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REVIEW: The Day The Earth Stood Still

REVIEW SUMMARY: Great classic science fiction film. One of my top 10 sf films.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A spaceship lands in Washington, D.C. with a stern warning for all mankind.

PROS: Great story; cool characters; good storytelling;
CONS: Laughable special effects.
BOTTOM LINE: Excellent flick. One of my all-time favorite SF movies.

I Tivo’d The Day The Earth Stood Still last week and just got a chance to watch it (For the second time – I first saw it early last year). I have to say, this is one of my all-time favorite science fiction movies.

In the 1950’s, a spaceship lands in Washington D.C. A humanoid alien emerges with a gift and a warning. But before either can be delivered, he is promptly shot by the military. Enter Gort, the spaceman’s obedient and all powerful robot, who promptly destroys all nearby weapons with his deadly eye beams. (You go, Gort!) The injured spaceman is brought to a nearby hospital only to learn that human differences prevent them from joining together to heed the warning. The spaceman escapes to learn some more about the human race and attempts to deliver his warning to the world’s leading scientists before he is captured by the military.

Wow. This story appeals to me on so many levels. Sure the premise is a bit hokey by today’s standards, but hey, we’re talking 1951 here. The relevant point is that this is a good story. There are some special effects (understandably lame by today’s standards), but the main thrust of the film is the characters, the story and the way the story is told.

The spaceman assumes the guise of the mysterious Carpenter and stays at a boarding house where he meets Helen Benson and her way-too-eager son Bobby. Through Carpenter’s eyes we see many of the characteristics of the all-too-human race: both good (naivety and benevolence) and bad (Helen’s boyfriend is just a jerk). And though the story’s characters may seem stereotypical today, it actually lends to the movie’s charm. In one scene, for example, the “helpless female” character (who, actually, is more wise than most of the male characters) places the back of her hand on her forehead, screams, and then falls on a pile of chairs. Hilarious! Even though it’s not meant to be funny, it is…but in a good way.

The story, although typical of the sf stories at that time (nuclear war = bad!), is expertly told. There are some interesting story details to be seen, too. There is a humorous scene where Carpenter solves a weeks-old math formula at the home of Professor Barnhardt and it is almost erased by the housekeeper. This attention to detail also lends much to the movie’s charm.

There are an adequate number of science fiction elements as well. Most obvious is the “man’s place in the universe” issue. There are also some cool scenes around the ship and, of course, the rubber-suited Gort. In fact, the impervious Gort proves to be exceptionally deadly and threatens to obliterate mankind unless he is stopped. (“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”) While the science is not necessarily explained (in fact, it is shrugged off: his x-ray shows human anatomy, therefore his planet must have “a similar pressure…a similar atmosphere.” Right.), you don’t care because the movie just keeps going forward and entertains.

This is a great movie!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on REVIEW: The Day The Earth Stood Still

  1. Given when it was done, I think the special effects were good.

    More importantly, the story and characters were excellent, one of the reasons that the film has stood the test of time.

    Given the space initiative announcement this week, I went searching online for a DVD of George Pal’s “The Conquest of Space”. Silly in many ways, it remains a favorite of the 50’s SF films. Alas, the only version is a VHS copy. I have that, and would love to see a DVD with restored scenes, documentation (paintings by Bonestell would be a good start), etc.

  2. I think you’ll find most SF of the 50s and 60s (A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is an excellent story BTW, even if its message isn’t as relevant today) as showing that nuclear war = bad. For two reasons, one, because it is, well, bad and two because we’re talking the middle of the cold war. Once the upheaval of the 60s got under way, I think SF took a turn to the social aspect of humanity. I’d toss Stranger in a Strange Land in there, but it was written in 1962. More of a precursor really. Hmm, looks like some research is in order here!

  3. This is definately a classic Sci-Fi film. It is one of the best ever made because the story is so strong and the script had good dialog. The directing isn’t bad either.

    The best part, in my opinion, is that the science ISN’T the story – the story is about people (well, American society anyway) and how they react to the situation. So many of today’s sci-fi loses sight of this and focuses exclusively on the sci-fi or the special effects (Star Trek: The Motion Picture anyone?)

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