Reviews: The Magic Lantern: Fixing The 27th Day

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail

By Adam-Troy Castro

27THDAYUSHALFSHT
Exists there a movie that cries out for a remake more than The 27th Day (1957)?

You probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

It is likely that few people reading these words knows that there was ever an original science fiction film by that title, let alone that in its own small way it was one of the more interesting movies of the first SF film boom. Forbidden Planet is still remembered, This Island Earth is still remembered, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still remembered, and The Incredible Shrinking Man is still remembered. But The 27th Day, a substantially more flawed film, has not survived the passage of time nearly as well, in part because it was so profoundly tethered to the politics of its era and in part because — truth to tell — it falls dramatically short of its potential.

It is not a great movie. It is a movie that feels like it should be great, because it asks such pressing questions before it surrenders to banality in providing its answers.

It is also that rarity, a story that would actually benefit from being re-imagined every generation or so, to reflect everything we’ve learned (or forgotten) about ourselves in the interim. Changes in global geopolitik since 1957 — or, more accurately, how we perceive it — actually open up the story to different problems, different challenges, different solutions, and most likely a different ending. A new The 27th Day, made by parties interested in using it more than an excuse to string action scenes together, could really be something. The near-certainty that if somebody did make a new movie of this title based on the germ of the 1957 idea, it would instead be an exercise in things blowing up (to prevent bigger things from blowing up), is immaterial; we’re not talking about the movie that would probably be made, but the movie that could be made.

Based on a novel of the same title by John Mantley, who provided the screenplay, the original The 27th Day is a cold-war thriller in which humanoid aliens abduct five random human beings, from various places around our beleaguered globe, and present them with a problem.

It seems that the aliens are fleeing a nova that is about to destroy their planet and are desperate need of a new place to live. All their exploration of the universe has uncovered only one, ours, that fits their needs. They have been watching us long enough to know that we’re not into sharing, not even with each other. Indeed, we horrify them.

But these are not the war-hungry, genocidal creatures of Independence Day or Edge of Tomorrow or any number of similar, explosion-driven invasions. These are effete types who don’t want to get their own hands dirty. They are too civilized, themselves, to just wipe us out in order to claim our real estate.

So they have come up with a way to leave it to fate, and our own brutal natures.

Each of the five abducted human beings will be handed a container that can only be opened by them. It contains an ultimate weapon that can be used by anyone once the containers are opened. The weapon consists of three capsules, bombs really, capable of destroying all human life within a 3000-mile radius. The wielders of the capsules are empowered to send these capsules, at will, to any spot on the planet, naturally including the homelands of ancestral or current enemies; in toto, they are capable of destroying virtually all human life on the planet.

27th-day

The aliens are betting that these five people will not be able to resist either their own worst impulses, or the pressure they will surely be put under by their own respective governments, to commence an exchange that will eradicate all human civilization. The capsules will become inert in 27 days. At that point, if the fatal temptation has been resisted, the aliens will leave and embrace their own extinction.

Returned to their respective regions of the world, will the chosen five resist the temptation?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a premise that does everything science fiction is supposed to do. I’m serious. This cuts to the heart of what we are and what we’re about, contrasting our base natures with our noble potential. It asks the big questions and then sets about — clumsily — answering them. In 1957, it was a way of confronting the doom we all faced, with the Americans and Soviets pointing missiles at one another; in 2015, it would be about that and also about the terrorism and also about the hatreds so endemic in our species that there are any number of people willing to blow themselves up as long as they take a few others with them. It’s a splendid thought-experiment, splendidly posed, and the key reason why it deserves to be remade is not just that we’re now facing a different sort of powder keg, but that the perspective of ensuing decades now shows us a number of ways in which the first movie iteration fails the premise.

We can start with the skewed ethnic sample. Back in 1957, the aliens pick four white people and one Chinese woman, Su Tan. One of the white people is a young English woman, Evelyn Wingate. One is an American reporter named Jonathan Clark, conveniently of an appropriate age to eventually be matched with Evelyn, as platonic love interest. There’s a German physicist, Klaus Bechner, and a Soviet soldier (not a bad sort, really), Ivan Godofsky. Four white people, two of whom speak English as a native language. A third, Bechner, speaks it with only a slight accent. The ensuing conflict will all come from the case in Godofsky’s hands, which (though he commendably tries to hide it), does after considerable torture wind up in the hands of the Soviet Premier, a thorough nogoodnik who cannot wait for his opportunity to fire his three capsules at three equidistant places in the continental United States, leaving only a few isolated slivers untouched.

 So the set-up is simplistic, just to start with. Four of the five human beings are not at all tempted to use the ultimate power they’ve been handed. The fifth doesn’t want to use his capsules either but is forced to give them up to a tyrant who does. Get rid of that tyrant (as the film eventually does, via a cheat that gives the capsules a previously unannounced second function), and all barriers to world peace fall; the aliens are invited to stay with us as cherished neighbors, and the only thing the end of the movie lacks is a rousing chorus of Kumbaya.

