Stars: *** out of Four
Summary: A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.
Review: Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing. The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C. The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.
It all sounds so… cliche.
Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since. Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie. It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.
The film opens in what I just described. What happens next is simple, but interesting. The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort. The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop. He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination. At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders. Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible. Klaatu insists. When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.
The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger. Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.
The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes. There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch. The special effects, though, are truly innovative. The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort. The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.
Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music. Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling. The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.
The acting is not striking, but workable. The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others. He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.
The film is in direct response to the Cold War. Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene. The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived. Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions. Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms? Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place? After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns? What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?
The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air. I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act. All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.