|"Klaatu" (left) and "Gort"|
Friday, April 5, 2013
"The Day the Earth Stood Still": It's the story, stupid
"Eerie" says it all. After the first time seeing this old movie, I associated that wavering (or quivering) tone with something scary. As a child I'd see the movie again and instantly feel scared hearing the music at the start. (Wasn't the wavering effect replicated in "Mars Attacks?")
Scary? Yes, I think a child could genuinely be scared seeing "The Day the Earth Stood Still." That mute, menacing robot could stay stuck in one's thoughts. He was menacing for good of course. He was here from another world to scare the heck out of us about developing nuclear weapons. It was quite the timely meme for 1950s America.
"Gort" was the name of the robot. I would suggest the special effects were barely good enough to be convincing. But they were convincing. The black and white approach no doubt helped. Color is more likely to reveal special effects as cheesy. "Gort" might have come across as some little kid's art project using aluminum foil.
Gort's entrance was one of the highlight scenes in the classic 1951 cinema release. First we had the humanoid type of character, played by Michael Rennie, coming out of that saucer which in terms of special effects was as crude as Gort. The citizen gawkers in Washington D.C. were all assembled. No cable TV cameras of course. I have read it was wise for the moviemakers to settle on someone like Rennie, at the time a relative unknown, to play the humanoid. A big name might distract from the mystery factor. Other movies have found it a blessing in disguise to enlist a low-profile actor. It's about believability. Given the special effects limitations, believability was an issue. Then again, you might just want to shake your head and say "regardless, you just can't beat a good story." Amen and hallelujah.
Fear and mystery provided the guiding atmosphere in this sci-fi story. I had fear about "Gort," humiliating as it might seem now to admit it. I'll also admit I was scared of the Morlocks in "The Time Machine" (1960). It might be necessary to keep the light on in the bedroom for a new nights.
I remember Rennie appearing in another significant sci-fi release, "The Lost World," which I assume appears later in his filmography because it was in color. (Then again, "The Longest Day," among the most classic of WWII movies, making us believe Paul Anka could be a soldier, was a black and white release in 1962.)
Just as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was barely good enough with special effects, "The Lost World" came close to being silly. The 1960 release used real reptiles and filmed them in a way to try to make them look like giant dinosaurs! The year 1960 was fruitful for sci-fi fans. These movies turned up on network TV often in the years ahead. They are burned into boomers' memories I'm sure. We don't need to keep the lights on in the bedroom now.
The Rennie character was both benevolent and threatening in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The benevolent part seemed to stand out most. But at the end he gave us "earthlings" a firm ultimatum. He said Gort could be unleashed with incredible destructive power. We weren't informed how "Mr. Aluminum Foil" would do this. In my opinion this was a master stroke of the movie. Gort's potential destructive power was left to the imagination.
Cinema is often at its most effective when it plays on the imagination of the moviegoer. The later re-make (or "re-imagining") of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" did not employ that subtlety. The re-make showed us how Gort would be deployed. He would become a cloud of nano particles. I didn't find that to be either scary or fascinating.
I remember reading about a third of the way through Michael Crichton's novel about nano particles. This concept of sci-fi doesn't captivate me at all. Crichton was a talented writer but I didn't finish this book. Imagining nano particles just makes me want to go get a dust pan.
We got to see "Aunt Bee" in the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Of course this was the actress who would go on to play the matronly character of "Andy of Mayberry." She was at the boarding house when the Michael Rennie character ("Klaatu") checked in. One of the classic scenes was where Klaatu is silhouetted in a doorway, seeming mysterious, when he first arrived to check out a room. The "Aunt Bee" actress' name: Frances Bavier.
The arrangement seems quaint. The people are so trusting of each other. The widow lets her son accompany Klaatu around town even though the acquaintance doesn't seem that firm yet. I'm reminded of "Miracle on 34th Street" in which the divorcee is all too willing to let her daughter spend time with the John Payne character. Those were different times. The media hadn't scared us into so much mistrust yet. This isn't to say there weren't dangers in the world. But our behavior wasn't guided so much by fear of those dangers.
