Something we admire about sci-fi films is the courage one or more characters must display to defeat the monster.
Battling a sci-fi monster is not easy, whether it’s a giant insect, a mutant sea creature, or an alien from outer space. Despite all danger and difficulty, one or more characters must eventually say, “Enough,” and go head-to-head with the beast.
This is what we find in the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, a timely film about the dangers of mixing petty human nature with weapons of mass destruction.
The plot, briefly: An unidentified flying object lands in a baseball field in Washington, D.C. A human-looking alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from the ship and requests a meeting with world leaders. Klaatu says the entire universe has learned to live peacefully, except for warmongering Earth, whose antagonistic ways threaten galactic stability.
He’s travelled 250 million miles to deliver a blunt ultimatum: Smarten up or be destroyed.
After military personnel question and detain Klaatu, the alien escapes to find refuge in a nearby boarding house. He’s anxious to find a back door to global peace negotiations.
He meets a widowed woman (Patricia Neal), and her 10 year-old son (Billy Gray). Klaatu becomes pals with the boy, who tours him around the city. However, Neal’s fiancé (Hugh Marlowe) is understandably suspicious of the stranger who claims to be American, but knows almost nothing about the nation’s capital.
The irony is, of course, Klaatu’s mission to avert global warfare may be kiboshed by a jealous fiancé.
As noted earlier, sci-fi films usually feature a terrifying and unreasonable Monster. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, it quickly becomes apparent the Monster is not Klaatu or his laser-shooting robot; it is we humans and our desire for war.
A clever twist, no?
The hero in this film is often cited as Klaatu with his Get-Along-or-Get-Out message. But how heroic is he, really? He has a laser-shooting robot to kill attackers, plus a zippy get-away spaceship. Let’s face it: Klaatu has a whole universe at his disposal.
Nay, the hero, in our opinion, is a Nobody: Neal’s character. She’s an office grunt and a single mother without power, money or influence. (She lives in a boarding house, for pete sake!) She’s not at the top of the socio-economic food chain, but she is sensible and smart – and heroic when she has to be.
Here’s the definition of a hero:
Hero (n) A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
Neal’s character demonstrates these qualities in her everyday life, even before she finds herself an unofficial ambassador for global peace.
Near the end of the film, she argues with fiancé Marlowe. He’s uncovered Interesting Information about Klaatu with which he intends to capture the alien and gain national prominence. He doesn’t care if his actions sideline covert peace negotiations.
Marlowe: “You’re going to marry a hero.”
Neal: “I’m not going to marry anyone.”
Did you catch that? This 1950’s woman, with limited life options, is trading her future security for (hopefully) a world that benefits everyone.
Before long, she will prove to be braver still.
To us, Neal’s character represents the countless heroes who demonstrate this type of courage every day. They’ll never receive a book/movie deal or any other kind of public recognition. To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott, these folks are unwept, unhonoured and unsung¹.
Even if these unknown heroes are scared and know there’s no reward, they carry on nevertheless.
This is the type of person sci-fi movies need; indeed, it’s the type of person our world needs. The next time you watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, let us know if you agree.
The Day the Earth Stood Still: starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Edmund H. North. Twentieth Century Fox, B&W, 1951, 92 mins.