It's odd to think that fifty years from now there may only be a handful of movies released in 2004 that will be remembered at all. I don't care to venture any guesses as to what they may be, but it's easy to see why The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the ones from 1951 that remains a classic, while so many others sank into obscurity. The movie deals with a theme that was at the forefront of so many peoples' minds in the early 1950s, in America and the rest of the world, and that is the conflicts between many different nations, and more generally the tendency for humans to fight each other. It was released at the time of the Red Scare and so soon after World War II that international tensions were still high. Also odd is that if you switch the last two words in the title, why, it's not very frightening at all!
Okay, that made no sense, but I couldn't resist. My respect for the movie dimmed sharply when I saw that the alien was not only a man, but a good looking man who spoke perfect English, but then won back my respect completely when it took the time to explain that his culture had learned about humans through intercepting radio transmissions over many years. Unlikely, but it's an explanation, which is more than most science fiction films provide. Granted, not much time should be wasted on the science of science fiction, but in this case something had to be said. The alien didn't give may details as to his physical condition, but scientists hypothesized that since he so closely resembles a human, he must have a similar environment to our own on his planet.
Speaking of which, there is one thing about the science that I'm also curious about. At what stage were astronomical studies in the early 1950s? I'm wondering how far into space scientists were looking, because Carpenter, the alien, states with some grandeur that he has traveled 250 million miles to get to earth, which in astronomical terms is a tiny, tiny distance. Considering that the sun is 93 million miles from earth, this would mean that his planet is within our own solar system. And here's another little factoid – Earth makes a complete revolution around the sun every year, as you know. Pluto, on the other hand, takes something like 248 years to revolve around the sun. That has nothing to do with the movie, but is an interesting digression, I should think.
I found the political backdrop to be one of the most interesting things about the movie, and not only because of what the political landscape was like at the time. It was interesting to watch a movie about aliens that so quickly and completely dissolved into a close examination of volatile human relations, and without ever becoming preachy or devolving into peace propaganda (oxymoron intended). I actually think that a large part of what made up for the lack of aliens in this alien movie was the validity that its argument has.
When Carpenter (who they stopped just short of simply naming Jesus) was greeted with the response that a meeting with all of the worlds leaders was impossible because of tensions between nations, he was genuinely surprised and saddened. He gives as his reason for visiting earth the fact that his civilization has noticed satellites being launched around the Earth's atmosphere and, since humans clearly are unable to get along, he was sent here to tell us to join them and live in peace or face our present course and face obliteration. Most importantly, if we chose the latter, they would be there to ensure that we would not export our violence to peaceful civilizations in space. The descending nature with which he speaks is truly revealing, it makes humans look childish because of our constant battling with one another.
This is also where the movie coincides with some of the themes that Jonathan Swift presented in Utopia, his novel upon which several failed civilizations have been attempted. They have created robots, which we seen in the Iron Man, to prevent the rise of violence in their society. The robots have tremendous power, which cannot be revoked, and at the first sign of violence they react swiftly against the aggressor, which results in a peaceful society. I'm also reminded of Gulliver's Travels, also by Jonathan Swift, particularly the section where Gulliver lives among the Houynymns which, interestingly enough, are talking horses with a remarkable ability to live at peace. When at one point Gulliver describes lying, which does not exist to the Houynymns, one of them responds incredulously with something like, "Why on Earth would one say something that isn't so?" Carpenter displays exactly the same shocked surprise when he learns of some of the awful characteristics of human beings, which seems to suggest that before we look for other civilized worlds in the galaxy, maybe we should work a little more on civilizing our own world.
The famous quote that I've quoted in my summary line is one of the many delights that this film presents, and Evil Dead fans will be thrilled to see the origins of those strange words that Ash had such a hard time speaking in Army of Darkness. The genre of science fiction has a much larger than average ratio of bad films to good ones, and I think the best ones are the ones that have a concrete connection to the real world, as The Day the Earth Stood Still obviously does. Given the political atmosphere here in the first month of 2005, it's obvious that humans have not taken much advice from this movie, but then again, as Arnold stated in Terminator 2, "It's in your nature to destroy yourselves."