Because “Why not?”, and as it makes picking viewing easier, Trash Or Treasure is going through every movie in “Science Fiction – Double Feature”, the opening song for that trash culture classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Michael Rennie was ill, the day The Earth stood still. But he told us where we stand
The opening sequence of the movie is a flying saucer descending to a field in Washington DC, causing all the concern and mobilisation that you would expect. Its passenger, Klaatu (played by Englishman Michael Rennie to give him a sense of nobility, intelligence, and an exotic accent) disembarks, tells everyone it comes in peace, and then gets promptly shot by a soldier who’s probably worried that the traveler from an untold distance has an inappropriate amount of melanin in their skin.
Once fixed up at the hospital, he then really upsets the USA by saying he wants to talk to all the world leaders at the same time rather than giving the President untold powers in a private meeting. Working out how much his stay will cost him because America doesn’t have a sensible healthcare system, Klaatu legs it to witnesses a remarkably generous cross slice of 50s America and decide if the planet should be apocalypsed or not.
Two things become very apparent very quickly with this film. Firstly, that although everything has (quite naturally) got a 50s aesthetic to it the special effects hold up remarkably well. Although it’ not an especially effects driven film this is important, because it lets you accept things as real and focus on the important parts of the plot and characters. Secondly, the overall message still resonates 70 years on, which is either testament to the foresight and universality of Edmund H. Norths script or a depressing insight into how little has changed over the years.
It’s also impressive how well the acting has held up, other than Billy Gray who was given the unenviable task of playing Bobby Benson; the precocious little boy who shows Klaatu the true spirit of Christmas humanity and that you’ll want to strangle within minutes. Patrica Neal does a great job of Helen Benson, the mother and eventual not-quite-love-interest, Hugh Marlowe players suiter Tom Stevens to a logically escalating T, and Sam Jaffe keeps a tight rein on his performance as Professor Barnhardt. Any of these main characters could have been exaggerated, but they all come across as real and sincere.
That said, this is a mainstream 50s movie and thus everything is highly sanitised; so don’t expect any gritty depictions of the social problems of the era. There is a lot of inuendo and coded language in play, but if you can keep up with it you’ll find a surprisingly complex and nuanced world being depicted. By keeping things polite in the foreground, director Robert Wise is able to get away with a lot of details in the background that might otherwise have been thrown out. Sadly this did not extend to the Jesus metaphor, which was just that little too overt so the third act gets clunky as they make it clear that Klaatu isn’t the second coming.
Along with that, the film is more interested in the moral elements of it’s story and having people talk at great lengths. The titular standing still is a highly fudged inconvenience and the main action is a couple of ray blasts. If you like a film that is focused on ideas and treating it’ audience as utopian thinkers then that’s great, but for those who don’t dig that it’s easily described as wordy and slow.
Assuming you can handle it’s proto-Star Trek optimism and reliance on thought over spectacle, then it maintains it’s position as a Treasure of a movie. There are tones of post-World War optimism, alongside pre-Cold War tensions, and science fiction as vehicle for adult conversation of contemporary issues. It’s probably the least rock-and-roll of the films in this run, but it’s still clear that it’s a highlight of the era and it’s optimism buys it a place in that pop culture’s canon.