The Day the Earth Stood Still is my pick for the best science fiction film of all time. There have been other movies with more realistic special effects, more believable plots, better acting, but I can’t think of any, except maybe 2001, that are as profound.
Released in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still is first and foremost a classic of space-age campiness. An alien descends to earth in a flying saucer that looks more like a hubcap than a vehicle of intergalactic travel. The ship lands in middle of Washington D.C. Crowds of people and cops and military men with guns and tanks surround it and watch as a human-like figure emerges and says he’s come in peace. He slowly reaches into the breast pocket of his skin-tight space suit and retrieves a long skinny object. A soldier shoots, the space being falls to the ground, and a giant robot emerges from the ship and shoots laser beams from his eyes that disintegrate all the earthlings’ weapons. The wounded alien orders the robot to cease fire and, in a voice of deep disappointment, informs the trigger-happy humans that the object, now shattered on the ground, was a gift for the president, a device that would’ve revealed the secrets of the universe. The rest of the movie hinges on the question of whether or not the visitor will allow the earth and its inhabitants to survive. He’s come, we learn, because our celestial neighbors have grown concerned about our newfound mastery of atomic power and our choice to harness it as a destructive force. There’s not a lot of action, and for long stretches there are no special effects or weird sci-fi flourishes. But the film seethes with tension. The alien escapes his military captors and slips out into the world like a spy passing as a human to understand what makes earthlings tick and observes the paranoia and distrust of The Other that permeates society. It’s more a socio-psychological thriller than a blow-your-mind orgy of impossible science, and it’s riveting.
In terms of what’s commonly agreed upon great cinema, The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t much compare to 2001, which is virtually tied for first place on my list of sci-fi classics. It’s full of plot twists that are laughably absurd, hokey special effects and improbable characters (i.e. a grade-school boy who idolizes scientists instead of baseball players). But to me these are essential components of the golden age of sci-fi, when movies with crudely superimposed laser beams and trippy theremin soundtracks spun allegories about nuclear doom, the Red Menace and the liberating power of science and together formed a treasure trove for future generations to stumble upon while stoned and channel-surfing in the wee-morning hours. What makes this film better than all the others is that it gets at the fundamental human qualities that drive the very dangers that threaten humanity: fear, suspicion, greed, ignorance, the hunger for power. The Day the Earth Stood Still is, in my estimation, one of the greatest examples of a common genre raised to the level of art, because it’s true to its genre even as it transcends.
- Joe Miller