My fascination with science fiction films almost always leads to this question: “What sci-fi flick was your first? The one that made you want to see more of them?”
I know that, for a whole generation of fans close to my age group, the answer is none other than George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Now, despite what most snobs and/or snarks and/or fanboys would do, I’m not gonna fault that answer. Yes, the first film to explore the adventures of the Skywalker family is far more fantasy than it is sci-fi – much closer to traditional Westerns even – but, seriously, whatever floats your boat in fine by me.
Still, you’ll find others – film aficionados, academics, and scholars – who point to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Others will cite Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running (1972), or they’ll maybe even give a polite nod to John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974). While each of those choices have merit, they weren’t as widely available for TV broadcast when I was a munchkin, so, no, you have to go back even a bit earlier to know the bug that bit me.
Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) starred a relatively stoic Michael Rennie as the infamous Klaatu and the lovely Patricia Neal as the widowed Earth woman who kinda/sorta warms his heart just a bit.
Yet, no, it ain’t no love story.
On a clear day, a huge saucer lands in President’s Park, Washington D.C. The U.S. military had been tracking it, so they’re quick on the scene when the craft opens. Draped in silver from head to toe, Klaatu emerges. As a form of greeting, he extends a gift of peace toward the army men, but a nervous soldier – figuring the non-Earthly scum is waving a pistol – fires at the mechanical cylinder. The bullet ricochets right into the spaceman. He crumbles to the ground, only to reveal his protector – the robot Gort (!!! Still my favorite robot) – is none too happy. Gort goes menthol, vaporizing the American forces until a wounded Klaatu orders him to stand down. The robot remains watching their craft while the alien is rushed to a hospital for medical treatment.
Well, that’s only the beginning … but, if you know anything about American history, then you may be as captivated as I was in watching it.
The picture premiered in theatres in the fall of 1951. It enthralled audiences of its time mostly because not even ten years earlier the forces of the U.S. military had engaged what commanders knew at the time to be a U.F.O. (Unidentified Flying Object) in the skies over California. What newspapers dubbed “The Battle of Los Angeles” took place on February 24th and 25th (1942) when residents reported a huge orange disk-shaped light to police. With the memory of Pearl Harbor fresh in everyone’s mind, officials feared the craft might be the prelude to some greater Japanese attack, so the military was immediately called in. It was easy to see that something was up there; this wasn’t the planet Venus or Mars showing on the horizon. This wasn’t swamp gas or ball lightning. This was something big, and it was definitely moving.
Records show that the military fired almost fifteen hundred rounds of ammunition, and they brought nothing down.
For younger viewers, I liken that to watching Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extraterrestrial a few years after an entire town of 50,000 reported its mass abduction. The film would mean far more to them – the witnesses – than merely being vicarious entertainment; it would be real.
However, the association of that 1942 event to a film almost ten years later isn’t ultimately what drew me to The Day the Earth Stood Still. The historical reference I had in mind when I first saw it was the fact that not even a year after it had debuted in theatres, the city of Washington D.C. itself had been buzzed by an entire fleet of UFOs.
On July 19, 1952, radar operators for both Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base detected the craft traveling toward our nation’s capital at speeds varying from 100 mph up to 7,200 mph. The Air Force dispatched planes to investigate, and, in all cases, whatever was up there kept eluding them, then would return, only to escape once more. Despite the “official explanation” being something related to the phenomenon of “temperature inversion,” even pilots never bought into our government’s blatantly obvious sleight-of-hand in dismissing a phenomenal event.
As a li’l sprite, stories of UFOs and the beings who may’ve flown them fascinated me.
Some of the first books I read had to do with such contacts or encounters, so you might be able to imagine how such a film like The Day The Earth Stood Still crept into my brain, found an opening, and stayed there. It’d remind me over and over again that, even if no one else ever believed in such things as aliens and/or “life out there,” someone accepted the idea well enough to pen a script that some studio suit bought, moved into production, and eventually released for all of mankind to see. As a young man, that was all I needed to pour fuel over an already sparked interest in science fiction, ray guns, and spaceships, and the fire still rages to this day.
I’ve seen the original classic dozens of times throughout the years. When I find it on the boob tube, I stop, watch a bit more of it, and I feel those same ideas percolating somewhere in the corner of my fertile imagination.
No doubt, you young Turks are more acclimated to the 2008 remake starring an equally stoic Keanu Reeves in the Michael Rennie role. You don’t need to ask because I’ll, of course, always prefer the original, but I never thought that new-fangled version was quite as bad as most critics did. I remember it took a bit of a drubbing for a variety of reasons. I quite liked it up until about the last fifteen minutes or so, at which point it seemed to veer off in some preposterous, near-Biblical derivation that featured Klaatu kinda/sorta becoming a new ‘savior’ to our planet. In the original, Klaatu delivers a stern warning – it’s basically giving mankind a ‘galactic time-out’ – and, in Keanu’s take, he directly alters the course of our history and development.
That’s a big ‘NoNo’ as far as I’m concerned.
But that’s it. That’s the film that started me out on this fascinating, lifelong journey to boldly go where no one has gone before … well, except maybe the Jedi, the Aliens, the Predators, and a Monolith or two. It’s as powerful a film today as it was back then, but it means so much more when you know about the historical context for audiences of its time and beyond.