Tuesday, August 12, 2008

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Robert Wise, 1951, USA) For centuries, humanity’s hubris perpetuated the unquestioning belief that life on Earth was the center of the vast cosmos. When Copernicus abolished that particular mythology, many still gasped in awe at the miracle of life and its observable deficiency elsewhere: maybe Earth was special, after all. Robert Wise directs an intelligent science fiction drama that welcomes homo sapiens to the cosmic community with a final and absolute caveat: don’t spread our self-destructive attitudes to the stars. The risk is complete and total annihilation by a superadvanced police force in the form of indestructible robots, particularly Gort. Klaatu comes to our planet with a peace offering in one hand (the metal device even looks like an olive branch) and a big stick (Gort) metaphorically in the other. Klaatu lands in our nation’s capital but demands a world audience; his message is not for one nation, or people. His friendly gesture is misunderstood and he is shot by a nervous soldier…and bleeds like a human being. Klaatu’s frustration with the dimwitted politicos inspires his escape and, for a few short days, he lives among the egocentric and comparatively uncivilized population of Washington, DC. (Nothing much has changed since 1951!) The stranger is saddened by our penchant for violence and anarchy but observes humanity’s hope in a small boy and his widowed mother. The director wisely chooses to portray Klaatu as more human than human: He is the protagonist and empathetic character, he is acted upon by selfish madmen and soldiers, and he is the victim of our ignorance. In order to convince the world his apocryphal threat isn’t hollow, Klaatu must resort to a childish display of power: he makes the world stand still for one hour. Ultimately, it’s the single mom who saves the world as she courageously confronts the metal giant with Klaatu’s final command: Klaatu Barrada Nikto. The story is remarkably prescient because it doesn’t resort to 1950 era Cold War politics: the omniscient alien condemns all mankind as brutes, vicious animals that devour their kindred. But Klaatu admits his own species lacked perfection but was able to ascend this mountainous folly…and he hopes the human race can, too. Robert Wise’s cinematic instincts are beautifully displayed: low angle shots and deep shadows reveal a mysterious Klaatu, a stranger far from home, and speak a film language that transcends the genre. The Bernard Herrmann’s score adds an eerie undercurrent that is more important to the narrative than any special effect. This classic still stands as one of the greatest science fiction films ever produced. (A+)

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