Friday, April 17, 2009

Three Days the Earth Stood Still

The 1940 Story “Farewell to the Master” and the 1951 and 2008 Film Versions

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Day the Earth Stood Still began life as “Farewell to the Master,” a short story by Harry Bates, a pioneering science-fiction writer and editor who ran the magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science from its inception in 1927 until its publishers, the Clayton Group, closed up shop in 1933 due to the Depression. According to Bob Gay, who wrote an introduction to “Farewell to the Master” for its online publication (, Bates differed from Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories (really the first science-fiction magazine), in being less interested in the details of a story’s scientific basis and more interested in action and plot construction. Bates wrote several stories himself while editing Astounding, but after its closure (it was later revived far more famously as Astounding Science Fiction under different ownership and with John W. Campbell as editor) he wrote surprisingly little and there is virtually no record of how he made his living between 1933 and 1981, when he died in obscurity.

“Farewell to the Master” was originally published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and reprinted in the book It Came from Hollywood (a fabulous treasure trove of the original stories that inspired a lot of classic science-fiction movies even though they were sometimes hideously mangled in the adaptation), and anyone who comes to it expecting similarities with the 1951 movie will be shocked at how little the two have in common. “Farewell to the Master” takes place well into the future — in it, humans have already traveled safely to Mars on a spaceship of their own and also have developed ray guns and television — and its human protagonist is photojournalist Cliff Sutherland, who’s introduced visiting the new extension to the Smithsonian Institution built three months previously after a spaceship landed in Washington, D.C. bearing two passengers: a humanoid named Klaatu and a giant robot named Gnut. The spaceship landed and two days later it mysteriously opened and Klaatu got out. “It was immediately apparent to all the assembled thousands that the stranger was friendly,” Bates wrote. “ The first thing he did was to raise his right arm high in the universal gesture of peace; but it was not that which impressed those nearest so much as the expression on his face, which radiated kindness, wisdom, the purest nobility. In his delicately tinted robe he looked like a benign god.”

Alas, one human in attendance didn’t get the message; a religious fanatic pulled out a ray gun and killed Klaatu on the spot, thinking he was the devil come to enslave the human race. After Klaatu’s death, “Gnut, a little behind his master and to one side, slowly turned his body a little toward him, moved his head twice, and stood still, in exactly the position you now see him.” The robot has rested in the same position for three months when the story opens, and Sutherland, in the process of photographing him, spots a slight change in his position which makes him realize that — contrary to everyone else’s belief — Gnut has actually moved. Using the permission he has been granted to enter the museum any time he wishes (he’s been issued a key), Sutherland keeps watch on the exhibit — the spaceship, Gnut and the dead body of Klaatu, encased in a Plexiglas mummy case much like Lenin’s — and spots a nightingale, a gorilla and two replicas of Stillwell, the voice actor who recorded the tape played to visitors to the exhibit when the Smithsonian is open to the public.

Eventually it turns out that Gnut is experimenting with a nature film one of the curators of the Smithsonian left behind and doing tests on a technique of bringing a dead animal back to life by reverse-engineering based on a recording of its voice. The eventual object is for Gnut to restore Klaatu to life by this process, but because the recording of Klaatu’s voice (just one line, “I am Klaatu and this is Gnut,” in the few seconds between his emergence from the ship and his murder) was imperfect, the restoration can be only temporary. Sutherland offers to provide Gnut the exact same machine on which Klaatu’s voice was recorded, on the theory that the imperfections in recording and playback will cancel each other out, and thereby Gnut gets the power to create a longer-lasting replica of Klaatu and the two head back from wherever it is they came from, but not before Sutherland has offered Gnut an apology for Klaatu’s death:

“‘Gnut,’ he said earnestly, holding carefully the limp body in his arms, ‘you must do one thing for me. Listen carefully. I want you to tell your master — the master yet to come — that what happened to the first Klaatu was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry. Will you do that?’

