Diversity in SF Film: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

15 Oct

I thought I’d seen this film before, but apparently not. For a film made in the early ’50s — the era when post WW2 women were told to return to their “feminine roles” — it’s pretty inclusive. From the beginning, we see PoCs as part of the world’s population — even as part of the American population. They may not always have lines, and they may not be a big part of the action, but they exist in the background. Watch an American film today and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Not only do non-model-worthy people not exist, but neither do PoCs. Mind you, the British newscasters say things like “Throughout the Empire and the rest of the world,” and we see shots of these colonials in their colonial-ness — but hey, they EXIST. Wooo.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The plot [spoiler alert]:

A space ship zips around the earth causing not that much panic among the populace, but enough panic among the military to cause tank drivers to lay skidmarks on pavement. (No, really. They actually skid. That’s the first time I’ve seen a tank do that.) As it turns out the ship is driven by Klaatu, your friendly neighborhood alien, who has dropped by to say hello and issue a bulletin to Earth. This message is too important for only one group to control or even a couple of groups. He has to see EVERYONE. Except, he lands in Washington D.C., USA, and some dumb ass soldier shoots him before he gets past the “Hi! I come in peace!” part of his presentation. Gort, the not-so-giant giant robot fries all the military’s weapons in response. Mind you, he leaves the soldiers alive (hat leaves a plot hole later). The military wisks the wounded Klaatu away. While in their clutches… er… while staying at the military hospital, Klaatu is thoroughly examined without permission. He wakes up long enough to apply a mystical healing ointment upon himself, he heals, and then passes out again (I assumed). We know this because the doctor in charge steals the ointment and tells a coworker about it before running off to analyse it.

Klaatu and Gort -- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the military is using blowtorches on the space ship in a misguided attempt to gain access to the interior. Gort isn’t exempt from their exertions either. Luckily for him, he’s “impenetrable.”[1] Next up — the meeting with random politician/government official.

Klaatu: “I need to meet with EVERYONE.”
Government Official: “Not possible.”[2]
Klaatu: “Don’t you have this thing called the U.N.?”
Government Official: “Er. You heard about that? Er… Not possible.”
Klaatu: “Okay. May I hang out with your people for a while? I hear rock music might be cool. Maybe I can eat a hotdog or maybe watch baseball?”
Government Official: “Not possible.”[3]

And then our Government Official locks poor Klaatu in his hospital room. BECAUSE ALIEN. Klatuu manages to go walkabout anyway.[4] Now that it’s been proven that he has the magical power to unlock things, American citizens panic (no doubt due to the new security issues with their porn stashes). Klaatu rents a room at a boarding house under the name Carpenter.[5] The next night, we meet our main Earth character, an attractive widow and working mother named Helen. For some reason that I don’t understand, she leaves her son, Bobby, in the care of a total stranger (Klaatu) and goes on a date with Abnoxious 50s Hero Dude who (since he’s practically her fiancé and has seen Klaatu for ten seconds) clearly knows better than she does and insists she leave Bobby with Klaatu (er Carpenter) rather than bring Bobby on the date. So, rather than using her own judgement, she agrees.

Klaatu takes Bobby around D.C. and to the movies, trades $2 for two diamonds, and finally to the space ship. There, the television news reporter shows about as much reporting depth as a Fox News talking head has today.

Reporter: “You’re afraid! Tell me, how afraid are you?”
Klaatu: “I’m afraid but not for the reasons you think. I believe that the alien is reasonable–”
Reporter (clearly with an agenda): “And now for someone else who is more afraid. You look afraid! How afraid are you?!”

Next, the drop in on the Lincoln memorial.

Klaatu: “This Lincoln dude was hip. Wish I could talk to someone like him. Say, Bobby, do you know anyone that cool?”
Bobby: “Mom’s boss! He’s an important scientist! Did I mention my mom is a secretary? Not a Secretary of State. A REAL secretary!”[6]
Klaatu: “…”

This ends with Klaatu breaking into the professor’s office, solving the equation on the chalkboard, and leaving a calling card.

Klaatu and Bobby -- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Long story short, Klaatu gets the scientists together to tell them that the Earth will soon become a danger to the rest of the universe.

Klaatu: “Oh, hey, we’ve released these fascist robots who cruise through the universe and kill anyone that even looks remotely violent. No, really. We really did. Gort there can even kill me. He can kill your whole planet for being violent — even though he didn’t that time when you shot me.”
Everyone: “Er… which time is that? The first time when we wounded you, or the second time when we killed you a lot?”
Klaatu: “Never mind that. It’s not important.”
Everyone: “Um. Maybe it is.”
Klaatu: “Shut up!”
Everyone: “No really. We’re fond of legal loopholes on this planet.”
Klaatu then waggles a finger and says: “Join us and live in peace, or carry on bickering as before and die. Hey, it’s not the perfect solution. But at least no one gets dead. Except when they do. Er…”


Frankly, I couldn’t help thinking of The World’s End — which is as I’m sure Simon Pegg and Nick Frost intended.

The Network: You are children and you require guidance. There is no room for imperfection.
Gary King: Hey earth isn’t perfect alright? And humans aren’t perfect, and guess what? I ain’t perfect!
The Network: And there in lies the necessity for this intervention. Must the galaxy be subjected to an entire planet of people like you?
Andrew Knightley: Hey, who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock, and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!
Gary King: Oh thanks mate.

This film is influential, obviously. I totally see why. It holds up pretty well for the most part — well, except for the fascist ending which just underscores the U.S. international policy for the next sixty or so years. In addition, it has a female main character who, in spite of doing the stereotypical things bubble-headed women are supposed to do, comes off as a person. She might be flawed (she’s dating an ass, after all), but she’s not stupid (she breaks up with him when she sees he’s all about the glory for himself). She makes choices. She doesn’t just scream and wave her hands in front of her face. She actively helps Klaatu even though she’s frightened and ends up being carried away and locked up in the space ship by Gort the Robot in standard SF/Horror movie fashion. Also? A real effort is made to show the world’s population consists of more than American white people. There are even scientists who happen to be women in the big gathering of scientists. Again, they aren’t an important part of the plot, but THEY EXIST. That’s huge.

Chalk up one film for the idea that SF was always sexist (Metropolis) and one-half against (The Day the Earth Stood Still.)


[1] Yeah. I’m not going there. Well, okay. I am. But I’m not really telling you about it. 😉

[2] Is it me or do American conservative government officials seem to be dead set on obstructionism even in the 50s?

[3] See what I mean?

[4] I couldn’t help thinking he had Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver somewhere. Locks never even slow Klaatu down, baby. Hell, he doesn’t even knock first.

[5] Hello, Jesus reference.

[6] I’m stunned he didn’t mention how fullfilled his mom was in her Real Secretary Job™.


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