of the precursor of electronic instruments, the theremin, as well as the more usual piano, percussion, and brass helped create a disturbing background. It is not until towards the end of the film that the art direction and special effects take over. More than the spaceship, however, the film's biggest selling point was the eight-foot Gort. Though clumsy and simplistic by today's standards, his huge stature and featureless face give a real sense of presence and menace. The talismanic phrase that had to be said to Gort to save the world, "Klaatu, Barada, Nikto," was on the lips of many a schoolchild of the period.

In many ways The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from being the most representative or the most original science fiction film of this period. There were many more thematically interesting films that appeared risible because they lacked the budget of Wise's film. The film's liberal credentials seem rather compromised by its lack of belief in the ordinary individual to avoid panic and suspicion in the face of anything different, while there is something rather patrician in the idea that, because Earth cannot be trusted to guard its own weapons of mass destruction, it must be put in the charge of a larger, wiser, scientifically more advanced intergalactic power. This faith in the rationality of the scientist to overcome all the fears and anxieties of the period was far from a unanimously held view.

Despite these drawbacks, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a successful film in popular terms for other reasons. Its influence is obvious: its opening scenes of the flying saucer coming in over the symbols of American democracy in Washington, D.C., resonate all the way down to similar scenes in Independence Day (1996); the alien craft and the tense scenes when figures descend from the craft to face a watching crowd create an archetypal image repeated again and again in science fiction films, most potently in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); finally, Gort is the prototype for the robot in the American science fiction film, a figure both menacing and protective, a precursor to every man-made humanoid machine from Robbie the Robot to the Terminator, one of the most original and beguiling figures the science fiction genre has offered the cinemagoer.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. London, Pluto, 1983.

Fox, Bruce. Hollywood Vs. the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry's Participation in UFO Disinformation. California, Frog Ltd, 1997.

Hardy, P. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction Movies. London, Octopus, 1986.

Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996.

Pringle, David, editor. The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. London, Carlton, 1996.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still

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