“‘I have known it,’ the robot answered gently.

“‘But will you promise to tell your master — just those words — as soon as he is arrived?’

“‘You misunderstand,’ said Gnut, still gently, and quietly spoke four more words. As Cliff heard them a mist passed over his eyes and his body went numb.

“As he recovered and his eyes came back to focus he saw the great ship disappear. It just suddenly was not there anymore. He fell back a step or two. In his ears, like great bells, rang Gnut’s last words. Never, never was he to disclose them ’til the day he came to die.

“‘You misunderstand,’ the mighty robot had said. ‘I am the master.’”

Most of the elements that have made the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still one of the most beloved science-fiction films of all time were added by its screenwriter, Edmund H. North. About all North kept from Bates’s story was the central premise of a spaceship landing in Washington, D.C., with a living being and a robot inside; the name “Klaatu” for the living passenger (though his change of name for the robot from “Gnut” to “Gort” was probably motivated simply by the desire to give the film’s actors something easier to pronounce); and a sequence in which the robot is encased in a slab of clear plastic to keep it immobilized, but is able to escape by increasing its own body temperature to melt the plastic off its metal-alloy skin. The purpose of Klaatu’s visit, left powerfully ambiguous in the story, was established by North as to save the rest of the universe from nuclear annihilation by either persuading Earth to disarm or else destroying it — making The Day the Earth Stood Still a surprisingly clear-cut “message” movie whose message of pacifism was audacious indeed for a film made at the height of the Hollywood blacklist, the McCarthy era and Cold War hysteria generally.

North also invented all the film’s human characters, including Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, who made this liberal message movie just three years after playing a role at the opposite end of the political spectrum in the film of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead), who works as a secretary in the Department of Commerce and makes extra money by renting rooms in her home to boarders. The film opens with Klaatu’s flying saucer (and indeed it is a flying saucer!) being tracked by astronomers and military personnel, who surround it when it lands on the Washington Ellipse; Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is shot almost as soon as he gets out of the craft but it’s by a soldier, not a freelance nutcase; and he’s merely wounded, not killed. He’s taken to a military hospital, where it’s revealed that his body is human — or at least close enough thereof that the surgeons can operate — but on the orders of the President’s chief of staff (Marshall Bradford), he’s locked in his room for further observation. Klaatu uses his superhuman powers to burn the lock off the door and escape, stealing a human suit and assuming the identity of its owner, “Carpenter” (a deliberate allusion to Jesus Christ and his earthly father’s trade, one of many religious metaphors in North’s script).

Deciding he needs to observe humans up close and personal to see if they should be exterminated or preserved, Klaatu stumbles upon Helen Benson’s boarding house, rents a room there and befriends her son Bobby (Billy Gray), whom Helen has been raising as a single mother since his dad was killed in World War II. The authorities mount a dragnet to recapture Klaatu, and with his entreaties to address all the world’s leaders at once predictably rebuffed, he seeks out the aid of scientist Prof. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who’s depicted as such a goody two-shoes that Jaffe probably found his experience playing the High Lama of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon his most appropriate preparation for this role. Klaatu and the Bensons go to Barnhardt’s home and let themselves in even though the professor is out — Klaatu sees the equation in “cosmomechanics” Barnhardt is working on and writes a correction to it on the professor’s blackboard (according to one contributor the character of Barnhardt was based on J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was fond of walking through the other scientists’ offices at the Manhattan Project and correcting their equations if he found something wrong with them), and eventually they work out an idea for a demonstration of the power of Klaatu’s race to enforce pacifist discipline on the earth: for one half-hour Klaatu and Gort will stop all electricity on earth, aside from hospitals and planes in flight. (Throughout the movie the aliens are shown as highly decorous and reverential towards human life; even when they’re getting shot at, Gort uses the heat ray that emanates from his visor merely to destroy the humans’ weaponry, not to kill or harm the soldiers themselves.) In a nice bit of irony, North has the blg blackout start while Klaatu and Helen Benson are in an elevator, trapping them inside for the duration.

