Far from the CGI-heavy, plot-light 2008 version, this 1951 Sci Fi classic is a character-driven critique of cold war paranoia and burgeoning environmentalism. Unfortunately due to its age it also slightly suffers from the shoot first ask questions later mentality that plagues movies of this era; though certainly not a deal-breaker in such a fine film.
Following Klaatu (Michael Rennie) as he learns about the human race, our insecurities, our aggression and our reckless treatment of our planet is really a window into 50s American society. It’s quite striking how on the one hand the inhabitants of the B & B in which Klaatu stays accept him unquestioningly and let him look after the young lad, but at the same time everyone is mistrustful of strangers who might be a “Red”. To be fair, the film doesn’t shy away from these issues; the Secretary of State admits to Klaatu that the “world is full of tensions and suspicions”; and indeed like all good Sci-Fi, the movie highlights our politics and society.
Michael Rennie plays Klaatu just right, his cold observing demeanour matches the planet-observing alien perfectly. Patricia Neal is also good as Helen Benson with whom Klaatu shares his secret; but it is Billy Gray as the young Bobby who really shines.
Robert Wise’s direction is nothing special, but Leo Tover’s lighting is often beautiful: Klaatu stepping in and out of shadows, and the lighting of the spaceship interior in particular. Having said the direction is fine, I did really like the documentary feel that the opening minutes have; various TV and radio broadcasts increase the tension describing the approach of the spacecraft. If this was done today there would be 30 minutes of preamble as the the main characters were introduced way before anything interesting happened. I’ve just re-read my review of the 2008 film, and it seems this is indeed the case, lots of needless exposition.
Bernard Herrmann’s score is occasionally a bit too brash and startling when nothing is really happening on screen; but for the most part it is a fantastic eerie composition that really set the standard for Sci-Fi music making brilliant use of the weird electronic theremin.
A real Sci-Fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still stands the test of time. Perhaps not in its effects, but its storytelling, cast, score and its stylish production (Gort’s padded suit aside) are all top notch. All of which result in a very slick, enjoyable movie. But, you know, that's just, like, my opinion man.
Postscript. I've just read the short story Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates, upon which both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still is based. While the story is quite interesting, I've really no idea from where most of the plot for the films come. While Klaatu and Gort (well Gnut) are present, there is nothing about warning the Earth of disaster, so clearly the script writer did a lot of work.