The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This is the second of my 20 Favorite Sci-Fi Films list. The list isn’t in any order, but I suspect that the ones I write about first are closest to my heart.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one my favorite “favorite films.” I didn’t see this film until I was in my late teens in college, but I immediately experienced a dual identification with both the boy Bobby and the alien Klaatu.  When I was a boy, I dreamed of both meeting an alien, and being a super smart, hansom alien that women like Patricia Neal would fall for. Double emotional-investment-bonus.

The cold war/anti-war theme is an easy trope for me as well. Semi-benevolent aliens who demand that the human species grows up or face annihilation if they leave the planet. That is a wickedly complex moral proposition. The aliens aren’t offering technological help to solve the world’s problems like hunger and poverty. They are instead declaring a draconian version of what becomes Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Not only will they not interfere with our technological and social development – they will snuff us out if we try to expand into space without abandoning violence. Which is an ironic demand to say the least.

With Robert Wise (the editor of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and one day to be director Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in the director’s chair the film is much better made that it might have been in less skilled hands. This could have been a B-Movie (see The Stranger from Venus). The DVD release has a nice documentary about the making of the film. It seems they did a lot of research on what they thought (in 1951) future space craft would be like. Odd how during that time period everyone, or at least film production designers, thought the future of space flight would involve a saucer shaped craft. Probably the UFO saucer craze that was sweeping the world at the time.

The scene that always comes to mind is the one where Klaatu walks in and solves a complicated mathematical equation on Professor Barnhart’s blackboard. I’ve always wished I was really good at math, so that scene is totally a wish fulfillment moment. The other scene I love is where the world stops.  That’s a serious tech. And interesting in that as a scare tactic, it can only work on a relatively advanced society. If there is no electricity – the world doesn’t stop. So, while the modern countries of the 1951 are filled with panic, the less developed countries probably didn’t notice a thing.

While, like most films from the era, it is a little dated in dialogue and the special effects might not seem so special anymore, in my opinion the film is a classic, and one of my favorites, because it tells a grand story with important ideas through very human and sympathetic characters – even though one isn’t technically human.

There was a remake made in 2008 with Keanu Reeves in the Klaatu role. While I really wanted to like it, I ended up longing to watch the original again.

Some fun facts about the film here.

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