Twomorrowland #4: Warning from Space

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is another example of classy, big-budget sci-fi, though less luridly fun than FORBIDDEN PLANET. Its casting does suggest that the slightly flat acting of previous entries in this series was a deliberate choice, as if character quirks would be too much for an audience to take in a movie whose whole premise is quirky. This is the A-picture version of bad B-movie acting, so it’s not actually inept, just kind of flat. Except Patricia Neal, we can agree about that.

Michael Rennie arrives from space to deliver a warning to all of Earth, but all of Earth can’t agree on a meeting place to listen to him. It’s a film about stupidity. Rennie’s Klaatu has a high-handed, “What fools these mortals be” attitude, a loftier version of George Reeves’ Superman, characterised by tiny ironic smiles whenever any of us says anything stupid, which is most of the time.

This is, arguably, mainly a film about stupidity. This makes sense of Snub Pollard appearing as a cab driver. Planet Keystone. There’s potentially a good comedy to be made about an alien visitor thwarted by our dumbness, but somehow I don’t think VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET is going to be it.

I think as a kid I was riveted by the opening of this one, and I still am — it has very good FX work but it’s primarily an achievement of editing — Robert Wise shows his cutting-room origins in all his best sequences, whether the film is WEST SIDE STORY or THE HAUNTING or CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Though the three speeded-up shots of fleeing crowds are TERRIBLE. I think I was a little bored by some of the talkie bits, and some of the running around backlot streets, but perked up for anything involving the UFO and the robot. I still feel the same way. It’s a lovely flying saucer, especially the interior (motion-sensitive controls!) and Bernard Herrmann’s throbbing, electronically-enhanced score feels literally part of the control room’s feng shui. Maybe because a theremin, like this saucer, can be operated without touch. Also at times the score sounds exactly like CITIZEN KANE’s approach to Xanadu but with added electro. I want to bathe in it.

Fiona recalls being unimpressed by Gort, the titanic robot. A highly critical eight-year-old, Fiona. “I didn’t like the way his joints creased.” I would defend that by saying that if you coat your robot in a kind of flexible metallic skin, which seems to be what Gort’s got, you have to expect it to fold at the joints. But I agree there’s something not quite pleasing about the look of it. He’s a character who works great as a still image, on the poster, and indeed he spends much of his time as a menacing sentry, even immobilized in a plastic cube at one point. His first entrance is unseen — everyone looks up and he’s simply THERE, in the hatchway, like Mrs. Danvers. Wise shoots around awkward movements like picking up a fainted Neal, and pulls off effective forced-perspective illusions to make him seem bigger than he is.

   

Gort is dressed for the swimpool: shorts, goggles and wristbands — to store his locker-room keys — he needs two because he’s big. It would be interesting to see what he wears when he’s not going swimming.

Michael Rennie has a lovely broad-shouldered jumpsuit, cinched at the waist, with a helmet like a sea urchin, even though he can breathe our air fine. This is just so he can go on the run and be unrecognized later. Did he know he would need to do this? Incognito, our saucerboy goes by the name “Carpenter,” emphasising the Jesus effect — he checks into a boarding house like Conrad Veidt’s Christ-figure in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK  Later, he will rise from the dead for an unspecified interval before ascending to the heavens. On the other hand, I don’t recall Jesus having a hulking robotic sidekick who disintegrated his foes. And though Christ may have made the sun hide its face, he didn’t make the earth stand still. (Me as a seven-year-old, feeling cheated: “So it’s not REALLY standing still?”)

Crown of thorns?

I think the filmmakers may have missed a trick by not having the big outage occur at night, so you could at least have a dramatic blackout. Wise cuts to different countries around the world but it’s daylight everywhere. So all you get is stalled traffic and a stuck elevator.

Somehow the global power cut doesn’t kill anyone, but Fiona was sure some of the little animated figures in the park were directly UNDER Klaatu’s saucer when it landed — smushed to patê, the poor beggars, never to be seen again, their feet presumably curling up underneath, Witch of the East style.

Apart from Klaatu, Gort and Snub Pollard, the film features Dominique Francon and the High Lama.

Weird how other movies used this as an ur-text, even plagiarising the cast. Patricia Neal romances a space invader in the inferior STRANGER FROM VENUS (aka IMMEDIATE DISASTER, which is hilariously apt). Little Billy Gray, fifteen years later, is staunch in THE NAVY VERSUS THE NIGHT MONSTERS. Hugh Marlowe, Neal’s awful boyfriend, stars in EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, which is like the lamebrained twin of this movie — instead of visiting Washington monuments, the saucer-people disintegrate them. Despite my love of Harryhausen I’ve never really been able to love that film, it’s too much of a militaristic counter-response to TDTESS. I should also mention that this is really Gort’s second appearance in this season: Lock Martin, minus his robot costume, plays a circus giant in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He’d also be a mutant in INVADERS FROM MARS.

I feel like Gort is also an important figure in terms of the whole look of Marvel Comics, somehow.