We had recently come out of the conflagration of World War II. We knew what real calamity was. The widow character had lost her husband in the war. Eventually we got the calamity of the Viet Nam War. Too bad "Gort" wasn't here to scare us all out of that war. But Klaatu explained that the powers he represented didn't care if we could fight with our primitive weapons. We'd only become a nuisance in the universe if we got carried away with the nuclear stuff.
In the 2008 re-make starring Keanu Reeves, the threat us earthlings presented was with global climate change. Earth had to be preserved for the sake of the universe.
The inspiration for both stories was a short story entitled "Farewell to the Master." Perhaps the genius of the story is what obscured the special effects issues in the original movie. A good story transfixes. Moviemakers, take heed.
Remember when the flying saucer (in the '51 release) first appeared and then landed on the Ellipse in Washington D.C.? It seemed pretty cheap. The compelling nature of the story caused us to forget that. Klaatu emerges from the craft and is then shot by an overly nervous soldier. As he is attended to, the people suddenly look up at something new that is getting attention. It's Gort! The scene was gripping.
Klaatu takes on the name "Mr. Carpenter" as he blends in with the civilians, joining his fellow boarding house members in breakfast-time chatting about the news. He is befriended by Patricia Neal in the role of the widow. You might not guess this is the same actress who went on to play the mother in "The Waltons" TV series. It's much easier to recognize the boy actor Billy Gray as the same kid whom we'd see in "Father Knows Best." Billy plays "Bobby" in the classic movie.
Bobby takes Mr. Carpenter out and around in the nation's capital. Mr. Carpenter shows the diamonds which are the currency in his world. Klaatu/Carpenter is dismayed by us earthlings taking our first steps into space. Would our penchant for violent conflict follow? At the end, in an atmosphere of total gravity, he says "the decision rests with you."
I give this movie the full five stars.
The 2008 re-make wasn't quite as well-received. I have watched the whole thing although not all in one sitting. I have caught the various parts when it's on cable TV channels.
I think the re-make came very close to being effective. My opinion of it has actually gone up some. One problem at the time of its release, I think, was that global warming had an air of controversy about it with political conservatives, tea party types, expressing skepticism. You know, Glenn Back vs. Al Gore. Just as the tea party and its sharp, in-your-face edge seems to have waned, the disputed nature of global climate change has dissipated. Now more than in 2008, we're willing to acknowledge in a sober and realistic way that environmental damage is happening. Hurricane Sandy is an exhibit. And, our endless Minnesota winter of 2013?
Rather than Washington D.C., the spaceship arrives in New York City's Central Park. I have to sigh because once again we're fed the New York-centric world. The robot disarms the military but in a different way than in the original movie. The original Gort, "Mr. Aluminum Foil," used a sort of ray emitted from his face. The new Gort uses intense sound waves that paralyze.
I was extremely touched by the scene that had Reeves as Klaatu meeting James Hong as "Mr. Wu." Mr. Wu has been assigned by the group of alien civilizations to live with us humans for 70 years. Wu knows he is to be exterminated like all the other earth people. Though he could escape, he has developed a bond with earth people, having seen "another side" (other than the ignorant one) that promotes fondness. He isn't leaving.
There is an old wise professor in both the original movie and the re-make. With Reeves we have John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt. The female hero, "Helen," takes Klaatu to meet him.
Gort begins his process of destroying humanity (yes, even Cher - LOL). The sky is filled with "locusts" (nanites). Klaatu is able to intervene just in time, having been persuaded to show sympathy. He decides mankind can change. Klaatu's body is destroyed but not his spirit. It wasn't his real body anyway. He apparently found the humanoid body disgusting.
Reeves is very convincing in the role. While the ending seems a happy one, the closing stages of this movie seem a little too dark and depressing. We wish the locusts hadn't been released at all. The nanites just seem irritating, not captivating. Which is why I didn't finish that Crichton book.
Maybe someday we'll have a new version again, of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Maybe bring the wavering-tone music back?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org