I first saw the Day the Earth Stood still when I was about nine or ten. My father, who had passed on his love of science fiction and fantasy to me, took me to see a rerun at the local cinema. The first version of this movie was made in 1951, and starred Michael Rennie as the alien Klaatu. My father had seen it when it was first released, and rightly assumed I would love it too.
I sobbed pretty much all the way through it at the way the earth people treated the visitors from outer space. Michael Rennie was a very popular and well respected actor in Britain at the time, although he was less well known in the USA, and he brought to the role of Klaatu a gravity and emotional depth that was unusual in any science fiction movie, then or now. His style lifted the movie out of the ordinary realm of space operas.
My father hoped I would learn lessons about prejudice, violence and the need for a new approach to peace after WWII (in which he served the full six years) from the movie and certainly I did – but most of all I learned the possibilities of science fiction to educate and inform, and provide more than just entertainment in space suits. The thoughtfulness of the story line, and the humanity of it, makes this one of the greatest science fiction classics of all time.
Briefly, the story is of an alien who lands on earth, accompanied by his robot Gort, to give mankind an ultimatum. Desist warmongering now, or the earth may be annihilated. Klaatu is captured by the military but escapes, wandering around to learn more about earth people in the company of a young boy called Billy. This causes Klaatu to offer the people of the earth a sample of his power instead – to make the earth stand still.
The movie’s release just after World War II carries an obvious anti-war message with nuclear weapons as the new threat and the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima still fresh in the mind – there were also Christlike allusions (Klaatu adopts the name Carpenter as he travels around) that went completely over my head at the time.
Fast forward 57 years, and Klaatu returns in the guise of Keanu Reeves in the 2008 version, complete with eye boggling special effects. But somewhere along the way it lost the heart of the story, the humanity. I got a sinking feeling in the opening sequences when a mother runs out of nowhere and grabs a baby pram she inconveniently left in the way. At least in the 1951 version they had the sense to move the kids before the ship landed.
It begs the question – why remake something just because you can? The obvious reason for the remake is that we now have whiz bang special effects that were missing in the first movie, as well as colour instead of boring old black and white, and actors that modern audiences can relate to, and who are supposed to be better at giving screen performances. But in fact none of this really adds anything. Nor does the change of emphasis to Man’s poor conservation record. The fact is there are many people trying to save the planet, and Klaatu and Gort may have come to help them instead of destroy everything. If anything, there are even more war mongers, and it was the prospect of mankind destroying itself, and taking its violence out into the stars that concerned the first visitors.
While I really like Keanu Reeves, he is no Michael Rennie. Often accused of being wooden, in this movie he is plastic. Reeves is more like an auditor come to check earth’s tax records. Instead of Billy, an engaging kid, we have Jaden Smith playing an annoying and disrespectful brat who would not add anything to earth’s plea for compassion.
It may look old fashioned (yes, the robot’s knees bend) but the original version gets the message across and has lingered in the community consciousness of science fiction fans for 50 years. The 2008 version has been quickly consigned to oblivion (in spite of a much more awesome Gort) and all you can say is – what message? There was a message in there somewhere?
I paid to view these movies with my own funds.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)