For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.
Yes, yes, I know what the comments will be before I even begin.
How can you call the original Day the Earth Stood Still one of the worst sci-fi films of all time? It’s a masterpiece! A classic! I own it on Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc and an original 35mm print! I named my daughter Helen and my son Klaatu! You’re an idiot who doesn’t understand sci-fi and you should burn in Hell forever!
Except the comments will be riddled with typos and make less sense.
The world is full of things that the general public considers to be brilliant, which are at best mediocre. Like The Eagles. Babylon 5. And Isaac Asimov.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those things. It’s not really one of the worst sci-fi films of all time. But it is such a colossal disappointment in comparison to its reputation that I have no problem placing it on this list.
Certainly the film contains some good ideas, and its failures may have more to do with the era in which it was filmed than with any lack of talent by the people responsible for it.
SPOILERS FOLLOW (Warning: plot elements from the 1951 film may appear in the 2008 film, so if you plan to see that, be careful.)
The Day the Earth Stood Still is the story of Klaatu, an Anglo-Saxon alien from an unnamed planet 250 million miles from Earth. He lands in front of the White House in his silver classic saucer that glows and makes electrical noises in flight.
Emerging from the saucer in front of a crowd of soldiers and onlookers, Klaatu announces that he has come “in peace and with goodwill.” He offers a sex toy to a soldier, who promptly shoots him.
An 8-foot tall silver being called Gort, which everyone immediately knows is a robot despite the fact it looks just like Klaatu, emerges from the saucer and and destroys all the soldiers’ weapons with some kind of Prop Removal Beam.
Klaatu is taken to a hospital, where he is examined by one scientist and no one takes his picture. He is also visited by the President’s secretary, because apparently the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the President’s Chief Science Adviser and the President’s hair stylist were all too busy to meet a freakin’ alien from another freakin’ planet.
Klaatu explains that he has an important message for the whole world, and not just for the United States, so he wants to address the United Nations. He fails to explain why he landed in Washington, DC, instead of New York where the actual UN is located. It doesn’t matter — the President’s secretary tells Klaatu that the world’s leaders will never gather together to hear his message. The half of the world that misinterprets Karl Marx is too angry at the half of the world that misinterprets Adam Smith.
No one suggests that Klaatu individually visit world leaders in his space ship, or that he just go on television.
Klaatu escapes from the hospital. I applaud the filmmakers for assuming that an alien from an advanced space-faring civilization would be able to defeat a Kwikset lock, but not the idea that human officials would be surprised by this.
Klaatu then spends the entire second act of the movie in a dull subplot about a secretary, her son and her asshat of a boyfriend.
The second act ends when Klaatu sneaks past the two guards — TWO GUARDS — guarding his saucer, goes to the control room and presses the button marked “Turn Off All Electrical Devices On Earth For A Half-Hour.” This is where the movie gets it almost, but not entirely inaccurate title.
In the third act, Klaatu has convinced the world’s greatest scientist, a frizzy-haired Jew who for copyright purposes in not Albert Einstein, to collect all the world’s other greatest scientists to meet at the saucer. Unfortunately, the US government is afraid that the escaped alien is some kind of communist (he’s not — he’s a fascist, see below). So they kill him.
Fortunately, Klaatu has taught the secretary a phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” which translates as “Hey Gort, Klaatu is dead. Go to the police station where they’re holding the body, blast through the wall with your Scenery Removal Ray, pick up Klaatu and carry him — through the streets of Washington, unnoticed — back to the saucer, where you will use the Main Character Resurrection Device to resurrect him.”
The aliens speak a very economical language.
The secretary finds Gort, and actress Patricia Neal gets to speak the most famous line she’ll ever speak in a career spanning six decades.
Gort succeeds in barading Klaatu’s nikto, and Klaatu and the secretary step out of the saucer to speak to the assembled scientists. Klaatu finally conveys his Message to the Earth, which takes about 90 seconds and makes you wonder why he took 90 minutes of movie to get around to it.
It seems that the “other planets” — the ones within 250 million miles — are concerned that humans will build nuclear rockets. Klaatu offers humanity two choices. In the first, humanity will be lorded over by robots like Gort, who will destroy the Earth if humans exhibit any aggressive behavior toward other planets.
The other choice? The robots will destroy Earth right now.
Klaatu does not wait for a response, since any response but “we’ll take door number one” would be pretty silly. He also does not have sex with the secretary. He gets in the saucer and flies back to his planet. The end.
(By the way, I called Klaatu a fascist, not a communist. Communists establish a totalitarian police force, then kill all the rich people. Fascists establish a totalitarian police force, with the cooperation of all the rich people. Klaatu’s Peace Through Robot Annihilation regime seems closer to the latter.)
