I saw The Day The Earth Stood Still yesterday, and I actually really enjoyed it! I’d never seen the original (though it’s now wallowing around the 200s in my Netflix queue) so I couldn’t be enraged by any deviations from that version. I thought maybe Helen would enrage me, being one of only two female characters and all, but she was actually pretty cool!
Helen kind of exists just to show how nice and good humanity is, but somehow, despite that, she ends up being a rather strong character in her own right. I really related to her and even admired her. Usually with this kind of plot the woman saves everything by just being really good and lovable, but Helen doesn’t fall into that trap. When she wants to prove to Klaatu that humanity is not just its paranoid military, when she wants to show him that we are worth saving, she doesn’t try to kiss him, or give some kind of sappy speech about the power of love. She takes him to meet a Nobel Prize winner!
This is cool because, 1, it means she’s the kind of person who hangs out with Nobel Prize winners (she’s got the smarts!), and 2, it means she’s the kind of person who values more than just sentimentality. I don’t want to say that she’s not all emotional like all those other silly wimminz, because I think it’s an unfortunate patriarchal paradigm that condemns the showing of emotion, and specifically condemns the showing of emotion because it’s a female trait and nobody wants to be a gurl. However, it frustrates me when characters in movies can’t point out anything of value in humanity other than ill-defined concepts of “love.” The movie still ended up going with the whole “you are capable of such destruction but also paradoxically such triumph” thing, but I’m okay with that– mostly because it was a thought process prompted by said Nobel Prize winner, and completed not by a romantic show of love, but by Helen and her step-son reaching out to each other and helping each other heal.
Actually, that bears fleshing out. It really, really helps that there’s no romantic subplot anywhere in this movie, in terms of keeping Helen characterized as a brilliant adult as opposed to a fawning woman. I’m not opposed to romance (when it’s really romantic, like, without any stalking or lying. I’m looking at you, rom coms!) but often when a woman in involved in a romantic subplot she becomes harder for me to believe in as a full character. Is this because this kind of plot positions her as belonging to another, more important male character? Or is it because I’m falling into the fallacy of romance = girly = not important? I think it must be the first, since it doesn’t always get in the way– only when it’s done poorly, and against the character’s, well, character. In this case they sidestepped even the possibility of a poorly-done romance by cutting out the romance entirely, something I kind of wish more movies would do. I know it’s a really easy way to add minutes but I’d like to see more explosions, please!
(This movie did a pretty good job of delivering on the explosions and technobabble and such too, by the way. I’m just focusing on Helen right now.)
Really the reason I’m so pleased is that Helen always acts like, and is treated like, a Real Scientist. Our very first scene is her teaching some bright young students astrobiology, totally confident and in control, dispensing pearls of wisdom to her class. Even though she’s the only female scientist they call upon (boo!) she really holds her own in the conversations, and she acts professionally, and everyone takes her seriously. She always introduces herself as Dr. Helen Benson, and people call her Dr. Benson unless they have an actual reason to call her Helen (which is to say, a more personal relationship). Coolest moment: when they’re doing surgery on Klaatu, and the surgeon takes a sample of his skin, she just calmly says, “I’ll want a sample too.” And they just set one aside for her. She asserts her authority, and they acknowledge it. That’s really the most notable thing for me, here: other characters acknowledge her intelligence and treat her with the appropriate respect. She’s not sciencey because it makes her a better prize for the hero, she’s just legitimately smart.
There are two other interesting female characters as well (only one with a name)– Regina Jackson, the woman who is the eyes and ears (and mouth) of the president for the duration of the crisis, and about whom I don’t have much to say. And then, not really a “character,” but a nameless soldier with two lines:
Guardswoman: [Catching Helen with a cellphone after they had been forbidden] Ma’am. Is that a cell phone?
Helen Benson: Yes…
Guardswoman: [Tearfully] May I borrow it?
Honestly, I loved this soldier for the same reasons I loved Helen. She was in a position of authority, and the text recognized her right to have that authority (she seriously worried Helen in the beginning!) but she was also an interesting and complex human without being “weak.” I mean, she’s not at her strongest here, because she thinks Manhattan is about to be destroyed by an asteroid and she wants to warn her family to get out of town, but it’s not some kind of womanly frailty. It’s the human response to “we’re all going to die.” I sympathized with her and respected her and even though with was a ridiculously short scene, it remains one of my favourites (along with the “I’ll want a sample” scene). Bonus: she’s a woman of color!
I was a little amused by the “happy” ending, in the sense that most dystopian sci fi starts with the sudden and complete eradication of technology. I couldn’t help thinking, what about planes that are currently in the air? Scientists in the Antarctic? People with pacemakers? But I’ll accept that it’s better than the complete eradication of humankind, and revel in the unexpectedly feminist respect for women that the film showed. I mean, it’s science fiction! And yet it respected its female characters, and even passed the Bechdel test. Amazing.