Ultimately, it transpires that Klaatu is here to deliver a blood-curdling threat, essentially treating the Earth the way the US treats other nations with regard to nuclear weapons: We’re allowed to have them because we’re civilised. You’re not, so you’re not. And then he buggers off.

The abruption of the ending is great — scifi/horrors that bring up their end titles as soon as the threat is dealt with are usually lousy — no subtext, no characterisation, hence no coda. But here, we don’t need any discussion as the climax of the film is actually a speech — it’s one of the few films outside of THE GREAT DICTATOR to go that way, and it feels like there’s a slight relationship between Chaplin’s anti-fascist film and Wise et al’s anti-nuke one. What worries me is that, having seen the way human beings think and operate in this film and in real life, we can be reasonably sure they’d immediately start trying to find loopholes in Klaatu’s unambiguous ultimatum, leading to potentially the shortest sequel in Hollywood history: THE DAY THE EARTH BLEW UP.

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9 Responses to “Twomorrowland #4: Warning from Space”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    The “extras” on the DVD I saw of the Robert Wise DAY included the information that (a) apparently real-life Patricia Neal thought the notion of her romance with a space man was the funniest thing imaginable; and (b) Spencer Tracy, having seen an early copy of the script, was determined to play Klaatu. I think more of Tracy, admittedly, than I do of Rennie as an actor, but Tracy — even if we place aside the Jesus parallels — would’ve been way too earthy for this otherworldly character. Probably Tracy’s character in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK was the closest he’d come to playing Mr. Carpenter … and even there the BAD ROCK character is all too mortal and physically vulnerable.

  2. “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” was produced by William Alland who played the unseen-save-in-partial-profile reporter in “Citizen Kane.’ Welles used clips of it in “F For Fake” when he discusses his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast (which according to “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” was not at all what it seemed.)

    I’ve got Welles-on-the Brain as I expect to be seeing “The Other Side of the Wind” very shortly. Reports are that it really works thanks in large part to Michel Legrand’s score.

  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum said the best thing to prepare oneself about, potentially, seeing The Other Side of the Wind. Welles was always keen about making his next film different from the last. And his sense of difference overpowered the expectations.

    So I think The Other Side will divide people. Some will say meh, others nae, and who knows. It’s only analogue is literary, like that unfinished Nabokov book The Original of Laura which came out a few years ago and then landed a turkey. Welles’ film seems meatier than Nabokov’s unfinished work but who knows.

  4. At least Welles finished shooting and apparently had a plan for the edit, so it’s not like an unflinished book… It’s All True might actually be the closest comparison, but I don’t think the edit of that sequence really approached what Welles would likely have done with the material. The few cut scenes of TOSOTW that have circulated do give a strong indication of the intended style (“too experimental” for Oliver Stone).

    Tracy could have played almost anyone BUT Klaatu… though, maybe he would’ve transformed it in some way that would work. He’s certainly not your stereotpical alien, but then, in 1951 neither was Rennie.

  5. As Welles said, “For me editing is not just another aspect of film-making, it is THE aspect”. I have no doubt everyone behind TOSOW is doing their scrupulous best and I look forward to seeing it. But at the same time, I am being cautious about it.

    One thing that it could do is challenge our sense of Welles. It could potentially make us revisit and review the earlier films based on our impressions of this one. Welles was the prototypical auteur but his body of work challenges auteurist assumptions of their being a linear continuity and development between first to last films. For one thing, it’s not clear what exactly counts as Welles’ last film.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Once upon a time, I played with the notion of an alien civilization’s first emissaries to Earth being civil servants on the outs with their superiors. Sent to a thoroughly irrelevant planet to make friends while impressing the natives with their power and competence, they only manage to be annoying. At some point they’d start shipping junked cars and broken TV sets home, under the misapprehension that these are objects of religious veneration offered as valuable gifts. The Superior Alien Technology they offer in exchange are equivalents of, say, electric nose hair trimmers. They finally resort to hiring human PR consultants; the kind who give CEOs and politicians lousy advice.

    Unfortunately (for me if nobody else), Douglas Adams got their first with a galaxy full of incompetents and bureaucrats.

  7. I remember a surprising episode of Mork and Mindy where Mork was seduced by a hate group and Mindy had to straighten him out.
    “But don’t ou have people on Earth who are lazy and stupid?”
    “Yes, but they’re not confined to one race. Isn’t it that way on Ork?”
    “It was, but they sent me here.”

    I’m all for having my concept of Welles expanded. He’s so big already. He’s like the ending of The Man Who Was Thursday.

  8. Joe Dante Says:

    Actually Sam Katzman produced “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, as William Alland was over at Universal doing Jack Arnold movies.

  9. Ahah!

    I always thought it was a shame Alland didn’t hire Welles to do War of the Worlds or something like that, but I guess he didn’t feel he could have his former boss working for him. It was left to Albert Zugsmith to hire Welles at Universal.

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