Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

I'm not a devotee of science fiction, in either print or film.

There are certain offshoots of the genre that I do find appealing, but they are more mainstream, I suppose, combining elements of drama or comedy or whatever — and I've never been like one of those guys I knew in high school who had bookshelves filled with obscure science fiction titles and spoke to each other in Klingon.

I don't know why science fiction never really appealed to me. I've always liked good fiction. Maybe it was the science part that turned me off. (Science was never my strong subject in school.)

Science fiction, though, has often meant space exploration in my experience, and I was a child during the most intense years of the space race so you might think, therefore, that I would have more than a passing interest in it. And, to be honest, there are some films that are designated as science fiction movies that I appreciate and always enjoy watching.

One of those movies is "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which made its debut on this date 60 years ago.

In 1951, science fiction as a movie art form was still in its nascent phase. Prior to that time, the science fiction that most audiences saw in the theaters was in the form of the serials of the time or horror movies.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" was one of the earliest movies to introduce space travel and alien beings — and special effects — to the big screen and helped to usher in what was arguably the golden age of science fiction movies. "Forbidden Planet," which came along a few years later, is often mentioned by film historians as the movie that launched the science fiction genre, but I believe, as I wrote in the spring, that it more accurately marks the maturation of it.

While "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is rightly remembered as a science fiction movie, it was really a drama in the finest tradition of that genre — and just happened to use space travel as its backdrop. It was intended, as I understand it, as something of a metaphor for the Cold War and how it was changing the way people thought about themselves and each other.

There were messianic themes evoked by the resurrection of the visitor from space (similar themes, I might add, were part of the "Star Wars" trilogies). There were the elements of fear, hatred and suspicion that became common during the four–decade Cold War, which was still a new development in 1951.

Academy Award–winning composer Bernard Herrmann wrote a haunting score for the film.

I won't dwell too much on the story because, if you have never seen it, you should. It is worth seeing, even after 60 years.

Patricia Neal is probably the best–known star in the cast — although Andy Griffith Show fans will recognize Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) in a supporting role, and folks who are fond of movie trivia may be intrigued to know that Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains were each considered for the role of Klaatu, the visitor from space.

Eventually, Klaatu was payed by Michael Rennie, an English actor.

And, then, there was Gort, the tall robot, who was played by a fellow named Lock Martin. What's that, you say? You never heard of Lock Martin?

No reason why you should have, actually. The 7½–foot Martin worked as doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theatre when he was chosen to play the robot. That was when it was still said that movie stars could be "discovered" sitting on drug–store stools and in other unlikely places.

When you're 7½ feet tall, though, it's hard to imagine how you could be overlooked.

Anyway, Martin had something of a modest acting career in the years after he played Gort. He was known as "The Gentle Giant" because (1) he apparently did not possess the physical strength to match his imposing height, and (2) he liked reading stories to children (which, apparently, he did professionally for awhile on a TV show in Los Angeles).

Of course, there was the iconic phrase — "Klaatu barada nikto" — that Rennie's character told Neal to utter to the robot if anything happened to him, which she did — and, in the process, supposedly prevented him from destroying the earth in retaliation.

No one ever translated it from the fictitious space language from which it sprang so no one really knows what it meant.

What do you think it meant?