END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS
Now, apart from the plot elements I lampooned in my bitingly sarcastic plot synopsis, what bothers me about this movie? Let me check my notes (no, really, I have notes).
“Two hundred and fifty million miles.” This is a ridiculously short distance astronomically, yet Klaatu uses this figure several times to impress us with how incredibly far he’s traveled. But this puts his homeworld well within the Solar System.
I have worked out, based on the orbit of the Earth and the orbits of the other seven — seven — planets, the minimum and maximum distances between Earth and those planets for all positions throughout time, adjusting for Mercury’s 7° deviation from the plane of solar rotation. Okay, no I haven’t. I’m spitballing. But it seems to me a limit of 250,000 miles means Klaatu must come from Mercury, Venus, or Mars. (At the outside, traveling at the closest distance, maybe he could originate from a moon of Jupiter. But Klaatu said “other planets,” and I’m taking him at his word.)
Scientists knew in 1951 that, like a McDonald’s McDLT, Mercury is a blasted cinder on one side and a frozen wasteland on the other. There had yet to be any radar observations of Venus, and astronomers did not yet even know that the planet’s rotation is retrograde — but they knew it was an uninhabitable swamp of hot gas. And as for Mars, well, even scientists who thought nuclear radiation was safe and beneficial understood that Mars was an uninhabited rock.
Sci-fi writers, when putting astronomical distances into the mouths of aliens, never say “miles.” Use “light years.” But don’t use “parsecs” — that’s a unit of time.
Let’s see, what else bugged me? Oh — did anyone else notice that NORAD was located in a Chinese restaurant? Or that foreign language news shows had English-language signs so you’d know what country they were in?
Speaking of foreign languages, the alien word for “follow me” is “meringue.” Seriously, watch the movie. I’m not kidding.
Here are some script notes for Klaatu. First of all — SIT DOWN. In almost every scene, Klaatu stands, even when everyone else is sitting. Is this an alien thing, like Mork sitting on his head? Also, Klaatu, a “train without tracks” is not a train. It’s a bus.
The score was recorded using not one but two theremins, proving for all time that one theremin is enough.
But let’s get beyond the nitpicking. I think this movie fails primarily because of when it was made — the early 1950’s, when sex, race and free speech were still stuck in the 40’s but everyone was afraid of the Reds.
The film was directed by Robert Wise, who would go on to direct such other sci-fi classics as The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which means he’s one for three. (I’ll note here that Star Trek: The Motionless Picture is not on this list of worst sci-fi films only because I want to limit myself to one Star Trek film, and there is one worse. Maybe two.)
Wise is not exactly considered an auteur, although for TDTESS he seems to have borrowed two ideas from Citizen Kane — use extreme shadows for dramatic effect, and employ a semi-documentary style to pull the audience into the film.
The documentary feel of the film was apparently considered quite impressive in 1951, and would be copied by many later films. Wise wanted the audience to accept that this science fiction scenario was something that conceivably could happen in real life (Caucasian Martians notwithstanding), so there are lots of shots of random humans from throughout the world responding to the arrival of the saucer, the suppression of electrical devices, and the panic over an alien on the loose.
Way, waaaaay too many shots. Almost as many as there are of military vehicles patrolling Washington looking for giant silver robots and tall Englishmen who can’t sit down.
The entire film is fundamentally composed of (Act One) reaction shots, (Act Two) talking, and (Act Three) a speech. Kind of like Atlas Shrugged, except the speech is 1/10,000th the length. And interesting.
Act Two sucks because it adheres to a 1950s style of filmmaking. I can hear the producer now: “Hey Bob, this flick’s got too many spacemen. We need something people can relate to. A family. Maybe they live in a boarding house. And the wife’s a widow, see, with a kid. The kid can hang out with the alien, and the wife can fall in love with him. And there’s no bad guy in the script, so give the wife a cad of a boyfriend who betrays the alien. And have a cast of nutty characters in the boarding house who talk about the alien. Oh – is there a dog?”
Also, the original script called for Klaatu to be brought back from the dead, but the censors didn’t like this. They didn’t want Klaatu to meddle in the domain of the Christian god; so Klaatu’s resurrection became temporary, and he says this:
Helen: You mean… he has the power of life and death?
Klaatu: No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.
Robert Wise was a leftist who wanted to make a powerful film about the dangers of the Cold War, and the necessity of the United Nations and the international cooperation it represents (at least theoretically). Even the film as released was considered “subversive” by some, probably because it suggested that the issues of contention in the Cold War did not merit mutually assured destruction.
Unfortunately, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not that film.