The Day the Earth Stood Still ★★½

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 14: Cold War Sci-Fi

It's a common understanding by now that science-fiction serves as a great metaphorical barometer for whatever hopes and fears a society is going through at the time that SF film is made; so that makes it especially interesting to look back at the SF movies of the 1950s, a time when real-world events (the space race, the cold war) conspired with innovations in the film industry to thrust SF into mainstream national popularity for the first time in its then-75-odd-year history. That can clearly be seen in the first movie we're looking at here at the Film School Dropout challenge this week, 1951's The Day The Earth Stood Still; for it's not only the first big-budget sci-fi film Hollywood had even mounted since the early 1930s, it's arguably the first time ever that Hollywood tried to make a "serious" sci-fi film intended primarily for grown-ups, when up to then the genre was primarily considered empty escapist entertainment fit only for children who had grown tired of playing Cowboys and Indians.

An early directing credit for Robert Wise, the editor of Citizen Kane who would go on to helm such classics as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, the production certainly went all out in their efforts to make this a "sophisticated" genre film, including recruiting real-world respected journalists like Elmer Davis and Drew Pearson to give the movie a sense of gravitas, and hiring no less than Frank Lloyd Wright himself to design the spaceship's interior (right in the same years he was designing the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the very definition of "Space Age architecture" if there ever was one). A self-admitted "thinly-veiled propaganda film" for the newly formed United Nations, it essentially has the opposite premise of Star Trek: First Contact; in this film, after the galactic community of space-faring races discover that Earth has finally invented space travel themselves, instead of welcoming them with open arms, they show up to warn Earth that if they attempt to create a space program while still allowing planet-destroying weapons like nuclear bombs, the automated deadly robots they've collectively created to police each other will simply show up to Earth one day and destroy the entire human race. The problem? Since, like Star Trek's Federation, this community of races has a "prime directive" to not meddle in the local affairs of any one planet, this messenger is only allowed to impart this information to all of Earth's heads of state at the same exact time, so to not be perceived as playing favorites; and since there is no apparatus set up on Earth for all their heads of state to receive impartial information at the same time, this threatens the very possibility of learning about this doomsday warning in the first place. (And of course, it doesn't help that the very first thing the US Army does when this friendly messenger lands is immediately shoot him, less than 30 seconds after he's even left his spaceship, an act of violence that our Jesus-like protagonist Klaatu is surprisingly chill about).

So yes, a surprisingly grown-up plot, and one that was acknowledged as such both at the time and for years afterward: it received a special Golden Globe for "promoting international understanding," was called "literally stunning" by the French New Wave critics of Cahiers du cinéma magazine, was literally the film that inspired Ronald Reagan thirty years later to develop a friendly relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev (Reagan addressing the UN in 1987: "I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world"), and as recently as 2008 was still voted the #5 best sci-fi film of all time by a wide sampling of industry professionals. Unfortunately, though, when it comes to me in particular, The Day The Earth Stood Still seems to be the 1950s equivalent of Arrival; an award-bait movie that everyone else seems to love to death, but that I myself found eye-rollingly cheesy and obvious, with a storyline so simplistic and preachy that it makes me want to go around screaming, "Really? This is the film that has you all running around bent over backwards, smelling your own farts and calling them wildflowers? REALLY???"

It's still worth watching for sure, not just for the historical aspects but the admittedly impressive technical ones; and like Arrival, my critical opinion is very much in the minority, and there's a good chance that you'll like it a whole lot more than I did. But if like me you appreciate subtlety, nuance, and a healthy dollop of darkness of the human soul in your sci-fi projects, you're going to be disappointed by the plodding literalness of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Might I instead recommend Roger Corman's low-budget classic Day The World Ended from just a few years later, which takes a deliciously nasty and surprisingly realistic view of exactly what kinds of monsters the human race would become in the actual face of nuclear apocalypse? We'll be looking at that later this week; but first, tomorrow we'll be taking on 1954's Them!, the first-ever film to establish the "nuclear energy has turned animals into deadly mutant freaks!" trope that became such a staple of 1950s B-cinema.

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