“I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer; the decision rests with you.”
Klaatu, taking “F*ck Around and Find Out” interstellar.
Today, September 18th, 2021 (if you’re counting its New York City premiere; September 20th if you mean opening across the U.S.), marks the 70th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951. I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. Though I’m of course too young to have seen it in theaters, I watched it numerous times when I was a kid, whenever it ran on my local TV station’s Saturday afternoon SF/horror movie double feature. When home video became accessible even to poor bastards like me, TDTESS was one of the first films I acquired on VHS, and later LaserDisc and eventually DVD and (finally?) Blu-ray. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched it, and thanks to a local theater owner here in Kansas City, I was finally able to watch a pristine print of the film on a big theater screen several years ago.
(We pause to recall fangasms…..everybody good? Okay. Moving on….)
Back in 2011, Kevin and I were invited to assist our dear friend and fellow SF enthusiast Kevin Atkins as he carried out one of his regular duties at the annual Starfest Convention in Denver, Colorado. Among the various events and activities he hosted throughout the weekend, Kevin also paid tribute to a worthy SF or fantasy film on Saturday morning as one of the first events in the con’s main programming auditorium. That year, the film of choice was The Day the Earth Stood Still in honor of its then 60th anniversary. Kevin knew of my love for older science fiction films in general and this one in particular, so I along with Kevin Dilmore jumped at his invitation to provide an “introduction” of sorts for the film. After the screening concluded, we held a Q&A session, and then Kevin Atkins spent an additional hour or so on Sunday morning discussing the film’s SFX and other technical work.
(Aside: We tragically lost Kevin Atkins earlier this year. He was an amazing person and an integral part of the Starfest conventions. Due to the COVID pandemic, Starfest was forced to cancel its 2020 and 2021 shows, so 2019 was the last time I saw him and the rest of the Starfest family. I’m absolutely gutted to know I’ll never see him again. All I can hope is that we continue to do him proud at future Starfest cons.)
So, what did we talk about? Well, I’m glad you asked. Provided below is a modified transcript of our introductory remarks, which accompanied a slideshow presentation:
Good morning! Thanks so much for taking time out of what promises to be a busy weekend to spend some time with us. You’re probably here for two reasons: either you’re too early for the dealer’s room and you’re looking for a good place to catch a quick cat nap before the day gets totally off the hook, or you want to hang out with us as we take a fond look back at one of the true classic science fiction films of all time and one of my personal favorites, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The movie is based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by science fiction writer Harry Bates, which appeared in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. Those of you who’ve read the story know that aside from Klaatu and a giant robot from space (named “Gnut” rather than “Gort”), the story and the subsequent film adaptation share very little in common. The original story is set at an unspecified point in the future, where other planets in our solar system have their own civilizations, and here on Earth there are “air cars” and various kinds of servant robots. The alien ship simply appears before the U.S. Capitol rather than on the grounds before the Washington Monument, and it’s described as being “ovoid” rather than looking like a concept model for the Jupiter 2.
The character of Klaatu appears only briefly, and Gnut the robot seems much more humanoid in appearance. It’s made from green metal rather than wearing a silver suit, and has eyes rather than that Slot of Doom with its death rays. The story unfolds over a much greater length of time, conveyed through the point of view of a reporter named Cliff Sutherland. Laboratories and even a museum are constructed around Gnut and the alien ship, both of which remain motionless throughout the process and resistant to all attempts at study. Then there’s the ending that’s somewhat reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, in which (SPOILER ALERT!) Gnut reveals to Sutherland that it, not Klaatu, is “the Master.”
As the story goes, in 1949, 20th Century Fox staff producer Julian Blaustein decided that motion pictures had a responsibility to comment on current events, and in particular the climate which had arisen in the era of the Cold War and the “Atomic Age.” He came to the conclusion that science fiction was a genre ideally suited to this commentary, and set out to develop such a film. After securing the rights to “Farewell to the Master,” Blaustein approached screenwriter Edmund H. North about using the story as the basis for the film he envisioned. Given wide latitude to develop the story, North began deviating almost immediately from Bates’ original tale, and centered on the idea that peace on Earth was possible even in an era of geopolitical tension and paranoia, because it’s demonstrated as having occurred on other worlds in the universe. After settling on this core premise, North devised a story structure which postulated a quartet of metaphors:
UNIVERSE = EARTH
PLANETS = NATIONS
ROBOTS = ARMED FORCES
KLAATU = CHRIST
And as you might imagine, that last one in particular raised nary a fuss…..
