The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 movie poster

 

Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few essen­tial sci­ence fic­tion movies that has lasted, over­com­ing dated spe­cial effects, act­ing styles, and the end of the Cold War (provider of sub­text for many a hor­ror story). In the com­pany of For­bid­den Planet (Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest in Space), The Blob (an inva­sive species con­sumes the pop­u­la­tion), and Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers (small­town Amer­ica suc­cumbs to the ulti­mate con­for­mity), it con­tin­ues to res­onate decades later, even being reimag­ined in 2008 as an ecoparable.

Imme­di­ately strik­ing is the dis­so­nant score by Bernard Her­rmann, of Psy­cho fame. The evoca­tive piece over the open­ing cred­its sounds just like an out­take from Brian Eno’s ambi­ent album On Land, thirty years early.

Michael Rennie as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Stillevi­dently they have Bryl­creem in space

Wise shows us humanity’s first alien con­tact through the quaint fil­ter of period radio and tele­vi­sion; rest assured, “sci­en­tists and mil­i­tary men” are on the case. Klaatu (Michael Ren­nie), a suave cau­casian humanoid male alien, and his pet robot Gort (Lock Mar­tin) park their UFO on a base­ball field on The Mall in Wash­ing­ton D.C. His polite request for an audi­ence with the United Nations goes rebuffed, for dur­ing the height of the Cold War, not even a fly­ing saucer, an alien in a sil­ver jump­suit, and a giant robot is enough to con­vince the nations of the world to sit down and talk. Klaatu’s fly­ing saucer is sur­rounded by hilar­i­ously lax secu­rity, and he is briefly taken into cus­tody before hand­ily escap­ing into the D.C. suburbs.

Klaatu has learned mid-Atlantic accented Eng­lish from radio and tele­vi­sion broad­casts, and out­wardly appears per­fectly humanoid right down to his slicked-back hair (they evi­dently have Bryl­creem in space), so all he needs to blend in with the masses is to sim­ply steal someone’s dry clean­ing. He checks into a spare room, with some shots directly quot­ing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 clas­sic The Lodger. He befriends young Bobby (Billy Gray) with­out a hint of sus­pi­cion, dat­ing the film more than any­thing else.

Klaatu tries to get his mes­sage through to a paci­fist sci­en­tist, but he’s dis­cov­ered, shot, and dies. Gort, pro­grammed to acti­vate in such an event, threat­ens to exact an unspec­i­fied vio­lence upon human­ity. But Klaatu has already taught his inter­species ladyfriend Helen (Patri­cia Neal) the robot-mollifying fail-safe code­phrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort ceases his hos­til­i­ties, and instead revives Klaatu using machin­ery on their ship. Klaatu claims his new lease on life is only for a lim­ited time, for true res­ur­rec­tion is only the domain of “the Almighty Spirit”. The remark­able fact that he believes in a God goes unre­marked upon; both he and the humans to whom he’s speak­ing sim­ply take it for granted they’re talk­ing about the same deity. This line stands out for a rea­son; the dia­logue was report­edly inserted at the request of the MPAA, who objected to Klaatu’s god­like pow­ers of res­ur­rec­tion. Fail­ing to reach the world’s lead­ers, he set­tles for the next-best thing: an assem­bled group of sci­en­tists (all, of course, white males). Mes­sage deliv­ered, he leaves Earth in a huff.

Lock Martin as Gort in the Day the Earth Stood StillKlaatu barada nikto! Don’t tase me, bro!

So, let’s recap: an oth­er­worldly vis­i­tor with a mes­sage of peace-or-else is exe­cuted, rises again, and ascends into the heav­ens. Do I have to spell it out?

But if Klaatu is anal­o­gous to Jesus, let’s take a closer look at his mes­sage. He claims Earth­lings’ war­like behav­ior is of no inter­est to the space­far­ing species of the uni­verse, as long as it’s con­tained to one planet. But the inter­stel­lar com­mu­nity is begin­ning to fear that Earth­lings are about to dis­cover inter­stel­lar travel, and they will not per­mit human­ity to bring their atomic weapons with them. Klaatu is the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of other soci­eties that have already passed through this phase, whom, unable to curb their vio­lent impulses on their own, came up with a solu­tion to police them­selves: a fleet of lethal robots pro­grammed to erad­i­cate any­one that vio­lates the truce. So they use weapons to deter the use of other weapons? What kind of mes­sage is that to a Cold War audi­ence liv­ing under the night­mare of Mutu­ally Ensured Destruc­tion? To the 21st Cen­tury viewer, the imme­di­ate worry is whether or not we could ever trust an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence with impar­tially keep­ing the peace. Indeed, whole sci­ence fic­tion fran­chises have been built upon that very theme, includ­ing 2001, Blade Run­ner, The Ter­mi­na­tor, The Matrix, and Bat­tlestar Galactica.

But per­haps I’m being too lit­eral. It’s a sim­ple movie, but is it a sim­ple anal­ogy? Is the army of Gorts a sym­bol for Earth’s nuclear arse­nal? No, because that’s exactly what Klaatu wants humans to put away. Accord­ing to The New York Times, pro­ducer Julian Blaustein “told the press [the film] was an argu­ment in favor of a ‘strong United Nations.’” But the U.N. is den­i­grated as petty and inef­fec­tive in the movie; they won’t deign to gather to merely lis­ten to Klaatu’s speech. The over­all mes­sage is very cyn­i­cal: even more advanced aliens aren’t able to curb their vio­lent impulses on their own. Klaatu is here to threaten, not save us. If we embark out into space bear­ing weapons, we’re toast.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is based on 1940 short story “Farewell to the Mas­ter” by Harry Bates. Wal­ter Tre­vis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (filmed in 1976 by Nicholas Roeg, star­ring David Bowie) shares some plot ele­ments (the alien Thomas New­ton too bears dia­monds as seed money), but veers off into another direc­tion alto­gether. New­ton has no inter­est in steer­ing humanity’s course. He’s here on a secret mis­sion to save his own peo­ple, but falls prey to his own all-too-human weaknesses.


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