The Day The Earth Stood Still

The Day The Earth Stood Still

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The story is simple. An alien, Klaatu, and a robot, Gort - a creature far in advance of anything Fifties Earth had seen - come to Earth to assess its inhabitants. If allowed to survive, will it become a threat to its neighbours, or are there qualities in human beings that make them worth saving? Things look bad for Earth when Klaatu is shot by a nervous soldier, but after he escapes from hospital, he takes up lodgings in a boarding house where he meets a woman and child who just might change his mind.

The once stunning special effects on display here may look flimsy now, but if you can look beyond that and connect with the story, you'll find that this fable is as powerful today as when it was originally told. Michael Rennie's discreet, measured performance as Klaatu carries real conviction, and the scenes when the Earth stands still - when aeroplanes hang in mid air and traffic ceases to flow - remain haunting. Because it doesn't depend on science, but rather on our ability to imagine technologies much more powerful than our own, the film has aged much better than many of its genre contemporaries. In many ways it's an extension of warning tales that have been around since human civilisation was born.

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For its time, The Day The Earth Stood Still is also quite brave in terms of the aspects of civilisation it's willing to look at. we don't just see humankind's aggressive potential - we see racial prejudice, poverty, and the many frustrations faced by Klaatu's loyal friend Helen because she's a single (widowed) mother. The wholesomeness that makes Klaatu question his initial bad impression doesn't come from the places one might expect in a Fifties film. Patricia Neal puts in a reserved, subtly nuanced performance as Helen, who is obliged to be more brave and resourceful than anyone else here despite the studio's attempts to squash her into the traditional heroine mold. As her son, Billy Gray isn't exactly naturalistic (nobody expected that of a child star in those days), but he is genuinely likable, and there's real chemistry between him and the alien he adopts as a father figure.

By keeping its story quite spare and avoiding hystrionics (the occasional quite understandable scream aside), The Day The Earth Stood Still gains an almost documentary-like authority - it is, after all, recording a moment in history by taking a snapshot of people's feelings about the nuclear arms race. In the end, of course, we don't need aliens to wipe us out - if we take things too far, we'll do it ourselves - but this film requests that we take the time to sit down quietly and think about it. It's a depiction of a teeming world in which nobody really knows where they're going, and it forces the viewer to look at that world afresh.

Reviewed on: 13 Dec 2008
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The Day The Earth Stood Still packshot
An alien comes to Earth to find out whether human civilisation is dangerously hostile or deserving of a chance.
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Director: Robert Wise

Writer: Edmund H. North, Harry Bates

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

Year: 1951

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

Festivals:

Bradford 2009

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If you like this, try:

2001: A Space Odyssey