‘Day the Earth Stood Still,’ as prescient as ever, screens at Sebastiani

Movies about the end of the world are never more popular than when we are most frightened that the world may truly be about to end. The pattern reaches back to the beginning of motion pictures, and forward to this summer’s “Independence Day 2.” The scariest apocalypse movies frequently occur during the most unsettled and fear-filled periods of our collective history.

It was in the early years of the Cold War that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was released.

A critical and box office sensation in 1951, the film is now considered to be among the better examples of the genre. There are many who would put it at the top of the list. Having survived the insult of a botched remake in 2008, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is returning to Earth for a one-night-only screening at the Sebastiani Theater, Monday, May 5, 7 p.m. If, for no other reason than to cleanse our palate of that bad-tasting Keanu Reeves version, the Sebastiani Theater Foundation is screening the sci-fi classic as part of its popular monthly Vintage Film Series.

The film begins – as the best alien invasion films do – with the landing of a flying saucer. Piloted by the gentle space diplomat Klaatu (Michael Rennie), with his towering robot bodyguard Gort (the 7-foot-tall Lock Martin), the spacecraft lands in Washington D.C., where Klaatu is immediately shot by one of the nervous soldiers who surround the ship. Confined to a hospital, Klaatu eventually escapes. After interacting with various people while using the name John Carpenter, Klaatu ultimately ends up back in Washington, where he finally delivers an ultimatum from an alliance of peace-loving planets. The message: if the people of Earth don’t immediately cease waging war on each other, the entire planet will be obliterated.

Oddly, the film was considered a feel-good story, since it hinted that we might actually be capable of declaring world-wide peace. A subplot involving Klaatu’s friendship with a single mother (Patricia Neal) and her son allows the mysterious visitor to witness the best parts of human potential: love, kindness and generosity.

Coming at a time when the echoes of WWII were still ringing in the memories of the nation, and the shockwaves from Hiroshima and rapid nuclear escalations between the U.S. and Russia were giving the world nightmares, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” worked on numerous levels. It certainly mirrored the hopes and fears of a country on edge. It also contained a not-so-subtle religious allegory.

The film is, after all, a fable about a Christ-like visitor – “John Carpenter” has the same initials as Jesus Christ - who brings a message of peace, performs miracles, and is strongly opposed by soldiers, politicians and world leaders who react to his arrival with fear and violence.

The film was directed by Robert Wise (who would go on to direct “The Sound of Music” “The Andromeda Strain,” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”), and featured a canny collaboration with visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the look of Klaatu’s spacecraft. The score by Bernard Herrmann was among the first to use electric violins and cellos, and the first science fiction film to incorporate the theremin, an electronic instrument emitting eerie, high-pitched “music.” Thanks to Herrmann and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the music of the theremin would become the quintessential 1950s sci-fi sound.

One could argue that the world is far less safe today than when Robert Wise’s gutsy masterpiece first drew audiences together 65 years ago.

Apocalypse movies are as popular as ever, and the world-wide devastation they depict has grown more graphic and terrifying as the special-effects that portray them grow more advanced. Whether such horrors will be enough to force the kind of culture-wide internal reflection intended by “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is impossible to predict, however.

The world could end one day, in spite of everything.

Till then – one last time, anyway – we can at least gather in the dark once more, “safe” within the Sebastiani Theater, joining together to re-experience one of the greatest films about the end of the world ever made on the planet Earth.

Contact David at

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