I love movies, and I wish I’d seen them all. Or rather, all the good ones.
In pursuit of this ambition, I’ve been catching up on some classic movies, some of which I’ve seen before many times, some of which are new to me.
Today’s blog is about the daddy of all SF films, the Robert Wise version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951).
Stephen King writes about this in his wonderful book DANSE MACABRE. He compares it with the later movie EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, an all action and terrifying tale of aliens invading Earth. Like much movie SF, he argued, EVTFS is really a horror movie; THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL by contrast, ‘is one of a select handful – the real science fiction movies.’ It’s not, in other words, a futuristic version of a tale about the boogeyman. It’s not like ALIEN, with its vagina dentata alien conjuring up primal fears that we didn’t know we had. It’s not about The Fear of Strangers, or of Otherness. It’s a cool, careful, masterly dissection of what shits humans are, and how and why aliens are right to fear us.
This makes TDTEST sound rather cool and academic; but in fact, it’s an amazingly taut film. I was delighted, in fact, to find that – despite a small special effects budget, and the incredibly over-precise diction of all the characters, that it’s not a dated or ‘old-fashioned’ kind of classic SF movie that is better left dust-covered in the archives. Admittedly, the space suit worn by Klaatu the alien looks as if it was retained by some skinflint in order to be re-used by Cybermen in the sandpit in the early Dr Who eps. And the interior of the ship is sadly inadequate compared to the Tardis. But this film is, I discover, a masterpiece of suspense.
The plot, briefly, and without I hope too many spoilers: An alien spaceship lands on Earth
and a humaniform alien called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges, accompanied by a huge robot, Gort. Klaatu comes in peace, but is treated with hostility by the authorities. And his attempt to summon a meeting of the leaders of the world is snubbed. So he escapes and – after befriending a young boy and her mother – explains to a kindly Professor with hair issues that the Earth is in deadly peril.
That’s all I can say – if you haven’t already, see the film! – but the genius of this movie is how much is achieved by the simple act of Defining the Peril. We know the Earth will be in dire danger unless certain things occur; and knowing that is enough. It’s the opposite of 2012, where we have to SEE houses fall down, cars fall into the sea, planes fall from the sky, people dying horribly, in such graphic detail that it becomes, pretty quickly, a bit ordinary. (What! Only a hundred people just died! – what a yawn!)
Here the jeopardy is defined; the clock is set ticking; and it’s terrifying. I was literally on the edge of my seat in the climactic sequence. Okay, the robot is not that scary – it has zappy eyes like Cyclops, but that’s all it does – but we know what it might do. And because its potential power is so awesome, its very presence terrifies.
All this artfulness is of course – at one crude level – a result of budgetary constraints. Even in 1951 audiences liked action, not chat; spectacle, not thoughtful speculation. But with limited resources, director Robert Wise and writer Edmund H. North (working from a story by Harry Bates) dug deep into their bag of storytelling tricks and made us fear a man who does nothing malicous, at all, in the course of the entire film. But though he’s courteous, and pleasant, Klaatu is an utterly cold and decisive character. If he has to kill, he will kill, and he will kill vast numbers of those who deserve to die.
For Klaatu is a rational being; and his rationality is the source of his scariness. You can’t reason with him; because he’s right. And you can’t defy him; because, as the setpiece sequence of the movie proves, his power, casually executed, utterly dwarfs that of the humble Earthlings.
The music is another key element of this movie. Composer Bernard Herrman - who also wrote the scores for many of Hitchcock’s great suspense thrillers including PSYCHO, as well as providing the music for THE TWLIGHT ZONE and some of the 1960s LOST IN SPACE - creates a chilling, haunting soundscape of singing voices and jagged orchestral crescendos. It’s a style that’s often imitated, but I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen/heard a movie with such a brilliantly tense score. The opening sequence, when the spaceship lands and the tanks take their position, is utterly nervejangling, like having someone run a cold knife blade down your spine to test how thick the skin is.
At other times, the film IS dated. There’s a lot of talky stuff, the girl (played by Patricia Neal) is very much the typical ‘pretty, good Mom’ character you always see in 50s movies. The army briefing scenes have a static, expository quality. And, even in 1951, what Mom would let a total stranger wander off with her kid…?
But for much of the time, Wise and North show remarkable adroitness in the way in which they use newscasters and telephone operators and soldiers in jeeps to convey a rich, busy universe of action, without spending too much money.
I saw this movie on a lovely collector’s edition DVD which I bought last year at Eastercon, in that wonderful little stall on the far right. As always, I bought a bunch of old movies thinking, ‘I must watch these some day.’ Fortunately, that day, for this movie, was yesterday.
Did you know? (I know you did):
The band Klaatu, named after the alien in this movie, wrote the song ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’.
The 2008 remake (a stinker, allegedly) stars Keanu Reeves, who actually IS an alien!
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