The film’s well-known climax has the U.S. military attack the spaceship, which triggers Gort’s programming to destroy earth, only Klaatu has given Helen the stop-code — the now-famous words “Klaatu barada nikto” — and Gort gets back into the spaceship and he and the dying Klaatu return wherever it is they came from for a neat and daringly open-ended ending. Originally Edmund North had planned to have Gort bring Klaatu back to complete life after he was wounded (again) at the end — a conscious parallel to the myth of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — but movie censor Joseph Breen insisted on adding a line in which Klaatu admits the supremacy of the Christian God (“That power [of resurrection] is reserved for the Almighty Spirit”), which sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of North’s otherwise far more literate script but also — ironically — moves the story back a bit closer to its Batesian origins in making Klaatu’s revival only temporary.

The 1951 Day the Earth Stood Still holds up quite well. The special effects are pretty tacky by today’s standards (especially the final departure of the spaceship at the end) — though some shots, like the spaceship’s gangway opening up with no visible door (achieved by covering the whole thing with putty so the gate appeared to emerge mysteriously from an utterly smooth surface — likewise the appearance of seamlessness in Gort’s skin was achieved by building two Gort costumes, one laced in front and one laced in back, and having the actor who played him, 7’ 6” former Hollywood doorman Lock Martin, wear whichever one whose seams would not face the camera in each setup), still astonish. North’s script is literate, a bit talky but gripping in its audacity; and Robert Wise’s direction reveals his upbringing not only as a protégé of Val Lewton but, even before that, as an associate of Orson Welles (he and Mark Robson, also a future director, co-edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). Though the connection may be just coincidental, it’s noteworthy that North’s script begins by announcing the imminent arrival of the aliens through footage of TV newscasters (real ones of the day — Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, Gabriel Heatter — playing themselves) interrupting entertainment programming much the way Welles launched his famous radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

The film is basically quiet, thoughtful, intellectual (though not really cerebral the way Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris are) — the action sequences carry more punch because there are so few of them and they erupt so suddenly — and though there are some technical glitches (like a fast-motion shot of the crowd fleeing in panic as the spaceship opens — I’m sorry, but I associate fast-motion so totally with comedy that every time I see it I want to laugh), for the most part it’s a powerful, understated movie that makes its points (artistic and political) effectively without underlining them. It’s also got the remarkable Michael Rennie as the lead actor; like David Bowie in the 1970’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Rennie just looks otherworldly: tall, slender, bony and a bit gawky, as if still getting used to a human form on a planet with a different level of gravity from what he’s accustomed to, and speaking in a halting, rather stilted accent that also suggests an alien who has learned English (and all Earth’s other languages) from monitoring Earth’s radio and television broadcasts. Rennie got the part because after the first choice, Claude Rains, turned it down, director Wise decided he wanted an actor who wasn’t especially familiar to movie audiences and therefore would be more credible as an alien (just as Rains got his star-making role in The Invisible Man 18 years earlier, after Boris Karloff turned it down, because James Whale decided to cast someone little-known to movie audiences so they wouldn’t have a preconceived notion of what the invisible man “really” looked like).

It’s a deserved science-fiction classic (one of the handful of movies that have actually achieved something of the intellectual and moral complexity of the best written science fiction), and when I heard it was going to be remade — especially with Keanu Reeves as the star — I dreaded the thought of it becoming another barely motivated Matrix-style shoot-’em-up. Indeed, though most science-fiction fans regard the 1951 Day the Earth Stood Still as a classic, Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to the book It Came from Hollywood, lamented the changes made from Harry Bates’s source story and expressed the hope that if The Day the Earth Stood Still were ever remade, it would return to Bates’s plot. Needless to say, it didn’t — indeed, Bates isn’t even given screen credit (the writing credit for the 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still lists it as new writer David Scarpa’s adaptation of North’s original screenplay) — and the best thing I can say about the 2008 version is it’s a perfectly good science-fiction alien-visitation movie in its own right but it probably would seem better if it had been presented as an original without provoking comparisons to the classic original film (much as I thought Jean Rhys’s novel The Wide Sargasso Sea would have seemed better if she had just presented it as an 18th-century period piece instead of using the character names from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and offering it as a prequel depicting the courtship of Edward Rochester and his mad first wife).

