A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1951 – The Day the Earth Stood Still
A lot of people thought I was gonna go Streetcar here. But no. I’m going sci-fi.
Because what genre better represents the 50s, and everything going on in the world, than the sci-fi genre?
I had two real choices here: this or The Thing from Another World. (Technically I could have waited and went with Body Snatchers or something, but that’s a whole other argument.) And I feel like this one has more to offer, overall, than that one does. That one is a great movie, but the real thing to talk about there is the monologue at the end. This one, the message is throughout. And I think that’s more important for what the genre was doing during this decade.
The sci-fi genre didn’t really exist before the 50s. Mostly it was horror movies. Those were considered sci-fi. And you had a few in the 30s, like Things to Come and ones like that. Those are more true sci-fi, in terms of how we see the genre. The 40s are pretty much devoid of the genre, mostly being about westerns and war films. It’s in the 50s that the genre came back with a vengeance. The way noir stemmed from people’s disillusionment with the American Dream, this genre stemmed from people’s fears about communism, and technology and space travel and everything.
Sci-fi became a great genre for incorporating messages within the construct of genre conventions. Kind of like how westerns were able to talk about present day through the lens of American history. (Like how The Outlaw Josey Wales was really about Vietnam.) Sci-fi films were able to talk about communism through aliens and things. (The Thing from Another World: “Look to the skies!” and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with strange people coming in and taking over the minds and bodies of Americans.)
What’s great about The Day the Earth Stood Still is how it manages to open up a discourse and promote international cooperation and not even be subtle about it.
I also love how it just cuts right to the chase. Doesn’t bother introducing characters, doesn’t give you bullshit set up. Boom. Flying saucer over the nation’s capital. That image tells you everything you need to know without any kind of crap.
But what’s incredible about the movie is how it’s a message against world violence. And it positions you to hate violence. The aliens come in peace, and every time, the humans keep trying to shoot them. And it’s great. Because after a while, you’re like, “Stop shooting them!” And that’s exactly what they want. That’s the point. And then at the end, they use the threat of annihilation to tell everyone to stop being so violent, and the film becomes a real pacifist masterpiece.
Oh, and all the iconic lines and images and all that. So there’s reason for being here.
Plus this film also the first score to use the theremin and really create that “sci-fi” sound we come to think of. It’s really the total package for 1951.