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Friday, April 4, 2008

Stranger from Venus

Somewhat unfairly, this movie is sometimes called a cheap knock-off of The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51). Actually, this low-budget British movie does have a little life of its own. It's more of an offshoot than simply a low-budget remake. There are many similarities, one of which is inescapable -- having Patricia Neal as the female lead. But there are several differences too. These are noted in the Notes section below, but overall, the basic plot premise is the same. A stranger comes from outer space, hoping to deliver a message to the leaders of earth. "Be very careful with this nuclear power thing you've just invented. You're about to become a menace to other planets." This remake was done with almost no special effects and barely anything that could pass for action. It would not be hard, at all, to imagine Stranger from Venus (SFV) as a stage play set mostly in the inn's lobby. Nonetheless, the result goes down a few alleys that The Day the Earth Stood Still did not.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Amid some reports of a UFO, a stranger arrives at a rural English inn. He has odd behavior, but otherwise looks normal. The ship that dropped him off caused a woman's car to crash (bright lights blinded her), but he has miraculous healing powers, so she survives unhurt. The stranger (who never does give a name) finally tells everyone (about six people) that he is there to prepare the way for messengers from the planet Venus. Everyone believes him, more or less. The woman, Susan, (played by Patricia Neal) has a fiancee who is a bureaucrat. The government cordons off the area so that no one can get in to find out more, or get out to tell what they've seen. This way, the rest of the country is kept ignorant. The government conspires to capture the returning Venusian ship when it comes to pick up the Stranger and deliver the official messengers. They hope to learn of the advanced technology for their own nationalist benefits. Meanwhile, the stranger and Susan begin to have feelings for each other. The meeting with British officials did not go well, as he can read minds and knows of their duplicity. They lay out a magnetic trap to disable the ship when it lands. The stranger warns them that any foul play will mean the mother ship will simply destroy all life on the earth. Susan's scheming fiancee redeems himself by returning the stranger's stolen communication device. The stranger warns off the ship just in time to prevent its capture, but this also strands him on the earth where he cannot stay alive much longer. The movie closes with him sitting alone by a pond, fingering Susan's scarf lovingly. The camera looks away, and then back. He's gone. (Venusians just vanish when they die). The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing a remake of TDESS is fun, if only to see what the writers kept from the original story, and what they changed. Patricia Neal's performance is not remarkable, but her playing the female lead (again) gives the remake a kinship to TDESS.

Cold War Angle
As in TDESS, the message is that nuclear arms are a huge threat. Mankind is being told to step back from the brink before it's too late. That feeling that the world was teetering on the edge was quite pervasive in the 50s. Movies which dealt with this brink had a resonance with audiences.

Notes
What's the Same? -- What did SFV have that TDESS did too? A stranger who comes to earth to deliver a warning about mankind's reckless nuclear ambitions. He's mild, kindly, though a bit stoic. He's a healer. He and the female lead develop a bond. The earth risks destruction if it misbehaves. Earth men are an untrustworthy bunch. The stranger cannot stay.

What's New? -- In SFV, there is no robot like Gort (or any robot at all). The stranger is not really the official messenger, but a mere landing coordinator. (He still delivers the message anyway, though) He doesn't die and come back to life. He actually develops a romantic interest in Patricia Neal (they kiss), rather than the purely platonic relationship between Klaatu and Neal. The stranger came from a specific place we've heard of. The stranger doesn't leave on the ship. The ship leaves him, stranded on a world in which he cannot survive for long.

Asteroids' Secret Revealed -- One interesting bit from SFV is that the Stranger says the asteroid belt is actually the debris from a planet whose civilization failed to heed the Venusian's warnings and continued to play fast and loose with weapons of mass destruction. SFV is clearly in the cautionary tale sub-genre. Planet Earth, don't let this happen to YOU!

Budding Conspiracy -- The cultural notion that governments were covering up the truth of UFOs was gaining traction. In SFV, the area around the stranger's landing site is sealed off by the British government. No info in, no info out. In the movies we've seen thus far, governments (usually through the military) will take charge of an alien landing situation, as in TDESS, or Invaders from Mars ('53), but there had been no attempt to cover it up. SFV may be one of the first movies to depict government as controlling and suppressing the truth about an alien landing. This is a notable shift for "government" from protector to conspirator.

Faint Christ -- Where Klaatu was a much stronger allegory for Jesus, (see notes on TDESS, 1951), the Stranger has only a few of those traits. This weakens the character noticeably. The addition of the understated romantic link moves the Stranger character further from Christ model (unless you subscribe to that Jesus and Mary theory). Unlike the Christ-like resurrection and departure to the heavens which Klaatu had at the end, the Stranger is left behind to die. The writers may have approached the Jesus analogy from the other side of the coin. The TDESS writers focused on the deity side. Christ rises from the dead and goes up into the heavens. In SFV, the writers may have focused on the humanity side of Jesus. Christ suffers death as a man to save others.

Bottom line? SFV is an extremely low-budget film with almost zero special effects. If you like lots of rockets or saucers or creepy aliens or explosions, SFV will frustrate or bore you. There is a LOT of standing around and talking. However, if you liked TDESS for its premise, SFV may interest you as an exploration of paths TDESS did not take.

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