Thursday, September 8, 2011

Have You Ever Seen a Grown Extraterrestrial Naked, Bobby?

Last night I saw Robert Wise's 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still on a big screen for the first time. I first saw it on TV at the age of twelve or so, and one time on video as an adult. It made a big impression on me as a kid, of course, with its message of benign interplanetary missionaries bringing the good news of peace and brotherhood to the savage Earthlings. As an adult I mainly noticed its campiness, though just about every movie from the 195os looks campy now. For years I nursed a major schoolboy crush on Michael Rennie, the Brit dreamboat who played Klaatu, and even in my dotage I can still see why: those Hepburn cheekbones, the willowy build, the accent, the reserve combined with warmth. (It also seemed to me as I watched the movie last night that Rennie resembled David Bowie, or vice versa. Was Ziggy Stardust a younger brother of Klaatu?)

I think I'm going to look at some critical writing on The Day the Earth Stood Still later on, but for now I just want to write about how it looked to me this time around.

Which was not all that different from how it looked to me as a kid. The film studies professor who introduced the film talked about its Cold War context, which is obvious enough, and its similarity to other Cold-War alien-as-Other movies that followed. But Day actually rejects the Cold War. Klaatu is dismissive of both the American and the Soviet governments' excuses for not convening the international meeting he demands for the delivery of his ultimatum. The film makes it clear that both sides, the US and the Soviet Union, are to blame for the dangerous international situation, and what the Cold War regarded as world-historical political conflict is brushed aside as petty, childish squabbling. Characters who voice conventional political sentiments are shown as foolish, like Aunt Bee, I mean Mrs. Barley who says "If you want my opinion, he came from right here on Earth. And you know where I mean." The reporter who cut short the incognito Klaatu's remarks about the dangers of reacting out of fear rather than reason got laughs from last night's college audience; he's a reminder that the broadcast media have always preferred soundbytes to discourse. The sympathetic Helen Benson immediately dumps her oafish boyfriend Tom when he makes it clear that he cares only about notoriety, not saving the earth.

The movie's politics take a dive into sentimentality when Klaatu and Bobby visit the Lincoln Memorial and admire the conclusion of the Gettysburg Address. That Lincoln presided over one of the bloodiest and most destructive wars in history up to his time is tactfully left out of the story.

The biggest laugh of the night went to the doctor who tells a colleague that the life expectancy on Klaatu's planet is 130, confesses that "He was very nice about it, but he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor" -- and then offers the other doctor a cigarette, which is accepted. I was especially amused by the newscaster Drew Pearson's wearing his hat as he read the news on his television program, though he was the only media figure shown doing so.

Klaatu's initial announcement, "We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill," is disingenuous -- he comes bearing a threat of planetary destruction if we don't clean up our act -- and Gort the robot is the forerunner of the Terminator. (Does "Klaatu barada nikto" translate as "I'll be back"?)* Or at least of Skynet, and of the Machines from the Matrix. Klaatu explains that his people created a "race of robots" to police them, stamping out any "aggression" as soon as it appears. And really, wasn't it foolish of Klaatu in his first encounter with human beings to hold out an unexplained object as he marched silently down the spaceship's ramp toward the crowd? Leaving aside his people's study of human behavior via radio before he was sent here, which should have given him some idea, it's important to remember that Klaatu's people aren't naturally pacific either -- that's why they built their robots.

The film studies professor's attempt to draw a connection to other sf movies in which the alien monster symbolizes the Red (or Yellow) menace seemed to me off the mark. The movie mocks the hoi polloi's readiness to imagine the Man from Space (whom they have seen only in his shiny spacesuit and mask) as a creature with tentacles, a Bug-Eyed Monster. Michael Rennie isn't the Blob, the Thing, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon: the trope of a slow-moving monster carrying a frightened human woman its arms is played out here by the robot Gort. (It's the brunette Patricial Neal whom Gort carries, though, not this bare-shouldered blonde -- who doesn't appear in the movie.) Day belongs to another strand in science fiction, which was already well-established in the genre: the story about a Kindly But Stern intergalactic dog-trainer who comes to rub our noses in our poop -- but will we allow ourselves to be housebroken, or will we have to be put down? Damon Knight had already mocked the theme in his 1950 story "To Serve Man." Other examples that come to mind include Edgar Pangborn's story "Angel's Egg," published in the same year that Day was released, a milder version of the fable in which the author laments our human immaturity and allows his cute extraterrestrial visitor to drain away his memories. (If only all lesser breeds were willing to sacrifice their lives to their superiors to further scientific knowledge!) In 1958 Robert Heinlein published Have Space Suit Will Travel, in which an American teenager finds himself as one of several human specimens examined by an intergalactic tribunal, and responds to criticism of Homo sapiens with a "You and what army?" defiance. But hey, you don't look to Hollywood for innovative science fiction.

I also guess I'll finally grit my teeth and take a look at the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves, if only to see how they updated it. And really, who better than Teh Keanu to reprise Rennie as a beautiful, human-but-not-quite visitor from outer space who dies and is raised from the dead? (Other candidates for the original role, according to IMDB's trivia page, included Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains.) The Christ-figure symbolism in the 1951 version was deliberate, and Reeves had already played a dying-and-rising character who brings Good News to Modern Man a decade earlier.

*I know it doesn't, but an Ahnuld joke had to go in there somewhere.