Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still--a quiet SF film

The film opens with the credits and a background of a galaxy of stars. The camera slowly moves in on the earth and the moon, and in the background, prophetic perhaps, are the five opening notes of Thus Spake Zarathustra, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, now more widely known as part of the film score for 2001 AD. Then we are told and it must be true, for how can we doubt it when four of the most trusted and well known radio newscasters, Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, H. V. Kaltenborn, and Gabriel Heater tell us that 200,000 miles above the earth a strange object is circling the earth at an impossible 4000 mph.

So begins one of the most unusual and one of the best SF movies ever made. I guess by today's standards it will be disappointing to viewers who have grown up on computer graphics and animation so skillfully interwoven with live actors that one can't tell the boundary between the real and the created. This film has few special effects, and those are restrained: the space ship seen high in the sky and then landing in a baseball field and the ray from the robot's visor that destroys only several rifles, a tank, and two artillery field pieces.

The irony of the film is striking.

Like so many of its contemporary films, we see the police and military racing out of their depots and stations and rushing to defend us against the threat. But, unlike those films that came out at the same time and many that appear today, this film goes on to show us just the opposite, that the threat comes not from the alien at all. The subsequent violence does not come from the aliens but from the earth people.

Those same voices on the radio who told us of the approaching vehicle now tell us that the alien is a monster, who poses a grave threat and must be destroyed. Yet the first shot was fired by the earth military. As the alien walked slowly down the ramp from his ship, he held out an object. The soldier shoots him, for what else would a stranger carry when meeting other strangers but a weapon. It was a gift for the President of the US, a device that would allow him to see life on other planets. Instead of welcoming the gift, he is shot and the device destroyed, symbolic, perhaps, of the way we isolate ourselves and our inability to see others because our first and immediate response to a strange situation is violence.

It is ironic that while he quietly walks down a Washington, DC street in the evening, carrying a suitcase, looking for a room to rent, we can hear the radio voices blaring out that the alien is still at large and a thing to be tracked down and destroyed like a wild animal, for it may possess strange powers which could destroy us all. Later we see this same monster, this same wild animal, and the young boy, who lives in the rooming house, visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Monument, and, of course, the spaceship and robot now occupying a baseball field.

Thousands of people do not die. Buildings and cities are not destroyed. The only damage to Washington, DC is a hole in the wall of a jail cell. The threat of destruction is there, but only if the people, or rather, the governments of earth bring it upon themselves.

Why is the alien here? He has a message, a familiar one, for humans thousands of years ago said the same thing and their warnings were ignored, just as the alien's will most likely be. The message?--those who live by violence shall be destroyed by violence. It's as simple as that.

If you have seen it, but a long time ago, I urge you to see it again. If you haven't seen it, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.


  1. Hi Fred,
    This is very interesting. I am so happy that you have a blog. You have a lot to say that is interesting. Best Wishes. Betty

  2. 4 notes from Also Sprach Zarathustra? I suspect is would be 5, or maybe 3, but 4 notes would break the phrasing.

    I saw the movie again recently on a big HDTV. The story is still good, even with the obvious dating.

    Klaatu Barada Nixto, Wayne

  3. I love this old movie. I will have to watch it again, it has been years.

    It almost saddens me to hear that they are planning a remake.

  4. Wayne,

    Thanks for pointing out the problem with the theme music. You are right: it should be five notes, not four. I will change it forthwith.


  5. Fred,

    Thanks for posting this summary and review. I, too, have had too many years pass between viewings. It's time to see it again. Maybe we can agree that while "a quiet SF film," it speaks loudly. A trite, or maybe cliche way to put it, but this old classic does achieve the essence of the sentiment.

  6. Betty,

    Thanks for the encouragement and kind words.

  7. Scott,

    It's been years? decades? since I last saw this movie. What surprised me is how good it looks. Whoever restored it did an excellent job.

  8. Mike,

    No argument there. The director was not ambiguous in making his point, but he wasn't heavy-handed either. He didn't tell us about the violence in our society; he showed us the violence.