Science Fiction on the Big Screen

Brent Staples recently had a brilliant essay on the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in The New York Times: “Klaatu Had Better Rent the Video.”

Klaatu and Gort depart
Klaatu and Gort depart

He not only compared the movie unfavorably to its predecessor — though he was gentler than most of the reviewers — he got at the heart of what’s wrong with science fiction movies in general:

Digital effects have revolutionized the monster, science-fiction and superhero genres, making the films larger than ever visually. But the same effects have whittled away at the acting space, making the movies smaller in the dramatic sense.

Exactly. The original of The Day the Earth Stood Still has very cheesy special effects. In my story “The English Major’s Revenge” (still available here on BVC), a respectful homage to the movie, I describe the aliens’ ship like this:

It looked like one of those aluminum covers they use in Chinese restaurants. Silver colored, with slanted sides and a large flat top.

But it’s still one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Sure, we have aliens who pose a threat to the Earth, but instead of representing mindless evil a la the creatures in the derivative and silly Independence Day, these aliens are a danger to Earth because Earth is a danger to the rest of the Universe.

The movie, released in 1951 as the Cold War was becoming very icy, and based on Harry Bates’s story, “Farewell to the Master,” published in Astounding at the beginning of World War II, makes us ask questions about ourselves and the violence that marks our society. And that’s one of the things good science fiction should do.

Watching the original of The Day the Earth Stood Still — especially in light of current events — I find myself thinking that the response of human beings to the unknown continues to be “blow it up.” That makes exciting movies, but it’s not a very sane or civilized reaction. The original movie makes us think about that — though the fact that the civilized beings of the universe mean to destroy humans in response provides scope for another discussion on the subject.

Staples’s description of Michael Rennie’s portrayal of Klatu turns our ideas of “aliens” on its head:

Rennie’s Klaatu is God-fearing, emotionally sophisticated, superior to but indistinguishable from the earthlings among whom he walks. That’s an open-minded characterization at the start of a decade dominated by red-baiting and fear of outlanders in general.

Staples writes editorials for The Times. He’s got a PhD in psychology and has written a memoir, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. He doesn’t write science fiction or make movies. But he understands what science fiction is about.

Sure would be nice if The Times editorial department would lend Staples to the book review section from time to time. They could use a reviewer who recognizes and respects good science fiction.

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Science Fiction on the Big Screen — 5 Comments

  1. How hard is it to write a creative, original science fiction story? They have all of these great effects to make anyones dreams come true, why do they just rehash old dreams? Even when they come up with something new, 9 times out of 10 its mindless rubbish.

  2. Personally, I think it’s because too many people in the movie business don’t really respect science fiction. They’ve typed it as escapist junk and make movies accordingly.

    I don’t think it’s all that easy to write a creative, original SF story, but plenty of fine writers have done so, and some of those stories would adapt nicely into a movie. We’re not getting bad movies — and even worse, bad remakes — out of a dearth of good material.

  3. I have a long list of classic stories and novels that would make fine movies, and none of them are massive trilogies. How about Clarke’s A FALL OF MOONDUST — limited sets on the trapped shuttle vessel should keep down the costs. Vance’s MOON MOTH meanwhile obviously cries out to be a musical, either on stage or on screen.

  4. My friend Hank points out the Roger Ebert review, a quote from which is

    [Keanu Reaves] is so solemn, detached and uninvolved he makes Mr. Spock look like Hunter S. Thompson at closing time. When he arrives at a momentous decision, he announces it as if he has been rehearsing to say: ‘Yes, one plus one equals two. Always has, always will.’

    Made me laugh; I thought you might enjoy it.

    — Vonda