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Movie Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Wobbly sounding dual theremins engaging upon initial liftoff, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) has just as much cosmic resonance — the 21st century’s emotionless Keanu Reeves and global warming themes notwithstanding — as it did at the Cold War’s outset some 50-plus years ago. Pleasingly, fighting a war of an altogether different nature in 2009 does little to distract from what it meant – still means – to be responsible human beings responsibly inhabiting planet Earth. Then, executive assistants were still secretaries, your doctor was still sitting around contemplating the challenges of Western medicine under man-made Lucky Strike clouds, and the term “spacemen” was still two words. A case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Following in the hysteria-inducing shadow of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the World’s” (1898), but foreshadowing R.E.M. ("It's the End of the World as We Know It"), firmly grounded in our intergalactic space – Washington, D.C. precisely – Day the Earth reminds in sobering, circumspect fashion that human beings have as much responsibility to the each other and the universe, as to themselves.

A shooting star much worth glimpsing, an historical bookend, seemingly light-years away, 13, before anyone, someone – Kubrick – unleashed the chutzpah to revel, rather than shrink from, the madness of it all. Nuclear fallout, species extinction, played for yucks. In some transcendental measure, we’ve director Robert Wise to thank for the preceding decade-and-a-half of chilly cinematic sobriety on the matter. Not even monochromatic black and white would soften tense political perceptions of the Red State. The ominous shadows might have even heightened them. Edified us — Wise-ened us, as it were? (Think: school-sponsored bomb shelter drills). In the end, made us name names. Half a century on, the film's greatest special effects are McCarthyism, Star Trek, Dirty Harry, Dubya Bush. Some reality-based, some not. Only history can tell that. Our civil liberties in exchange for perceived peace of mind. Straighten up and fly right, earth people – or the consequences will be dire. Shoot now, ask questions later.

The 91-year-old Robert Wise saw the rise and fall of the atomic bomb and the Cold War before his death in 2005. Strange to consider, Osama bin Laden and Klaatu may come with the same message, if not the same diplomatic emphasis.

Message sent to voice-mail for later retrieval, Day the Earth’s most awe-ish aspect – and cinematically relevant contribution to timeless moviemaking – is the fact that it’s a sci-fi noir, if ever such a thing could exist, could take flight, landing in the new millennium none the worse for wear. Shadows loom large as Klatuu/“Mr. Carpenter” (Michael Rennie) and Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) try to save Earth from itself. In Ms. Benson’s case, not an easy task for a U.S. federal government employee. Jingoism got us into this mess, but she knew it wouldn’t serve us well getting out. That would take political cooperation and collaboration on an international scale, a common sense of greater purpose. Tearing down a repressive, divisive physical wall in an act of literal and symbolic unification almost 40 years later continues proving to be a tough political epilogue to live up to.

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