Is “The Day The Earth Stood Still(1951)” Relevant?

This film is a science fiction classic. Modern audiences might not be able to appreciate it because so many films that came after it have drawn inspiration from it. Sci-fi fans are most likely aware of the 2008 remake of this film starring the iconic Keanu Reeves and may not even be aware that it was a remake. The original 1950’s movie is very political and in true 1950’s fashion is highly unapologetic about it. This movie came out 6 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the Second World War. Humans had the power to destroy each other like never before; paranoia and tensions were high at the start of the Cold War. The threat of our mutually ensured destruction was the only thing preventing full-blown warfare, and the social commentary this film makes on the political climate of the world at that time is quite blunt.

Horror films dominated the cinema landscape for a while due to the great success of Universal Horror films during the 1930’s. However, after the release of  The Wolf-Man gothic horror films began to fall into parody. After the first atomic bomb was dropped filmmakers began to capitalize on the public concerns by telling stories about radioactive monsters, botched science experiments, and invaders from outer space. All this to say the science fiction genre was very popular during the 50’s.

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Alien Invader Mysterious Outsider

While the film is a science fiction movie with some fantastical elements it feels more like a drama. Emphasises is placed on characters, tone, and atmosphere. Due to the film placing its focus on the characters instead of action, the audience becomes invested in the characters and the outcome of their struggles. This emotional investment serves its purpose by increasing the tension felt throughout the film.

The focus on human drama means that the science fiction elements are downplayed.  This works in the films favor and effectively gives our “alien” visitor Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his robot policeman Gort (Lock Martin) an eerie air of mystery. While Klaatu looks like us, walks like us and talks like us Michael Rennie’s performance adds something to the character and give Klaatu an otherworldly quality. Rennie’s Klaatu is aloof and standoffish and the way in which he is framed makes him an oddity. Michael Rennie was a tall man and the filmmakers used this to their advantage. By using low and high camera angles Rennie’s height is emphasized through this distorted perspective. Rennie is often filmed while in shadow and this serves to remind the audience that while he is a major player he is still an outsider.

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The fact that Klaatu is an “alien” in a foreign land further highlights the xenophobic ideals expressed by 1950’s America. Upon arrival to our planet, Klaatu is meet with violence due to the shoot first ask questions later mindset of the military which is only worsened by the tense political climate.

Klaatu:

I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.

Today

In our modern world this still highly relevant. Internal and international tensions are at an all-time high and our collective failure to resolve conflict is only amounting to heightened tension and animosities and creating fertile ground for new threats to flourish. These deep seeded fears and uncertainties are profoundly destabilizing, and that instability is something to be frightful of, but this is a movie review so let us not get into foreign policy and politics (for now.) The film ends with a call to action that is still relevant today and who better to deliver this message to Infinity Critics’ readers none other than Klaatu himself.

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 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.

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