September 30, 1951 [The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, The Man from Planet X]

I was relieved by Murray Leinster’s story, “First Contact”: Way out there by the Crab Nebula, we and the aliens figure out how to get home without bothering--let alone blowing up--each other.

The movies know better. The Day the Earth Stood Still does not trust us--after all, the nicest non-imperialist nation on Earth, us, had the ultimate weapon and let loose as soon as possible. And we seem unsure of our niceness, and how far it will get us, opting instead to frown and mistrust, to mistake “American” for “absolutely correct,” and to make damn sure that if you don’t believe that you must be a Red. Our options are narrowing.

Again: The Day the Earth Stood Still knows this, offers us a nice guy, a calm guy, Klaatu--and he and his friends have looked in on us and decided we can’t be trusted. And there stands Gort, the impassive robot--calm, too, calm as a ticking bomb--it’s everybody else who’s nervous--and they’d better be: One false move and its blooey! and our first contact becomes our last. Earlier this year when I went to see The Thing from Another World, that giant carrot, like a lumpy Gort, bore down on us as well. It stood there, framed by the door, the unwelcome guest--like the vampire who can't enter unless we invite him in. And we were just children, clumsy and stupid--not dangerous, not the monster. At the end we were told to keep watching the skies--but after the Earth stands still, we know we have to watch each other--because Gort is watching too, and his eye cuts deeply.

The Man from Planet X can serve as a melancholy coda for this scientifictive apocalypse. Edgar Ulmer, the low-rent Michelangelo who gave us The Black Cat, Strange Illusion and Detour, takes us to the Scottish moors--presented in miniature, both charming and unsettling--to confront the unknown: the man from out of space whose gigantic, chalk-drawn face, lit from inside his space helmet, manages to evoke both Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead, at once a spook-show and memorial. Yes, the Man from Planet X is invading--but it's because his own world is dying, and his friendly overtures were met with greed-driven brutality. He turns the locals into zombies, digging away at his trapped ship, while the military prepare to blast him--which they do, like a Méliès magic trick, in the wink of an eye and a cloud of smoke. And while the characters spend too much time announcing themselves and their actions, they get out of the way every once in a while so that Ulmer's camera can move across the little fog-swept sets he's made, his gaze drifting slowly, almost lovingly, as we foolish Earthlings make yet another bad decision.


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