Film * Robert Wise * Sci-Fi Morality Play * 1951
Once again, in my near-complete ignorance of the medium of film, I finally got around to watching a movie that has pretty much permeated into our cultural consciousness. I mean, even without that 2008 re-visit starring Ted Theodore Logan. Going in, I had a pretty good idea of the set-up, even if I was a little less certain of the details. Basically, I figured, the idea is an alien arrives unexpectedly and humans immediately act like jerks. Then the alien is all like “but I come in peace” but we don’t care because humanity is kind of a dick. The end. Thankfully, the movie itself isn’t so reductive and lame. Yes, it is rather to the point and not subtle in the slightest about its motivations. However, the story is presented in a compelling fashion as the characters are complex enough to warrant caring about and the pacing (which is what pushes me away from much of the film of this era) is pretty snappy. Even if the blatant messaging is, well, blatant, at the very least the message is one worth hearing.
The Day the Earth Stood Still does not fuck around with any kind of preamble or prologue. It just jumps right in there with military dudes noticing a freaky UFO within maybe ten minutes of landing right in the middle of the National Mall. Shortly after this happens, the UFO opens up and a man in sparkle pajamas and a giant robot emerge. There is a tense stand-off between these two and a hastily assembled Army cordon set up around the alien craft. The alien pronounces his peaceful intentions, but sure enough some undisciplined jackass shoots him. The robot proceeds to murder everyone, leaving Washington DC a smoking crater in the ground as the UFO flies off to rendezvous with his massive alien fleet only to return and render Earth into a spiral of dust and debris. No… no wait, that was the scenario that played out in my head as I watched the nonsensical reaction of the people on screen. Instead of immediate destruction, Klaatu (the aforementioned sparkle-alien) maintains a level head and allows himself to be taken into custody.
Upon capture, Klaatu is advised that humanity is hopelessly splintered and cannot possibly come together to listen to whatever stupid alien message he might want to give. Instead of remaining in custody, Klaatu bounces and finds himself a room to rent in the city (note: Washington D.C. is just astoundingly white in this film). His intention is to infiltrate the American populace to get a handle on how our society operates. Here he meets a variety of people, but he then bonds with Squeaky McFreshface, a precocious child named “Bobby,” because what else would he be called? Oh, and Bobby’s hot mom is there too, along with her jerk boyfriend. I actually don’t mean to trivialize these characters, because they all work within context of the story being told. They’re not classic by any means, but are engaging in their own right. Even the kid, who manages to be kind of funny. Anyway, Klaatu gets a tour of The American Way of Life before he is eventually recaptured/murdered. No worries, because he can regenerate. With a little help from his giant death robot and Bobby’s hot mom he is able to finally broadcast his message to the world: “Dear humans, cool it with the nukes or we’re going to blow up your idiot planet before you can spread your homicidal insanity to the rest of the galactic community.” Then, abrupt as the beginning, the ending just ends. I appreciate that.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is an important piece of fiction. It is one of the first instances of a story being told – and aimed at a mass market – that directly addresses the issue of our species having the ability to destroy itself. This truth is unsettling now, but in 1951 it was also quite new. After all, we’ve had over sixty years of living under the nuclear shadow to get used to our extinction being a button-press away. In 1951 most people likely didn’t realize what our technological superiority had actually brought us. After the war, America was in great shape, right? Unlike the rest of the modern world, we still had our infrastructure intact, our economy was cranking, and we were finally an unquestioned superpower. Our technological crown jewel was the mastery of the atom, demonstrated over the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only in 1949, when the Soviet Union tested their first nuclear weapon, did this whole atomic weapon thing start to seem a little worrisome. Obviously, the years between that event and this film marked the beginning of the Cold War, which was characterized by a wavering stalemate between nuclear-powered adversaries, otherwise known as mutually assured destruction.
So what does this film have to say about all that? Well, it’s clearly not super happy about the situation. And considering what I know about the era, this thing seems… subversive in a way movies made during the time of the House Committee on Un-American Activities generally weren’t. This is to say that the United States government, the Army, and the citizenry in general do not come off particularly well in the film. This aspect of the movie, which is basically a condemnation of our national hubris, kind of surprised me. I can understand depicting the government as inept and/or corrupt, but I was rather expecting Klaatu’s tour of vintage Americana was going to teach him the value of human life or some such nonsense. Nope! Turns out your everyday citizen is just as willful, short-sighted, and small-minded as the people in charge.
It’s the short-sighted behavior of everyone which is the most galling thing about this movie. Like, really? Really? Your first reaction to an obviously superior being is to assume you can murder it with no repercussions? That seems to be the reaction of every jackass in the film. “We should just find the alien, kill it up real good, and the rest of the galaxy will be awed by our obvious strength.” It’s peak American Exceptionalism, and it’s super gross. Not only is it frustrating to watch the military just rampage around the city on its alien-hunt, but it’s terrifying as well. The idea that people who function like this, which is to say shoot first and fucking whatever later, are the ones in charge of world-destroying weaponry is flat out horrifying. That the movie shows the general population to be okey-dokey with this situation is a challenge in its own right. Basically what The Day the Earth Stood Still is doing is asking: are you sure? Forget the extraterrestrial threat for a moment, that’s only present to throw this behavior into a sharper relief. Are you sure you want guys like this with control over not only your life, or your nation’s life, but the life of the species? Considering how history has played out since we mastered the atom, it seems like yeah, kinda. Which is discouraging to say the least.