The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“From Out Of Space... A Warning And An Ultimatum…”

This movie is a classic for many reasons. It is a time capsule of what the world, and especially American society, was like in the early cold war years. It is a seminal example of an early modern science fiction movie (the score is definitive). It is a bridge in director Robert Wise’s journey from directing “B Movies” (a category for which this film meets many qualifications) to many of the classics he made later.

The movie, based on a short story by Harry Bates, begins with semi-documentary style showing events and news broadcasts in many languages. The reports are abuzz with news of a “bogey” that is traveling at 4,000 miles per hour in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Eventually, what is revealed as a space vehicle from another planet lands at a set of baseball fields in Washington DC. While tension mounts among the people of Earth, for two hours no one comes forth from the apparently offworld vehicle. Crowds gather and the US government positions military troops around the space ship.

Eventually a helmeted being emerges from the interplanetary craft. His first words are “We have come to visit you in peace and with good will.” He takes an object from inside his garment and extends it toward the crowd. A shot fired by a soldier injures the space visitor and damages the object he offered. A large robotic figure comes from inside the space craft. Its visor rises and a ray flashes from underneath vaporizing a tank and heavy artillery piece which confronted the space craft.

The first figure, the one shot by a soldier, speaks to the robot which seems to stop his action. He also states that the object which he held out was to be a gift to the President with which he “could have studied life on the other planets.” The injured alien is ordered taken to Walter Reed hospital by a military commander arriving in a jeep.

At the hospital the President’s Secretary Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy) arrives to speak with the interplanetary visitor. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), who no longer wears his helmet, exchanges greetings with Mr. Harley, and expresses a desire to meet with representatives of all the nations of the Earth. He has a message to deliver to the people of Earth, which he claims will affect the future of the planet. Mr. Harley is “dubious” about his chance of success at getting the message out, but agrees to take the next steps.

TV and newsreel coverage of the spacecraft and robot continue. Investigators are perplexed by the alien technology. On the other hand, according to medical examinations of Klaatu, he appears to be a normal human, with the exception of his amazingly good health and longevity. When Mr. Harvey returns to Klaatu to discuss the disappointing results of his efforts, they have this exchange: Mr. Harley: “Your impatience is understandable.” Klaatu: “I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” Mr. Harley: “I'm afraid my people haven't.” As Klaatu looks out the hospital window he sees common people and decides that he should speak with them. Mr. Harley asks him not to attempt to leave the hospital, the military insists. Klaatu smiles to himself.

So begin Klaatu’s efforts to deliver his message. After rather easily escaping the hospital, he meets Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), as well as her boyfriend Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) and renowned scientist Prof. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). They give him a representative sampling of humanity, both good and bad. That should be enough to whet your curiosity.

I won’t give Klaatu’s most important message here. However, this movie is the source of the famous expression “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” I will say this much about the important message for the people of Earth: Klaatu’s civilization has identified the root of what must be disallowed in relationships. Violence and aggression between people must be reduced and if possible eliminated. That is the gist of what he has come to convey and the movie does a fair job of demonstrating the truth of that idea. Although the solution used by Klaatu’s people is simplistic, and almost certainly unworkable, it does reflect what many people in the 1950’s believed might be possible through science in the future. What this movie also shows, perhaps inadvertently, is that the United Nations is a useless institution; and that, in general, States create far more problems than they solve, assuming they solve any at all.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic science fiction movie with a fine message of peace. It has great direction, good acting and an archetypal 1950’s SF musical score. Though some of the 1950s science fiction may no longer be very believable, the movie has aged quite well and I recommend it highly. Although the cold war of old is over, the new “war on terrorism,” and other wars on abstractions offer many of the same problems. I expect that there will long continue to be valuable insights in this movie available to the discerning viewer.

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