Thursday 12 July 2012

1,001 Films: "The Day The Earth Stood Still" (1951)

The Day The Earth Stood Still opens with the most gorgeously designed flying saucer in the movies landing in central Washington, disgorging a benevolent spaceman (Michael Rennie) and his faithful robot sidekick. After the latter vaporises the guns and tanks pointed at them both by the massed ranks of the military, the spaceman seeks an urgent meeting with the President, to pass on a message of utmost interplanetary importance - only to find the country's prevailing climate of fear and suspicion ("jittery is the word") makes him public enemy number one. Director Robert Wise - perhaps inspired by his mentor Orson Welles's as-it-happened War of the Worlds broadcast - shoots it in a documentary-like style more common to American crime films of the early 1950s, all the better to emphasise story and character (rather than the effects, which are comparatively sparing), with a side-order of early Cold War conscience-pricking: the spaceman's warning concerns the dangers of nuclear proliferation, to other lifeforms, as well as Man. The result not only works as astute, sensitive science fiction, but - in its comic beats - as a canny satire of American insularity and closed-thinking, one that continues to resonate down the ages and left the film open to the perpetual threat of a remake: for spacemen, we may read Russians, hippies, blacks, Viet Cong, North Koreans, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, or any other social group mentioned in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".

The Day The Earth Stood Still is available on DVD through Fox.

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