If you were asked to name a few of the great science fiction film directors, some answers would immediately spring to mind. Stanley Kubrick, perhaps, or George Lucas, or James Cameron. To that list you could also add Paul Verhoeven, Andrei Tarkovsky or the mischievously creative Terry Gilliam.
One name that doesn’t necessarily get brought up all that much in sci-fi conversations is Robert Wise. An American filmmaker who began as an editor of music and film at RKO (he won an Oscar for his editing work on Citizen Kane), Wise’s varied career took in hit musicals (West Side Story, The Sound Of Music), horror (The Body Snatcher, The Haunting), comedies, thrillers and war films.
That Wise turned his hand to so many genres, and tended to win awards for his musicals (he won Best Director and Best Picture for both West Side Story and The Sound Of Music) meant that his sci-fi films were often eclipsed. But The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) were among the best movies he ever made. The first two are among the best SF films to emerge from America, while his Star Trek film, although divisive, still looks stunning today.
Here’s a look at each of those films in turn, which will hopefully serve as a reminder that Wise should be remembered on the long list of great sci-fi directors.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
There’s an almost naive simplicity to The Day The Earth Stood Still‘s story, but therein lies its almost timeless appeal. A flying saucer lands in the middle of Washington, and from it emerges a gaunt, elegant alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie in silver space suit). Alongside him stands Gort, a shiny robot armed with a energy ray capable of melting human weapons into nothingness.
Klaatu comes with a dire message for our species: mend our warlike ways – particularly our tendency to build atomic weapons – or forces elsewhere in the universe will destroy us for their own protection. Needless to say, Klaatu doesn’t exactly have an easy time getting his statement across, which leads him to put on a demonstration of his powers, resulting in the ‘day the earth stood still’ of the title.
Michael Rennie is magnificent as the atomic-age messiah at the film’s centre – he provides a melancholy performance, as his character tries to reason with a warlike planet that insists on shooting at him despite his the peaceful nature of his mission. Then there’s the design, which ranges from the clean, minimal lines of Klaatu’s space craft – which is both typical of the flying saucers of the 1950s and also curiously modern looking – to the wonderful Gort. Okay, so he might not look all that convincing to a generation raised on cutting-edge CGI, but he’s still one of the most distinctive robots of the era, and his silence, shuffling gait and raw destructive power make him quite an ominous presence.
An unusually thoughtful, dramatic and well-made sci-fi film from an era of larger-than-life invaders and radiation-enhanced monsters, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a classic of its kind. Plus, it gave the world one of the first catchphrases in sci-fi cinema: “Klaatu barada nikto” – the three little words that bring Gort to heel, and have popped up in the movies from time to time ever since.
The Day The Earth Stood Still was remade in 2008, and starred Keanu Reeves. For the full anti-war sci-fi effective, be sure to check out the 1951 original.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Writer Michael Crichton had a rare gift for spinning disaster scenarios from scientific scenarios, whether it was robots running amok in Westworld (which he also directed), nanotechnology running amok in Prey, or dinosaurs running amok in Jurassic Park.
In 1971, Wise directed an adaptation of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, and for this writer, it remains one of the most chilling nightmare scenarios the author ever concocted – largely because it’s so utterly plausible. An alien virus breaks out in a small New Mexico town, an a small group of scientists, holed up in an underground laboratory, are pitched into a race against time to find a way to stop it spreading.
What makes The Andromeda Strain so compelling – and relatively unusual – is the realism Wise devotes to his subject matter. Although uniformly strong, the cast isn’t studded with big-name stars. Instead, there’s nothing familiar to hang on to, and we’re forced to immerse ourselves in the pressure cooker-like suspense: rarely has a film where scientists perform experiments and talk to one another about their theories been so engrossing.
All of this builds to a quite thrilling climax, which sees the already claustrophobic lab become a pallid, laser beam-defended prison. It has to be said that Michael Crichton has fared better than most authors when it comes to adaptations of his work. By no means as colorful and crowd-pleasing as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain is nevertheless intelligent, disquieting and entirely thrilling.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
This debut theatrical outing for the crew of the Enterprise divides fans even today, but for this writer, it’s well acted, atmospheric and beautifully-shot. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the best-looking Star Trek film released so far, with Douglas Trumbull-created visual effects that still hold up 35 years later.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture sees James T. Kirk and his compatriots head off to investigate a cloud of dangerous energy that threatens to engulf the Earth. On closer inspection, the cloud is revealed to be controlled by an artificially intelligent being named V’Ger, which makes a robotic clone of a crew member, Ilia (a mesmerizing-looking Persis Khambatta) and explains that it’s looking for its creator…
At well over two hours, Wise’s film is undeniably lengthy, deathly serious, and perhaps wasn’t what audiences were looking for after the fantastical levity of Star Wars two years earlier. In its defence, The Motion Picture has some relentlessly eye-popping set designs (which, it has to be said, cost an absolute bloody fortune to build), and some superb cinematogrpahy from Richard H Kline, who previously worked with Wise on The Andromeda Strain. What I really like about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, though, is that in its best moments, it genuinely feels as though the crew’s encountering something alien and unknowable. In this respect, Wise’s film is an admirable expansion of the television series’ ethos, in that it was about a group of people seeking out new worlds and expanding humanity’s understanding of the universe.
With 1982’s The Wrath Of Khan, the burgeoning Star Trek film franchise moved into more action-packed (and, with a budget of $11.2 million versus an eye-watering $46 million, less expensive) territory, which is also a brilliant film. But there’s something about Star Trek: The Motion Picture that lingers in the mind, despite its flaws – not least its depiction of a mysterious entity waiting out there in the depths of space.
After The Motion Picture, Wise dipped out of the sci-fi genre and never returned; his last theatrically-released film was the little-seen dance-infused drama Rooftops, released in 1989. But in a career that spanned from 1934 to the year 2000 (he directed one last TV movie before he passed away in 2005) and took in an incredible array of genres and textures, his science fiction films remain among the best of his work. Klaatu barada nikto indeed.