Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Must-Watch Sci Fi Movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Directed By: Robert Wise
Produced By: Julian Blaustein
Written By: Edmund H. North (Screenplay), Harry Bates (Short Story)
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray, Hugh Marlowe
Original Release: 1951

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Synopsis: An object appears on radar moving at incredible speeds and setting all the countries of Earth on alert. It turns out that the bogie is a spacecraft (assuming the expected flying saucer shape that aliens in the 50’s preferred) and it lands in Washington DC near the Washington monument. The military surrounds the ship, and soon after a humanlike creature emerges wearing a spacesuit. He carries a gift that he plans to offer to the President that will allow humans to study the stars, but one of the soldiers mistakes it for a weapon and shoots the visitor. A large robot (Gort) emerges from the ship in response to this action and begins to destroy all the weapons of the military personnel. The wounded alien calls the robot off, though, and then he is rushed to a nearby hospital where it is discovered that he appears very human under his suit and that his name is Klaatu. He explains that his mission is to deliver a message to Earth and that he must speak directly with the leaders of all of the countries. He is told this would be difficult to do because the countries do not trust each other, and he is also told that he must remain in confinement for the present time. He takes little head of this, though, as he easily escapes from his detainment then decides to go among the people of Earth to better understand them. He also makes contact with a well-known scientist and through him tries to bring together all of the greatest minds of the planet for a meeting. But is the message Klaatu will deliver one of peace or destruction?

Why Is It a Must-Watch Movie?  The Day the Earth Stood Still gave us one of the first alien encounter movies and it would set the standard for the genre as it rose above its B-Movie expectations and delivered an excellent science fiction film with an important message that still resonates up today.

Review/Commentary: Despite its trappings, The Day the Earth Stood Still is anything but the typical cheesy 50’s alien invasion B-Movie. It plays around with that formulas a bit (in fact, it helped establish it) with the flying saucer shaped spaceship landing in Washington followed by a spaceman emerging, and then there’s the poster-friendly shots of the massive alien robot carrying off the film’s attractive leading lady. But this is no simple exploitation film designed to fill up the drive-in and deliver cheap thrills. In fact, producer Julian Blaustein wanted to make a movie that tapped into the anxiety and paranoia of that era dominated by the Cold War and the proliferation of atomic weapons. And he succeeded masterfully at that, delivering a film that utilizes genre elements to convey a message that transcends its B-Movie roots. The film taps into the prejudices, short-sightedness, and petty squabbles of the human race and shows how it is ourselves, and not a supposed alien threat, that can act as our own worst enemy. And The Day the Earth Stood Still plays its story straight and shoots for broader appeal than the typical Saturday matinee creature film, something rare for a genre film at that time. It’s spaceships and robots surely appealed to the younger movie goers, but its more involved plot would draw in the mature viewers as well. And even though it throws in the expected cute kid, it successfully maneuvers past clichĂ© by using that character to give Klaatu a perspective on Earth from the innocent eyes of a child.

Since its first appearance at the theaters back in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still has worked its way into our culture with such things as the image of infamous giant robot Gort (and his Bruce Campbell chin) as well as the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” (which, speaking of Campbell, he used to great effect in The Army of Darkness). But the movie has also endured because of the accomplishments of its filmcraft. It had excellent production values with special effects that were first rate and nearly flawless for the time (and actually still hold up pretty well today). This movie also gives us an intelligent, well-made film as well as a strong science fiction tale (based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates), albeit one of the more slow, thoughtful ones of the medium. In this sense, The Day the Earth Stood Still can be considered a precursor to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, and Contact, and it stands up quite well in that company. It’s slow, but not plodding, a bit distant, but never aloof. And Klaatu’s final speech to Earth stirs up a nerve with the audience and gives us one of the all-time great monologues in film (though some might find it a bit heavy handed).

The performances help the film excel as well as we get several notches above the typical wooden acting and cardboard stereotypes quite common in early genre films (and still today for that matter). Michael Rennie stands out as Klaatu, manifesting curiosity and at times compassion towards the people of Earth while never losing sight of his mission to deliver a stern message to the human race. And Patricia Neal managed to steer clear of the expected subordinate female role so common in genre films of that time and even demonstrates her willingness to stand up to her would-be fiancé when she questions his motives. Billy Gray takes on the cute kid role yet never annoys or overstays his welcome. And several other familiar faces flesh out the cast and deliver strong performances in smaller roles including Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), Sam Jaffe (Ben Hur and a gazillion movie and television supporting/guest roles) and Frances Bavier (forever identified as Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show).

Plenty of alien invasion films would follow The Day the Earth Stood Still in the decade or more after its release, many giving us examples of B-Movies at their worst (I Marred a Monster from Outer Space, Cat-Women of the Moon) while some managed to stand out as better examples of filmcraft or tap into the underlying Id of the era (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Invaders from Mars). But The Day the Earth Stood Still represented one of the first and best examples of this formula, giving us a complete movie that transcended (while fully commanding) its exploitive elements and at the same time delivering succinctly that grand message that great films aspire to. (And director Robert Wise would go on to helm Star Trek: The Motion Picture 38 years later.)

So many science fiction and fantasy movies and so little time. Metropolis, King Kong, War of the Worlds, Fantastic Voyage, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Inception . . . Plan 9 From Outer Space . . . and so many, many more. Where to start and which ones to watch? Well that's what this book is here to help you with. It may not cover all science fiction movies, and not even all of those mentioned above, but it gives you a heck of a good start starting point. This book begins with 1927’s Metropolis and then treks through 24 more genre films ending with 2009's Moon to give you an extensive look at some of the best of the best of science fiction and fantasy cinema. Each entry includes a synopsis, review/commentary, cast and crew information, as well as a few nuggets of tidbits and trivia relating to the films. Whether you are new to the genre and trying to figure out where to get started or a grizzled veteran who has logged many hours in the cinema watching sci fi, 25 Must Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies is sure to entertain. And even if you have already seen the movies covered in the book, there's a good chance you could walk away knowing a little bit (or maybe even a lot) more about these films than you did previously.

A great primer for science fiction and fantasy cinema and a fun read as well!

Available now on Kindle from Amazon.com. 

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