The other major problem with the film, to today’s eyes, is that it’s awfully male. Su Tan, who’s already lost her family at the time she’s drafted into this game, commits a sad lonely suicide rather than bear the responsibility. So much for the film’s only non-white. Evelyn just as quickly tosses her capsules into the ocean. So much for both women. So, yeah, maybe this does show that ladies have more sense than men; but it also renders Evelyn, the only surviving woman, a passive observer to everything that follows. And the story is again reduced to a clash of white men, with only one real aggressor, the Soviet Premier who, as played by Stefan Schnabel, does everything but strangle puppies on-screen to establish what a dirty rotten slavering no-goodnik he really is.

So what you get, really, with that 1957 version, is a profound question asked in the most simplistic terms imaginable.

 It’s not terrible, especially by the standards of most of the era’s filmed science fiction. Gene Barry, who plays Clark, is a fine if bland protagonist; it’s fun to watch him go to ground with Evelyn, just as it’s fun to watch George Voskovec, best known to today’s audiences as the immigrant member of the Twelve Angry Men (1960), as the brilliant physicist who eventually comes up with the film’s deus ex machina. It’s well-written and well-performed, as well as it goes. But its failures all stand at the conceptual level.

So let us perform some story editing as we design our hypothetical remake.

First, let us remove the element that allows the recipients of the cannisters to just kill themselves, or throw their unwelcome burden into the ocean. Let us say that even if you’re sensible enough to want no part of this awesome responsibility, you’re not allowed to opt out by either of those two methods — because it’s a given that the world will be substantially destabilized in those 27 days and that the test requires even you to weather the stresses of that time. This not only intensifies the interpersonal dynamics but also prevents the peaceable types from not being movers and shapers of all the dramatics that follow.

Second, limit the number of white English speakers to, at most, two. (One would be more appropriate, really, but I’ll accept two, if it makes the movie easier to write.) Make sure the five come somewhat closer to reflecting an accurate cross-section of humanity.

Third, though you can have an affluent character, pick most of your protagonists from inhabitants of the most troubled, war-torn, heartbreaking regions of the globe.

Give us somebody who’s starving.

Give us a prisoner in solitary confinement for years at a time.

Give us a young girl who’s been sex-trafficked.

Give us somebody in a refugee camp.

Give us a young boy who’s been forced to become a child soldier.

Give us a young man whose country has been torn apart by war and who has been having everybody tell him that the United States is Satan.

Give us a girl who’s facing a hundred lashes for allowing her veil to slip.

Give us somebody who’s become a refugee from countries torn apart by drug traffickers.

Give us somebody who’s spent his whole life being brutalized in some North Korean political prison, because one of his parents rolled a cigarette from a newspaper without realizing that the opposite side featured a photograph of one of that country’s hereditary rulers; somebody who’s been educated to believe that daily beatings, forced labor, subsistence diets and random executions at the whim of the guards is normal, but who has learned from his brief visit to an alien spacecraft that the world and indeed the universe is greater than he was ever allowed to imagine.

Give us somebody from some undeveloped country, whose horizons are small and who has little understanding of anything that exists from outside his personal experience.

 Pick your five from people like this, or others whose problems are similarly rooted in our deepest failures as a species, and then, then — this is key — don’t write them out of the story early, as Su Tan was written out early. Give them equal weight. Present us with the stresses they face, personal and political, as they reach deep within themselves to resist doing what, in many cases, everybody around them will be pressuring them to do.

Cut back and forth between one story and another.

Then show us how our five resist temptation for the full 27 days before the capsules to become inert, and how this affects all of humanity’s prospects.

Yes, it is more likely than one or another of them will succumb to hatred, but the inevitability of that conclusion is precisely what would render it a lesser story. Spare us no details of the troubles they would face, but illustrate why we as human beings can rise above the worst. The closer the film gets to capturing an unflinching snapshot of the state of humanity today, the more that conclusion means.

Granted, the resulting film might also be woefully tough to watch. It would be a million light years from care-free escapism; it would be nobody’s idea of light-hearted summer film. It is indeed questionable whether audiences would be willing to put themselves through it… and the biggest difficulty would lie in being able to make it at all, without the end result being either as insultingly reductivist as the 1957 version, or so earnest and self-important and dull that the good intentions become buried in a swamp of pretension. I don’t want Michael Bay to make this movie. But I’m pretty sure we don’t want {name your own choice of most ponderously self-involved} movie-maker to get his hands on it either. It’s a tightrope, no question.

 But you don’t get to ask the big questions with care-free romps, do you?

 I know I’d buy a ticket.

~~~

Adam-Troy Castro’s next piece of short fiction will be the novella “Sleeping Dogs,” set for the July/August issue of Analog.

In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *