Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cardboard Science: Michael Rennie Was Ill

Part of Popcorn Culture's October festivities is a crossover feature with my friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue. He will be taking on three Census Bloodbath titles while I face three artifacts from one of his regular features - Cardboard Science, which explores science fiction B-movies from the 1950's. I've previously reviewed 1953's Invaders From Mars and his recent review of My Bloody Valentine is an excellent discussion of the socioeconomic themes of that film as well as its place in the slasher pantheon.

Year: 1951
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

There is perhaps no better example of the thematic potential of the B-movie than The Day the Earth Stood Still. The beauty of these tricky little films was that, since they were low-budget romps tossed-off on the back of a studio film to rake in a tidy profit, producers kinda didn't care about them. This allowed the filmmakers to pour all sorts of ire about the state of society (and in the 1950's what a society it was - rigid suburban families ignoring the plight of the urban folk, the imminent threat of nuclear disaster - it was a hoot and a half) into the subtext of surface-level tales about robots and ray guns and flying saucers.

We'll discuss the specific details of The Day the Earth Stood Still and its deeper meanings a little later in this review, but the sheer scope of this film's marriage of political sociology and science fiction tropes is nearly unparalleled and worth mentioning at every salient point of an analytical discussion.

Especially because the surface level isn't exactly Kubrickian spectacle.

One of the best things about the plot of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it starts right away, no frills. After the opening sequence, an Unidentified Flying Object lands on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. And by the ten-minute mark, a robot is already disintegrating tanks with his laser vision. Talk about hitting the ground running!

After a bit, the film settles down into a more domestic plot that, while significantly less exciting, never ceases to entertain. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is an alien visitor seeking to spread a message from his peaceful culture to all nations of the Earth. When the American Secretary deems this impossible, Klaatu escapes the hospital where he's being held and takes up residence in a nearby boarding house while the authorities are on the hunt for him.

Luckily for Klaatu he speaks English and looks exactly like Michael Rennie so he can blend in no problem. Through two neighbors - obligatory golly gosh gee whiz young boy Bobby (Billy Gray) and his single mother Helen (Patricia Neal) - he learns about the good side of humanity while the government and the military hasten to provide a counterargument.

Behold! The most hideous, vile alien creature to visit Earth! Pictured here with his friend Klaatu.

All this is pretty bog-standard material for films of this pedigree. The special effects likewise don't quite lift The Day the Earth Stood Still above and beyond its peers: Klaatu's robot pal Gort (Lock Martin, who not only wasn't a robot, he wasn't even an actor - he was just a conspicuously tall doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater and if that's not the most Hollywood thing you've ever heard, please stop watching TMZ) looks rather wrinkled at the kneecaps and the spaceship itself looks culled from the papier mâché department of the 99 Cent Store.

But trust me, we're not here to mock the film. Special effects were not what they are now and the budgets for these things could hardly buy you a pack of crackers after inflation, so the craftsmanship is actually quite admirable given the circumstances (especially notable is the seamless way the ship's ramp emerges from its smooth side). And they must have blown quite a bit of their cash on a series of shots that depict the UFO's impact around the world, which gives the film a vitally necessary sense of scope it couldn't possibly have achieved otherwise.

Très scope.

But all of these trappings and pomp and circumstance serve a marvelous purpose, underscoring the film's major thematic through line that manages to be powerfully bold without tipping into the "annoyingly preachy" zone. There is an obvious Christ metaphor that runs along the whole thing (Klaatu preaches a message of peace, is destroyed by the people he seeks to save, and is resurrected to spread his final words), but even that plays second fiddle to the throbbing heart of the film's politics.

The Day the Earth Stood Still denounces the violence and warmongering of human society - America included, in an audacious furor perhaps unmatched by any film released under the Hays Code (a startlingly strict censorship code that applied to all movies between the 30's and the 50's - read more here.). Klaatu denounces American culture's reliance on violence and their substitution of fear for reason. When he approaches them seeking peace, their only response is to strike him down merely because they don't understand him.

