Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Attention people of Earth! If you are reading this on September 18, 2021 then it is the 70th anniversary of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film tells the story of a humanoid alien named Klaatu who visits Earth during the Cold War on a mission to save the planet from destruction. It was directed by Robert Wise who would go on to win Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for West Side Story and The Sound of Music and would also direct Sci Fi films The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
His iconic 1951 movie is arguably the best of the golden age of 50s Sci Fi and also arguably one of the greatest Sci fi films ever. But I have a confession to make—I never watched it before yesterday. Now before you vaporise me, I had been planning to watch it but just hadn’t got around to it. A thousand apologies. But hey, a 70th anniversary is as great a time as any. So with a flying saucer-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s revisit (or, for me, visit) The Day the Earth Stood Still in 4 blasts:
Blast #1 The Day
The first act of this movie is just so impactful. We begin with the first sounds of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliantly creepy and otherworldly score (man 50s Sci Fi loved that theremin) and we knew that we were in for something special. And we jump right into it with a flying saucer coming into Earth’s orbit and everybody losing their minds. I loved how effort was made to show the world (well, a few countries) responding to the news. This is The Day the EARTH Stood Still and not just America, so I appreciated that touch. And while the sequence of seeing news reports from around the world reacting to a single event would become a trope (and parodied impressively in Airplane!) I suspect this was one of the earliest uses.
The saucer, brought to life with some very solid visual effects, lands in an open area in Washington, DC, and the US Army and a bunch of looky-loos immediately surround it. The image of the ship opening and Klaatu in his space suit emerging is instantly iconic. And the scene itself is superbly tense and riveting, a tension only heightened by Herrmann’s masterful score. He introduces himself as coming “in peace and goodwill” but he gets cut short after a trigger-happy soldier assumes the device he is pulling out is a weapon (it does look like a space weapon, in his defence) and shoots him. Then the towering robot Gort emerges and he just vaporises all the army’s weapons in quick fashion. I don’t care if you’re five or 50, that is one of the coolest scenes ever! It all combines to a powerful start to this Sci Fi tale.
Blast #2 A Man For All Planets
In the second act we get to meet the man (or the alien actually) under the space suit. And can we just talk about how ridiculously good Michael Rennie was as Klaatu? Let’s do that. He imbues the character with an ageless wisdom and an almost childlike fascination, as well as a cold, calculating manner and a charming warmth. This has to be one of the best alien performances I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot.
All Klaatu wants to do is deliver a message to the world’s leaders but the President’s Secretary Mr Harley tells him that ain’t gonna happen. On the one hand, placing all the world’s leaders in the same room with a potentially dangerous alien is definitely not the smartest move and this would be compounded by the level of distrust during the Cold War. But it is also believable that fear and bureaucracy would mean that the situation would play out similarly today. Maybe a zoom meeting would be the best move?
Blast #3 Going Native
Klaatu then says “screw this” and escapes from Walter Reed Army Hospital to do some participant observation of humans under the guise of “Mr Carpenter” at a boarding house. After introducing himself very spookily in the shadows he settles in very quickly. At said boarding house he meets lovely widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her plucky son Bobby (Billy Gray). Neal and Gray both give very solid supporting performances. Gray has a very easy chemistry with Rennie and I enjoyed their lighter scenes together, including the disguised Klaatu being interviewed about the alien situation. And the young Gray delivers on the confusion and terror when he discovers that the kindly Mr Carpenter is the spaceman everyone is looking for.
Neal also does well as she goes from concerned parent to unlikely ally of Klaatu. The alien’s other ally is Professor Jacob Barnhardt (a very believable Sam Jaffe) to whom Klaatu reveals the nature of his mission—the planets are concerned about earth’s development of rudimentary atomic power and unless they listen to his message the Earth will be eliminated. So, kinda important. Klaatu sends a message to Earth by cutting off electricity to the world for 30 minutes (all except critical areas) and again I appreciated that the film showed the impact on various countries and not just the US.
But the alien’s plan to meet with Barnhardt and other scientists to deliver his message goes awry due to the intervention of Helen’s suitor and frequent face sucker (get a room, you two!) Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). When he learns Mr Carpenter’s true identity he immediately calls the authorities, not out of any actual concern but because of the fame he hopes it will bring. If the Bensons represent some of the best of humanity Stevens represents some of the worst, placing the entire planet at peril for his own ego. What a bastard!
Blast #4 Die Spaceman! Die!
Stevens’ selfish actions kick start the third and final act where the action and tension picks up again with Klaatu and Helen on the run from the military. And, surprise surprise, a soldier shoots the alien but this time the wound is fatal. Before he dies he is able to give Helen the code for phrase to say to Gort “Klaatu barada nikto” for the robot to retrieve and revive him and also stop him going global Terminator. Before she can reach Gort he vaporises two soldiers. Sorry boys. And then we get a brief scene of Sci Fi horror as Helen encounters Gort and speaks the code phrase before she gets vaporised too. What a wonderfully thrilling scene. After carrying Helen in his arms (50s Sci Fi again) and into his ship the robot dramatically retrieves Klaatu and resurrects him. The resurrected alien the finally delivers his speech to those gathered at the ship. We learn his planet has eliminated war by placing their security in the hands of the robots (which appear to have some level of sentience) and unless Earth joins their program they will be taken out. So, not exactly a utopia. He and Gort then take off, leaving the fate of the planet up in the air. And I must say I did enjoy the ambiguity of it all.
Now I had a couple of minor issues with the plot. Firstly, Mr Harley and other members of the army saw Klaatu’s face yet there is no artist rendering being circulated and he is able to walk around as normal. An easy fix would have been to leave him in his spacesuit until his escape or have him wipe their memories of how he looked or something. It’s a small issue but it did nag at me. And secondly, they only had two soldiers at a time guarding Gort and the ship. Seriously? The most critical security site in the entire world and you have all of two guards?! That just did not make sense to me.
But both are minor issues in what is a truly stellar film that has gone to influence so many movies that came thereafter. It’s themes about peace, fear, and self-destruction remain quite relevant today. The character of Klaatu and his journey has been compared to Jesus Christ and the connections are pretty clear to see (name Carpenter, being misunderstood and killed, death and resurrection, mention of “Almighty Spirit”) but the film is much more than an analogy or Sci Fi retelling of the biblical tale and is strong enough to stand on its own. And seven decades later The Day the Earth Stood Still still stands tall as a powerful piece of film. It was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu but that film was criticised for being heavy on effects but light on story. You’re probably safer sticking with the original.
Editor Jules’s Score: 9.5 out of 10
So are you a fan of The Day the Earth Stood Still? What’s your favourite scene? And you can check out more classic Sci Fi reviews below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.
Michael Rennie’s performance as Klaatu remains to this day the penultimate example of intelligent and compassionate alien emissary. The cold war fear was a great contrast to Klaatu’s calm demeanor and helped to emphasize his assurance and rationality amidst a nation of panic. Yes, the Christian parallels are obvious, but they work well.
One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning of the movie, when Klatuu is healing in the hospital, two human doctors go into the hall to discuss Klatuu’s amazing healing capability and how they had nothing to do with it. One doctor derisively says, “He SAYS that his medical knowledge is far in advance of our own!” and the other doctor nods and offhandedly offers a cigarette to his colleague. Then they both light up. I don’t think that the scene was originally meant to be funny or a commentary on smoking, but 70 years later it has become both.
Definitely comedic in retrospect.
“We learn his planet has eliminated war by placing their security in the hands of the robots…and unless Earth joins their program they will be taken out. So, not exactly a utopia. [Klaatu] and Gort then take off, leaving the fate of the planet up in the air. And I must say I did enjoy the ambiguity of it all.”
Yes, but Klaatu has actually given the people of Earth two options: join their interplanetary confederation and submit themselves to being policed by their implacable and incorruptible robots, OR just not venture into space. Klaatu makes it quite clear that if humans want to slaughter each other, but confine it just to their own world, we’re perfectly welcome to do so. He and his superiors don’t care.
And, yes, that during the period of Klaatu’s confinement at what was then called Walter Reed Army Hospital (during which surgical patient Klaatu was unconscious for a prolonged period of time, and therefore could hardly object), that no one thought to take a photo of him is geuninely ridiculous (there was a vety easy solution to the problem, which would’ve taken the addition of one or two lines of dialogue, but hindsight is a wonderful thing). It actually led to the elminiation of a whole sequence from the middle of the film, likely because Robert Wise and Darryl Zanuck realized that that sequence would probably cause many viewers to ask why the Army didn’t take a thousand photos of “the Spaceman,” from head to toe (as it is, there are some vestigial traces of that missing sequence left in the movie).
Cool. I didn’t know that. But I can see why they thought that would have thrown off the pacing. I actually wasn’t thinking of photos but at least at artist rendering rather than sharing around the unhelpful image of him in the space suit.
Would have been better if Klaatu ate Stevens head and Helen confessed that she wanted to have Klaatu’s baby after this demonstration of ultrabadness.
The best hard science fiction film made prior to 2001: A Space Odyssey.