The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Review

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

~Review by tankMage (December 2017)

   The Day the Earth Stood Still has a fairly solid reputation and I’m not exactly sure why. It is true that the acting is decent, especially for a 1950’s science fiction film, and an almost palpable sense of tension makes the film captivating (no small thanks to the sound track), but the story gives itself away far too early, like a Twilight Zone episode that reveals it’s plot twist in the first five minutes. This usually wouldn’t be a problem, because most science fiction movies are more geared towards action anyway, but there’s very little action in this movie. So what we’re left with is a nice performance with a lot of atmosphere that goes absolutely nowhere. Of course, this seemed to be the director’s intention, considering the film’s message, which would have been fine if the writing hadn’t been so ham handed.

   So the film starts out with what I assume to be NORAD (or an early incarnation thereof) tracking an unknown object that turns out to be a spaceship, which lands smack in the middle of Washington D.C. A bit of topspin ensues as the military rushes to contain the craft and an extra terrestrial by the name of Klaatu, emerges from the ship along with his robot pal, Gort. Yes, they named a robot “Gort”. Anyway Klaatu has an important message for the people of Earth and demands that the world’s leaders meet with him, but this is impossible, because Cold War. Klaatu mentions several times that he can’t deliver the message until everyone is together, then he proceeds to make easily deciphered hints at the content of said message throughout the film, which is why the story curls up and dies an hour before the punchline. By the end of the movie, I was totally nonplussed, because I knew what he was going to say, so what could have been a dramatic and thought provoking ending fell flat.

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  Klaatu’s message is one that I agree with on some points and must have been appropriate for the era. Unfortunately, the movie beats the viewer over the head with it; a problem that is exasperated by the fact that it’s so easy to predict what Klaatu has to say in the first place. It’s a shame, because the director really had an opportunity to let the message be played out through the film’s events and at some points succeeded in doing so.

   There were also elements of the plot that made me struggle to suspend my disbelief and really dive into the film. Klaatu apparently came to Earth from Mars or Venus, which may have seemed feasible in 1951, but sounds like something a first grader who just failed a science test on the planets would claim in the twenty first century (guess I’ll be salty if they find life on one of those planets). Also, one would expect some rioting or chaos to erupt in the wake of an alien landing on Earth, shattering the general consensus of reality, but the people of Earth go about their daily routines as though nothing had happened. The film also contradicts itself at times, which isn’t unusual, but this movie needed all the consistency it could muster.

   As for the acting, well, it’s good enough. Klaatu is a bit stiff and emotionless, but he’s alien, so I’ll give him a pass. There were also a few long takes that added some much needed emotional impact, which is something you don’t see often in modern cinema. As for everyone else, most of the actors projected the sort of reserved demeanor you’d expect from someone of the time period (whether this was the reality of the 1950’s or not is another matter) and often appeared skeptical of Klaatu, which is to the film’s credit since Klaatu appeared human.

   The Day the Earth Stood Still was made in 1951, so one can only expect so much from it’s special effects department. Most of the stuff in the film looked ok, in fact the flying saucer Klaatu and Gort ride around in was quite well done, complete with a sliding ramp and door that opened seamlessly. There are also a few laser shots that evaporate some soldiers and hardware, which were about as convincing as something drawn into black and white film can get. Unfortunately, Gort didn’t turn out too well. The filmmakers were a bit too ambitious with the robot and ended up making a suit that was far too big and unwieldy for the person wearing it. In the few scenes where Gort actually does something, the camera often cuts away, because suit limited the actor’s range of motion severely. You can also see the suit’s material bending like a stiff piece of cardboard at the joints in some scenes, which made Gort that much less convincing.

   The props and sets are actually rather impressive in this film. There are several scenes where real tanks and jeeps zoom around the streets of D.C. It’s possible that some of the footage is stock, but it was integrated into the movie very skillfully if that’s the case. The rest of the sets are mundane, but interesting nonetheless since they give us a glimpse into the past.

   The camera work was mostly mediocre and utilitarian, but there are a few scenes that manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia thanks to the camera shots. I was also surprised to see sweeping screen transitions that weren’t just jump cuts or fades, which is something we would take for granted today.

   If I had to pick my favorite aspect of The Day the Earth Stood Still, it would be the background music. A combination of eerie theremin music and orchestral arrangements underscore just about every frantic scene in the film beautifully. Sometimes the soundtrack is a bit over the top and its cheesey by today’s standards, but it works.

   I’ve failed to mention that much of this film is pretty cliche, the flying saucer looks like a generic sci-fi spaceship, the music (as good as it may be) is pretty standard for the time and genre, and the story has it’s fair share of tropes that were likely well established even in the 1950s. With that said, the movie manages play it off with its sense of tension and paranoia that pervaded nearly every scene. Unfortunately, the story shoots itself in the foot several times and the nearly nonexistent action scenes do nothing to distract the viewer.

Final Score: C+

Some people may consider this flick a classic, but it just doesn’t deliver in my opinion.