This film is driven a powerful, timeless message that applies even in today's world. Xenophobia in America reached a peak following the events of September 11th, 2001, and we as a culture continue to tamp down on any coalition that seeks to advance the welfare of those who are different than the "average." Fear continues to fuel the workings of society and, according to Klaatu and his BFF Gort (who actually is kind of terrifying, the void behind his visor when he prepares to shoot his laser blasts is chilling to the bone), this will lead to our downfall. If we're not destroyed by ourselves, we'll surely be eliminated by someone else in self-defense.

Although political themes weren't at all uncommon in B-movies like this, it's utterly rare to find a film so fundamentally impactful that it rings true throughout the ages and provides enough food for thought to feed a family of four. My numerical rating of The Day the Earth Stood Still is but a matter of personal and aesthetic taste as a filmgoer, but the message that lives on through it is undeniably important and skillfully honed.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The aliens not only have a device that stops all electricity on the planet, but also stops cars dead in their tracks so they don't crash into each other. Either that or the whole world was in gridlock traffic before it happened. That really would be the Day the Earth Stood Still, amirite?
  • Through insurmountable witchery, two movies tickets cost Klaatu and Bobby only two dollars total. 
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When a single mother goes on a date with a man, it takes only the space of a cut for the film to explain that her husband died in the war. You know, so we know there's no funny business going on.
  • Somehow Tom and Helen are both totally OK with leaving Bobby to putz around Washington D. C. with a total stranger in order for them to go out. Even in the 1950's, the thirst is real.
  • When visiting the Lincoln Memorial, even Klaatu agrees that he must have been a great man. USA! USA!
  • After being brought back to life, Klaatu insists that only the Almighty Spirit can resurrect a soul. You can taste the producers' notes from here.
Sensawunda:
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still is the first movie mentioned in the classic opening number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show - "Science Fiction, Double Feature" - so we know it's hella legit (I use casual language sometimes! Engage with my writing!). If a sci-fi movie is not in that song, it's not real. That's the rule.
  • The alien phrase that calms Gort down - "Klaatu barada nikto" - was later used by Sam Raimi in Army of Darkness, which makes this film über hella legit. Rad.
TL;DR: The Day the Earth Stood Still is powerful and impactful beneath its cheesy special effects.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1346
Reviews In This Series
Invaders From Mars (Popcorn Culture - Menzies, 1953)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Popcorn Culture - Wise, 1951)
Them! (Popcorn Culture - Douglas, 1954)
My Bloody Valentine (Kinemalogue - Mihalka, 1981)
Pieces (Kinemalogue - Piquer Simon, 1982)
The Burning (Kinemalogue - Maylam, 1981)

2 comments:

  1. I think you like this'un more than I ever did. Though I do like it, overall, I could never quite get Klaatu's unbelievable moral smuggery out of my head, when the fact is he invaded our airspace without warning and, upon landing, without saying a single word, produced a device of unknown provenance. Somehow he was surprised this resulted in getting shot! He was leaning hard on his Space White Person privilege.

    However, I do approve of the film's ultimate message: surrender all political power to sufficiently advanced computers. It's the omnipotent state you can trust.

    Upon reading about it, I feel bad for the guy playing Gort. His size didn't equal strength (common, as I understand it, for really, really tall folks), and it took about all he had just to wear the costume. Iirc, he lifts someone, but it had to be done by wires.

    Anyway, great write-up, looking forward to Them! in the hazy future! Just finished Pieces, and The Burning is... well, November 1 is like October, right?

    P.S.: I want to take a brief moment to thank you for introducing me to "The thirst is real." I have not been so moved by an Internet meme since Old Economy Steve.

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    1. I suppose one gets the message that one wants to receive from these types of films. You're right that there's plenty problematic going on (hence a couple lost points here and there) but overall I dug the heart of the thing.

      And I guess I should be a little embarrassed for writing memes into my reviews, but I'm glad I furthered your knowledge on the subject just a little bit. Happy Halloween! I'm excited to finish reading your Pieces review after I drive my sorry ass to work!

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