Though nowhere near at the level of its predecessor, the 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still is actually a quite good sci-fi movie in the modern manner even if it suffers from the long shadows not only of the 1951 version but also of the Matrices, thanks to the ill-advised decision to cast Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. Not that Reeves acts the part badly — though he doesn’t look quite as weird as Michael Rennie he’s able in his own right to make us believe that he’s not only from another planet but he’s literally a newborn (in this version, Klaatu’s home planet sends out its emissaries encased in placental tissue and they’re only “born” in the form of the dominant species of the planet they’re visiting once their spaceship lands) — it’s just that it’s impossible not to think of Neo and get the idea that we’ve already seen him in this sort of role.

There are quite a few other changes, reflecting the difference between the Cold War and the War on Terror more than anything else and also the greater emancipation of women in our age, and screenwriter David Scarpa changed the evil Klaatu was sent to Earth to foil from nuclear annihilation to environmental destruction. In this version, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) isn’t a secretary; she’s a scientist, part of a group sent by agents of the Department of Homeland Security essentially to kidnap all the experts the government thinks it needs to figure out what Klaatu is, what he’s up to and how to fight it. Her son is changed into Jacob Benson (Jaden Smith), a racially ambiguous kid who isn’t actually any biological relation to her — Helen married Jacob’s dad only after his first wife, Jacob’s mom, died; then dad himself was killed in one of the U.S.’s 21st century wars (the script doesn’t specify whether it was Afghanistan or Iraq). What’s more, the Presidential advisor played by Marshall Bradford in 1951 is here changed into the Secretary of Defense, and is played by Kathy Bates in her most imperious manner — she turns in by far the best piece of acting in the film!

Much of the tension in this version comes from the same source as it did in 1951 — the scientists seeking to understand and communicate with the alien while the military just wants to blast it away — and before it cuts to the present day the new Day the Earth Stood Still has a prologue, set in India in 1928, showing a sphere-like object being opened and emitting (we only find out until reels and reels later) a previous visitor, who settles in and essentially “goes native,” turning up as an old man in 2008 and trying to talk Klaatu out of destroying the human race. Whereas in 1951 Klaatu came to earth to try to talk sense into its leaders and persuade them to disarm and give up war as a way of settling disputes lest their weaponry threaten other planets and the life-forms on them, in 2008 Klaatu comes committed to destroying the earth, but not before taking specimens of all its non-human life-forms so the earth can be repopulated after the holocaust, but exclusively with non-dangerous species.

There are also changes that seem designed more to show off today’s special-effects capabilities than because they make sense or aid in telling this story; Klaatu and Gort (whose name isn’t his own, but an Army acronym the military pins on him) arrive in spherical rather than saucer-like spaceships, they drop such craft all over the world as (essentially) arks, and when they decide to annihilate the human race after all (temporarily, before Helen talks them out of it), they do it by loosing hordes of very nasty flying insects that burrow into people’s skins and kill them. The director is someone named Scott Derrickson, who supposedly has been a long-time admirer of Robert Wise and has wanted to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still since 1993, and if his direction is functional rather than inspired, so was Wise’s. There’s nothing really wrong with the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still; it’s inevitably disappointing compared to the incandescent original, but on its own it’s a good, solid, entertaining movie with a lot less gore than you might think from the way it’s billed (the DVD contains a blurb from the Watertown Daily Times saying, “This time there’s more action, more special effects and more mayhem!” — as if those were good things), fun and even moving but without quite the same magic as the original.