Friday, May 20, 2011
DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE (1951)
(September 1951, U.S.)
To be completely fair, modern film directors like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay did not exactly write the book on the threat of world destruction on screen. Movie makers have been doing it since the Cold War began. Back in the 1950s, it often came in the form of giant insects, inexplicable monsters from our own planet or very ugly aliens from other planets. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL takes a more subtle, if not friendlier, approach to the subject of our ultimate demise. The alien comes in the form of a pleasant looking humanoid male named Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie) accompanied by his powerful and menacing robot which he calls "Gort".
Films of this sort back in "the day" were often accompanied by the traditional American paranoia that resulted from the Cold War. It seems we were worried about everyone and everything that didn't quite conform to the traditions of our basic society. It's evident in the way most people in the film express their fear for the "spaceman" who roams freely in the streets of Washington D.C. after escaping the hospital he was being held in as a result of a gunshot wound. Most citizens would like to see him dead simply because he exists and because his intentions are presumed hostile. Klaatu reveals that he bears a message so momentous and urgent that it can and must only be revealed to all the world's leaders simultaneously. During his waiting time, he gets to know the people he's surrounded by, including a most brilliant and tolerant scientist who knows his true identity, as well as his message (see below for the message).
There is a wonderful montage which shows that Klaatu has neutralized all electric power everywhere around our planet except in situations that would compromise human safety, such as hospitals and airplanes. For exactly thirty minutes, the Earth literally "stands still" as we learn in a very small manner, the kind of power that this alien force can administer to our planet. On a grander scale, his robot "Gort" has the power to incinerate the Earth to a smouldering wasteland. World leaders eventually do gather at the site of the space craft as Klaatu delivers his message; a message accompanied by a warning and an ultimatum that was very reflective of the times and culture which focussed on our possession and willingness to use nuclear weapons of destruction.
Now as much as I hate to admit it, I happened to catch the 2008 remake of this film on HBO. While I did find Keanu Reeves' intense portrayal of Klaatu very effective, I was disappointed to see that the modern version chose to igore the entire concept of the warning and ultimatum that would have been just as relevant (if not more) during today's era of post 9/11 fear and terrorist aggression. I've often found myself saying to people in my frustration of today's world that we all really deserve is to have an alien from another world come down here and warn us that if we don't "shape up" immediately, we shall face destruction at the hand of other intelligent life forms that can no longer tolerate our ignorance and violent nature. It should happen. Mayber we'd finally learn a thing or two...maybe.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Klaatu: "I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."