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The Day The Earth Stood Still

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal
Director: Robert Wise
Rated: G
RunTime: 88 Minutes
Release Date: September 1951
Genres: Classic, Cult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Hugh Marlowe, Billy Gray, Sam Jaffe, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Repertorial theaters have just about vanished from the American landscape. There are a few left in some of the bigger cities and near some college campuses, but today's movie going public generally is stuck choosing between the latest massive action thriller or the latest ode to dumbness. Viewing an old film on the big screen is an option for fewer and fewer people.

I am fortunate to live in an area where the demise of these old picture palaces is not yet complete. Besides the Stanford theater in Palo Alto, there are also places in Berkeley and San Francisco. Nearer to home is the lovely old Towne Theatre in San Jose. It is an art house and sometimes repertorial theater. Right now they are having their second science fiction festival. It lasts for three weeks, and they are showing several films per weeks.

I had the pleasure of seeing THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) for, I think, the first time in the theater. Since I was five at the time it was released, I can not say for sure. Like most sci-fi films of that era it is certainly hokey and full of special effects so awful that are more amusing than believable. Untypical of early sci-fi, this one is serious and deals with issues like nuclear annihilation, and it even dabbles in politics. Perhaps most surprising is that the movie has a well known cast and crew, including a twice Oscar winning director, Robert Wise (THE SOUND OF MUSIC and WEST SIDE STORY).

Like INDEPENDENCE DAY, it starts with a flying saucer over the nation's capital. Unlike INDEPENDENCE DAY, however, these aliens are on a non-violent mission. They are from a nearby planet, and they have been watching earth and all of our petty squabbles for sometime now. With the advent of our nuclear era, they are worried that we will develop nuclear spaceships and come and threaten their peaceful existence. In short, they think we're a bunch of warmongers, and if we don't cut it out, they'll blow earth to smithereens. They are ready to kill to preserve their non-violent lifestyle. Actually, as they present it, it has a much more childlike and believably simplistic logic.

As the flying saucer lands on the lawn across from the capital, listen for the sound of that quirky musical instrument, the Theremin. Consider that motivation to rent the engrossing documentary film THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY (1993) about its invention and its fascinating inventor, Professor Theremin.

After the uninvited guests arrive on our planet, people all over the world huddle around their radios wanting to know what they look like. Famous radio announcer Drew Pearson, playing himself, supplies the play-by-play events for the country, "Every eye, every weapon is trained on that ship. Just a minute Ladies and Gentlemen, I think something is happening..." Surprise, they look like an English speaking human (Michael Rennie as Klaatu) and his tinfoil giant robot (Lock Martin as Gort). The robot is every bit as immutable and massive as a Colonel Sanders statue.

Klaatu assures the earthlings, "We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill." Nevertheless, a nervous soldier shots him, which causes trusty Gort to disintegrate all of their weapons.

In the hospital, Klaatu tells the president's representative, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), "I won't resort to threats, Mr. Harley. I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake." God, I love science fiction. You get such wonderfully overblown dialog. There aren't mere problems. Oh no, the fate of at least a planet and sometimes an entire galaxy is at stake. Compared to this, the issues that confront are leaders today are trivial. But like our current world leaders, the ones in the movie have trouble even with simple decisions like where to meet. The future of our civilization hangs in the balance while the heads of governments dicker on whose country should host a conference with the space invader. As Klaatu puts it, "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it." Sounds like he lives on my kind of planet.

Eventually, he goes incognito to stay in a rooming house where Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray) are living. He wants to learn the ways of these inhabitants of planet Earth. At the breakfast table the discussion centers on the aliens, with one guy demanding, "why don't the people in the government do something?" But his friend admonishes him, "They're not people. They're Democrats."

The way you have to suspend disbelief in some of the early sci-fi films is actually one of their charms. Take just three examples and contrast the answers to similar questions in INDEPENDENCE DAY.

How many guards would you put on night duty to guard this saucer that has a killer robot in front of it and is two hundred yards from the White House? Two.

How many citizens think it is interesting enough to stay up late to observe it? Zero.

When the army quarantines the entire capital, what percentage of the forces are dispatched when an unknown insurance salesman calls and says he saw the alien at his girlfriend's house? Every single soldier.

From beginning to end, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a lot of fun, and for its time, the production is well constructed and acted. A worthy ancestor of STAR WARS and INDEPENDENCE DAY.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL runs just 1:32. It is filmed by Leo Tover in a handsome black and white. It is unrated, but is pure G. There is no sex, nudity, violence, or bad language. If the show had been on earlier in the evening, I would have taken my son as it is fine for kids of any age. Given the seriousness of part of the material and some of the slower pacing, kids will probably need to be seven or so to enjoy it. There was a nine year old in our audience who certainly seemed to enjoy it. I recommend THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to you and give it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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