THE SCREENING ROOM'S Nifty Fifties Sci-Fi Classics series
continues this weekend with The Day the Earth Stood Still,
a wonderfully dated saga of aliens gate-crashing planet earth.
One of the first films to portray extraterrestrials as an advanced
race of saviors, it poses a stark contrast to the other outer
space movie of the moment, Independence Day, which depicts
aliens as evil, mucus-coated killing machines.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in 1951 when
the cold war was in full swing and fear of the bomb was widespread.
Into this tense, divided planet a plate-shaped spaceship lands,
rather conveniently, on the mall in Washington, D.C. The authorities
immediately move to cordon it off with those ropes used to keep
people in line at the bank. Out of the spaceship marches Klaatu
(Michael Rennie), a sad, serious spaceman bearing gifts of friendship.
The earthlings are afraid--apparently the cordons may be ineffective--and
he's immediately shot. While Klaatu recovers, he tries in vain
to assemble a quorum of politicians so that he can deliver his
interplanetary message of non-nuclear proliferation, but the only
people he can convince to give him an audience are a fetching
neighbor (Patricia Neal), her young son Bobby, and a scientist
with unruly hair (Sam Jaffe).
Though by now we've all probably watched enough episodes of Star
Trek to be familiar with the theme of aliens-bringing-peace,
in 1951 the whole idea was rather new and The Day the Earth
Stood Still drives home its message with the energy and clean-scrubbed
glee of a Leave It to Beaver episode. One long section
of the movie has Bobby showing Klaatu (who doesn't exactly look
like an alien) around Washington. Klaatu reads the inscription
at the Lincoln Memorial and says, "Those are great words.
Where can I find a great man like that?" Like a lot of fifties
artifacts, the simplicity is touching.
While The Day the Earth Stood Still derived its cultural
resonance from the fear of the bomb and the stress of the cold
war, Independence Day derives its resonance from the fear
that, in these post-cold war times, there may not be anything
good left to blow up. Science fiction movies have, to a certain
extent, replaced the Western in American cinema as a genre in
which characters are allowed, even required, to be wildly heroic.
A good hero requires a worthy adversary, and as recent movies
like The Quest and The Phantom have amply proved,
trundling out the old, accented villains for yet another round
is a depressing and profitless prospect.
And so, one of the things that makes Independence Day
such a winning blockbuster is that it manages to draw such a clean,
crisp line between good and evil. These aliens are totally bad
news. One of them mentions to The President (Bill Pullman), via
a Vulcan-style mind meld, that all they want from the humans is
for them "to die." No call for an assembly of the United
Nations here. With such a formidable wall of evil, there's a dire
need for heroes, and Independence Day is clotted with them.
This movie doesn't so much have a plot as it has a series of staccato
subplots, each with its own loser in need of redemption. Even
the President is weak: one of the first things we learn about
him is that he's regarded as a wimp. Each subplot supplies the
movie with a hero who gets to transcend, through warfare, one
of several distressing dysfunctions, including: alcoholism and
dismal parenting (Randy Quaid); political wimpiness (Pullman);
slacker-level aspirations (Jeff Goldblum) and failure to commit
to a good woman (Will Smith).
The women in the movie all have (and fulfill!) the lightweight
task of standing by their men, which seems to provide them with
all the redemption they need. This, surprisingly, is not as annoying
as it may sound. Somehow, unlike most movies trying to
be big hits, Independence Day manages to come off as being
mostly uncalculating and un-pandering in its appeal. Like Stargate,
the previous film by director Roland Emmerich, Independence
Day retains a little bit of a 1950s chaste spirit and innocence
that lets us know it's nothing more threatening than good, clean
entertainment. There's even a snippet of The Day the Earth
Stood Still in Independence Day--one of the characters
is watching it on TV when the bad guys invade. Okay, so Independence
Day is another movie where the women don't even get a chance
to cleanse themselves through violence, but golly those alien
vessels sure are nifty!