The Day The Earth Stood Still 1951-2008
One of Science Fiction Cinema’s historical treasures is the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Released in 1951, it was directed by Robert Wise in an adapted screenplay by Edmund H. North and starred Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Michael Rennie as Klaatu – an actor with a commanding voice, unknown outside his native England, who portrayed a mysterious alien from outer space with a message for Earth foreboding extinction from nuclear proliferation.
Filmed in black and white, the screenplay was based on “Farewell To The Master“, a 1940 serialized short story written by Harry Bates that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that was begun in 1930 during the golden age of Science Fiction. The periodical was part of a genre that included Strange Tales and Amazing Stories, a magnet for many of the Twentieth Century’s greatest science fiction writers. The original story is very different from its 1951 film adaptation, told in a narrative form by photo-journalist Cliff Sutherland who unravels the mystery of klaatu and Gnut, the robot whose name was changed to Gort for the cinematic interpretation.
Part of the reason why the 1951 film worked was because Rennie was not generally known by the American audience. This played well to the premise of the film, an other worldly ambiance to the story with a haunting score composed by Bernard Hermann using two theremin electronic instruments. A being not of this earth who is nevertheless human-looking, who searches for the humanity in the world he came to warn, climaxing in his austere speech at the end of the film to an elite group of respected international scientists. The Day The Earth Stood Still was well received by Hollywood, garnished a golden globe award and is still considered among the best of the Science Films of all time, heralding the era of such classics as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) and Forbidden Planet (1957).
Now we have the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, John Clease, Kathy Bates and Jaden Smith. Directed by Scott Derrickson, screenplay by David Scarpa, the film is a dreadful attempt to make money by ripping off the name and some barely recognizable elements of the beloved 1951 classic. It alters the original nuclear premise to that of global warming, justifying the plan to eliminate mankind to save Earth for other species. Reeves has a knack for playing wooden characters, or is it that he just can’t act? His Klaatu is made possible by a premise similar to 1984’s Starman . A DNA sample, abducted in 1928 from a bearded Himalayan mountain climber also played with little emotion in flashback by Reeves, who could have instilled Klaatu in the same way Jeff Bridges‘ alien was imbued in Starman, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.
John Cleese, known for his Monty Python films, plays Professor Bernhardt who points out to Klaatu: “Most civilizations change when at the edge of the precipice.” This prompts an alteration in the annihilation plan but not before a terrible destructive force is let loose. Gort, here a completely CGI figure and reminiscent of the computer-generated Silver Surfer, is lost in space, somewhere between Central Park and an underground military facility. Although Jennifer Connelly provides the only credible acting, while Kathy Bates, the Secretary of Defence acts with the reserve of a hybrid between Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton as the President and Vice President are nowhere to be found. The special effects are so lack luster that the end of the film, running 110 minutes, provides the only relief to a nearly empty theater. No where is the line, “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto”
If one wants to know why the Earth Stood Still, one should go back to the classic 1951 film and perhaps read “Farewell to the Master” in its original text. The 2008 version omits so much that it fails to relate the important public message that Rennie’s Klaatu came to convey, revealed at the end of the original version which made it so memorable.
For the full cast of characters of both films, and the original short story follow the links below: