Night at the Portage: Day the Earth Stood Still

The Portage is that theater those friends of mine run movies at every month; but on Wednesday nights, a film society shows a movie every week. Last night it was Day the Earth Stood Still, for $5, so I went. I got street parking too, so that saved me $10.

Things opened with local legend Jay Warren playing the theater’s super-elaborate organ for 20 minutes; Warren is the city’s go-to guy for live organ accompaniment for silent films. That was worth a buck or two right there. Then the program opened with a chapter from the serial Daredevils of the Red Circles, who were three stalwart dudes in suits and ties who get into undercranked fistfights with the bad guys every week. This was pretty comical (they’ve been showing the entire serial, I guess, a chapter a week), although I thought it would be a western since there was a Snowflake (and a Tuffie) in the actor credits. Sadly, Snowflake wasn’t a horse; he was a beaming jovial black manservant also called Snowflake. WINCE!!

There was  Tex Avery cartoon, followed by some cheesy sci-fi trailers. Coincidentally, the first one was for Brain that Wouldn’t Die, our MotD subject for the last two days. As Rock noted, this ran on a double bill with the highly lackluster but putatively comical Invasion of the Star Creatures, and we saw the double bill trailer, and Rock was correct, that is a REALLY weird double bill.

The movie was shown via a 35mm print borrowed from the Criterion Collection, and quite awesome. However, for some reason I really found myself really disliking Klattu this time around. That guy is a complete asshole! What a superior, smug bastard. We all know he’s a big fascist in the end, but I never really caught what an unlikeable prick he is; probably because the film presents him as the opposite and it’s a very well made film. Still, up on the big screen his constant patronizing condescension just dripped off the screen.

Of course, one of our cues is that the film’s ‘good’ people love him. On the other hand, the movie’s definition of ‘good people’ is “worships Klattu.” It’s weird how all this never struck me before. But when Sam Jaffe (playing what is basically supposed to be super scientist and wise man Albert Einstein) is told by Klattu that he might destroy the Earth, Jaffe doesn’t react with anger or horror or disgust, but with bewildered awe. “You have such power?” he asks, or somesuch. I half expected him to jump up and high five Klattu at this point, yelling “DUDE!”

Klattu smugly insults anyone who would think of warring on another, and to be fair, his people “eliminated war long ago.” On the other hand, when Klattu has to neutralize two guards, he has the unstoppable giant robot Gort smash them in the head. The camera discretely turns away from this, however, lest we are actually exposed to any unpleasantness on Our Hero’s part. And although certainly hundreds or thousands of people worldwide would have died as a result of Klattu’s demonstration of power, the film never mentions that at all. That would be…untidy.

Still and all, Klattu’s people indeed don’t war; they instead travel to civilizations far less advanced than theirs and utterly destroy their planets if they don’t tow the line. “We have a system, and it works,” he preens. When he says “You won’t lose any freedom, but the freedom to act irresponsibly,”* well, I was hoping Captain Kirk was going to run out and kick him in the balls.

[*”For instance,” we imagine him continuing, “Gort will instantly annihilate anyone using incandescent light bulbs, or anyone who gets their kids fries with their Happy Meals. As for smokers…”]

Still a great movie, but the message is pushed hard and sans nuance and rather dishonestly. Lest more people take the tact on Klattu I got last night, they have him mention God (the “Great Spirit,” in his words) and look awed after visiting the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, of course, was a war president, but I guess the filmmakers didn’t think the audience would take kindly to Klattu sniffing about what a primitive neanderthal Lincoln was, like he does to everyone else who doesn’t comport himself to Klattu’s standards.

There’s this small moment with when Klattu examines a music box, and assumes this purportedly benign little smirk that all be screams, “Oh, look at that, those little wogs can be so clever sometimes.” If you took this exact same movie and recast Klattu as a Victorian British dude visiting a ‘primitive’ African village, people would be tearing the screens down. And for all this vaunted intellect, Klattu is a) outsmarted by a 12 year old boy, and b) very nearly stymied by *gasp* one of our primitive Earth walls, although luckily it has a window in it so he can contact Gort.

Genuine bonus points to director Robert Wise (The Haunting, Sound of Music, West Side Story) for prominently including minorities in the crowd shots. That’s actually progressive in a positive sense. I couldn’t help notice, though, that at the gathering of Super Smart People at the end–the ones who think Klattu is Teh Awesome–the black fellows we see in close-up are ministers, not scientists. I mean, Wise was still ahead of his time a bit, but maybe not quite as much as he thought he was.

Can’t say anything bad about that Bernard Herrmann theremin score, though. And Gort is incredibly cool. But now that I’ve viewed Klattu in this light, I don’t think there’s going back from that.

  • Rock Baker

    I had a similar reaction to Klattu the last time I saw the film (and I guess it struck Pop some years ago, as he really dislikes the film today). Still, you’ve got all that stuff in the beginning (the saucer landing, the tanks moving in, etc). I always did feel, though, that she loses steam awful fast the moment that Klattu speaks.

  • Gamera

    I too used to like this film but as I got older it dawned on me that it’s pretty much just another alien invasion film with a twist. Aka- join the galactic federation or die.

    Frankly though you said it much better than I could have Ken.

  • Rock Baker

    I must admit being a bit uneasy about Invasion of the Star Creatures, because it’s not very good. What makes me uneasy? Because I’m pretty sure it’s exactly the kind of sci-fi/comedy I would write (and hope it translated to the screen a bit better). The sexy space chicks, the guy doing impressions, top brass all having decoder rings, army guys fighting monsters in Bronson Canyon, indians belonging to the same space club as the general, they all sound like elements I’d use. I can only hope the film was funnier on paper than it was on screen.

  • Flangepart

    Ya know, Ken is batting a 1000 on DTESS, and it’s an odd feeling.
    Love the music, don’t know if Rennie intended to go ‘Mr.Smughead’, but the idea that merely saying ‘Grow up or die’ is NOT enough, I can’t get out of my head.
    He says that, and than leaves us to figger it out for our primitive selves- like a an adult warrior who sniffs at the kids in ‘Lord of the flies’ and after saying ‘grow up’, turns and …walks back to his ship to leave them alone again.
    What, not even a list of possible ways to overcome our violent tendancys?
    Oh, wait…that might be a religious stance. And Robert Wise really hated the whole ‘Techno-Christ’ aura he had to give Klattu at the end. You know, the whole ‘Great Spirit’ line.
    I guess Wise is just frustrated with the world as it is, and this is his personal ‘up your, ya primitive bastards’ growl at the world.
    Not that I don’t understand the feeling…

  • Rock Baker

    Peter Graves was a lot more uplifting when he offered his take on man’s place in the universe. “There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves, it has to be achieved. And when men seek such perfection, they find only death, fire, loss, disillusionment, the end of everything that’s gone forward. There is hope, but it has come from inside. From Man, himself.”

  • “…don’t know if Rennie intended to go ‘Mr.Smughead’, but the idea that merely saying ‘Grow up or die’ is NOT enough…”

    I have no doubt Rennie gave Wise exactly what he wanted; the film is clearly enamored of Klattu. However, “Grow up or die” is rather more passive than what he actually says, “Grow up or I’ll kill you. All of you. Children, etc.”

    I didn’t even get into his threat to “level New York,” presumably killing everyone there, purely as a demonstration of his power. Jaffe asks him to come up with a demonstration that doesn’t involve destruction (or not so overtly, really), and Klattu accepts the idea more as an amusing technical challenge than anything else. In any words, killing millions, not killing millions, to-may-to, to-mah-to.

  • Mr. Rational

    All of which still isn’t quite as bad, admittedly, as the recent Keanu Reeves version. “You haven’t grown up, so I’ll kill you. Just you, in fact. Animals, plants…they all get to live. But the human pestilence has to be done away with. What was that, madam? We never gave you a warning? Look, the plans have been on file at Alpha Centauri…”

  • Reed

    I had a similar reaction trying to re-read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I loved that book when I was in college (not so much the sequels), but when I tried to re-read it I just kept thinking, “Man, Paul Atreides is a dick!” To my sci-fi shame I did not see DTESS until I was in my 30’s, so, yeah. Klattu is a dick.

  • “And although certainly hundreds or thousands of people worldwide would
    have died as a result of Klattu’s demonstration of power, the film never
    mentions that at all.”

    While I don’t really disagree with you about Klaatu or the movie’s ideology, I’m not sure where you’re getting this bit from. We’re told that he was able to keep hospitals and planes in flight running, plus an unknown number of other exceptions.

  • Anonymous

    How about old people who died because their air conditioning ran out, or because they had to climb stairs because the elevators were out. What about people who had heart attacks or accidents but couldn’t get to hospitals because the cars wouldn’t work. Etc. There’s just no scenario, other than sheer magic (and even then, a pretty childish conception of magic) that would allow beings to shut off all the power in the world sans fatalities.

  • Eric Hinkle

    I made a few comments over at a site called TV Tropes about the points raised here about the movie, namely the whole ‘Klaatu is a total bastard’ and the threats he made, only for them to be all wiped away and for me to be warned about ‘biased personal opinions’.

  • The Rev.

    Any value TVT had has long been washed away by a sea of hypocritical dipshits and perverted morons. I’m not surprised to hear that happened.

  • Eric Hinkle

    Yeah; check out the ‘history’ link on the YMMV page for ‘Day the Earth Stood Still 1951’ and you can see for yourself if I exaggerated or not. Though they still have a few good pages left I’m about ready to give up on TVT, save that some friends of mine basically begged me to boost their work for them there. More and more it feels like diving into a sewer in the hopes of coming up with gold nuggets.

  • Jeez, that’s too bad to hear. Lost many a day to TVT.

  • bgbear_rnh

    Biased personal opinion about a movie. Never heard of.

    I don’t get how Klaatu can be threatened by a planet so far away from his home world, Eros made more sense. . Not to mention, we wouldn’t know he existed if he hadn’t shown up.

    How about set up a monitoring station on a the moon and if we get going on space travel, then they can come back and reevaluate the threat.

  • Eric Hinkle

    Some parts are still good, but others not so much.

  • Eric Hinkle

    It gets better when you consider that my comments were posted on the Your Mileage May Vary page, which is FOR things like that. But I’m probably making it more than it is.

  • bgbear_rnh

    The desire to rule the culture is too strong with some. Glad I never tried to post at TVT and get disillusioned.

    I would be tempted to post at the wild mass speculation for DTESS.

    I think Klaatu lied about being from another planet. He was really an Earthling time traveler which makes more sense that he feels threatened by the actions of mid 20th century Earthlings.

    Why lie? Time travel conundrums. How could Klaatu threaten them if to wipe out 20th century man would also wipe out his future. Also no matter what happens in the next few centuries people obviously survive and make great advancement, several world leaders might ask this question.

    So why make the trip? Probably convinced that if he didn’t things would be bad. Time travel. What a pain.

  • Eric Hinkle

    I believe I’ve seen that fan theory posted there.

  • Gamera977

    Klaatu being a time traveler does make more sense.

  • Gamera977

    I thought I’d posted here before about the short story ‘Farewell to the Master’ that this film was based on. It’s pretty much the same except the whole political angle about the Galactic Federation wasn’t there- Klattu and Gort were lost and landed on Earth by accident.
    The kicker at the end is finding out that Gort is the master and Klattu is basically just a pet the giant robot totes around with him.

  • Eric Hinkle

    I remember that one: “You misunderstand. I am the Master.”
    I also wonder if anyone here remember a story by Henry Kuttner that was basically a ‘Take That’ to DTESS, involving an arrogant alien commanding two Mexican farmers having a range war to ‘Behave Or Else’. They shoot down his arguments with ease and he leaves in disgust. It ends with one of them threatening to shoot a roadrunner if it doesn’t stop eating snakes, before he says, “Go in peace. When you know how to live with the snakes without killing, come and tell me how to live with the men.”