The Day the Earth Stood Still

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Robert Wise

REVIEWED: 07-11-96

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!

--Stacey Richter

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