:: Ahem. ::
Once separated from its science fiction window-dressing, North’s story is revealed as an allegory which argues that peace on Earth is possible, though perhaps only after the different factions of humanity agree to surrender their national independence, grow up, and stop playing with childish toys like thermonuclear weapons and such. The distrust of Klaatu by the first government officials to confront him serves to reinforce the nationalism and paranoia which was characteristic of the period in which the film was made. The otherworldly nature of Klaatu, Gort and their ship, along with taut dialogue and deft pacing conspired to disguise the more overt themes contained in the screenplay.
Balanced against the film’s political overtones is a deliberate humanizing of the alien Klaatu, evoking sympathy from the audience as he interacts with Helen and young Bobby Benson, marvels at the words of Abraham Lincoln, and discusses with Professor Barnhardt how best to deliver his urgent message to the people of Earth. Care is also taken to pattern Klaatu’s time on Earth after that of Christ, showing how the alien visitor (who even uses the alias “Mr. Carpenter”) is at first rejected, then persecuted, executed, and resurrected before providing humanity with an opportunity for redemption. The parallel was not so subtle as to sneak past the MPAA censors, however, who insisted that a line of dialogue be inserted after Klaatu’s resurrection. When Helen asks him if Gort has power over life and death, Klaatu replies “that power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.”
The screenplay’s characterization of Klaatu is so effective that by the film’s last act, we’re rooting for him to triumph over his military pursuers. When he’s shot and presumably killed by soldiers, we react first in shock, then happiness when he’s resurrected if only for a short time. We’re invested in his fate to the point that when the time comes for him to lay out his verbal smackdown about how we’re all just a bunch of immature idiots threatening the safety of the known universe, we’re actually okay with what he’s saying, because we feel like he really cares about us and wants us to do better. You can believe he’d even shed a tear as he orders our planet roasted with a giant alien death ray.
The film, now titled The Day the Earth Stood Still, was directed by Robert Wise, who would later achieve notoriety for helming such memorable films as Run Silent Run Deep, West Side Story, The Sound of Music (my mother’s favorite film), The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenburg, and….oh yeah, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Aided by North’s script, which dispensed with the original short story’s futuristic setting in favor of a contemporary tale, Wise endeavored to ground the film as much as possible in the “here and now,” emphasizing the message against armed conflict in the real world. Despite the film’s themes, special effects, and editing which served to provide a documentary quality, the story largely comes across as an elaborate stage play. Has this been done? Man, I’d love to see something like that.
In the wake of its September 1951 premiere, The Day the Earth Stood Still enjoyed only moderate success at the box office, earning mixed though mostly positive reviews, most of which picked up on the film’s central message. One review in Time Magazine called it “…by far the best of Hollywood’s recent flights into science fiction.” Despite such praise, it would only later become acknowledged as a genuine classic, not simply as a science fiction movie but also taking its place among the best films ever made. In 1995, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It’s routinely listed on “Best of Lists” in venues ranging from The New York Times to the American Film Institute.
Beyond the film itself, its script was adapted for radio in 1954 as an episode of the long-running Lux Radio Theater anthology series. The play was performed before a live audience on January 4th, 1954, with Michael Rennie reprising his role of Klaatu while actress Jean Peters played the part of Helen Benson portrayed in the film by Patricia Neal. In June 1973, an adaptation of the original “Farewell to the Master” story appeared as issue #3 of Marvel Comics’ Worlds Unknown. Harry Bates, alive at the time, offered his personal blessing to the project. Written by Roy Thomas, this version hues with only minor deviations to the original tale, which remains as timeless as the film it inspired.
There were unsubstantiated rumors of a new, “re-imagined” version of The Day the Earth Stood Still released in 2008, with that dude from The Matrix tapped to try and fill Michael Rennie’s shoes. I don’t know about anybody else, but I never heard or saw anything to convince me that this was anything other than a vicious, cruel hoax. No, it never happened. Put your hand down, sir. Security!
:: Ahem. ::
(Actually, the new version isn’t that bad. Taking more cues from the 1951 film than Harry Bates’ original story, the update replaces Cold War paranoia with escalating concerns about climate change and the damage being done to the planet. Reeves’ version of Klaatu works in that whole, “I’m not really a human but instead just walking around in this human-looking meat sack, trying to make sense of you morons who’ve somehow made it to the top of this planet’s food chain.” As a cautionary tale about continuing to use, misuse, and abuse our environment, it does okay. I simply prefer the original version.)
All righty, then. We’ve been gabbing up here long enough, don’t you think? Make yourselves comfortable for the next 92 minutes or so, sit back, and enjoy what many, including me, consider to be a masterpiece of allegorical storytelling and a crown jewel of science fiction film: from 1951 and celebrating its 60th birthday this year: The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Some information excerpted from “The Day the Earth Stood Still: Dramatizing a Political Tract” by James Shaw, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Volume 5 #4, July/August 1998
Well, I guess I know what I’m going to be watching tonight after everybody goes to bed. What about you?
“We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”