Spaceships? Check. Aliens? Check. Robots? Check. People running around like chickens without heads for fear that the sky is falling? Super check. For all these reasons and much more, the 1951 production of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a prototypical sci-fi flick, covering a variety of important themes including nuclear war, pacifism, human nature, and the mystery of the unknown. While I may not agree with every conclusion drawn or insinuated, and Spock is still my favourite alien, I will agree that it is, in every sense of the word, a classic.
Our story begins with the landing of a spacecraft in Washington D.C., bearing a messenger of warning: a spaceman named Klaatu, starring Michael Rennie. He gets a rude awakening to the less than welcoming spirit of humanity when he is shot in the shoulder by an army machine gun upon emergence. However, his menacing robot companion named Gort promptly melts all the weaponry before more damage can be done. Rushed to the hospital, Klaatu declares that he must speak with the people of the world about the dangers their nuclear experimentation presents to the other planets.
Realizing that no one will heed his plea for a global summit, he escapes his hospitalization and goes on the run under the alias “Mr. Carpenter”. Now, for the first time, he gets the chance to mix and mingle with average humans going about their daily lives. Moving into a boarding house, he meets Helen Benson, a widowed single mother played by Patricia Neale, and her precocious son, Bobby who takes an instant liking to the new boarder. The feeling is reciprocated, and Klaatu even takes him out on the town, visits his father’s grave, and treats him to a movie by exchanging diamonds for money! He and Bobby also try to visit the renowned Professor Jacob Barnhardt, and Klaatu solves a complex equation on his chalk board.
Later, Klaatu is summoned to visit with Professor Barnhardt and the two devise a solution to get the world’s attention on the very serious breach in interplanetary relations without the loss of life. Klaatu will neutralize the world’s electricity using Gort and his spaceship, affecting everything from elevators to roller-coasters to radios, and only sparing specified items like planes in flight and ventilators in hospitals. The plan goes over perfectly, but when Helen’s boyfriend Tom begins to suspect “Mr. Carpenter” of being the space man, an all-out man-hunt in launched by the US government to capture this “dangerous creature”.
Helen begins to realize just how serious the situation is for the human race, and just how much of an incorrigible mercenary Tom is, and decides to help Klaatu escape from the boarding house in a taxi. But after an epic chase across the city, army tanks cut off every escape route and prepare to descend on their prey. Klaatu quickly instructs Helen that she must go to Gort and talk the robot out of liquefying the earth by saying a special space phrase, then bolts out of the taxi and is promptly gunned down. Now Helen is the only one who stands between Gort and an interplanetary Armageddon.
The Day the Earth Stood, like all other Sci-Fi movies of its kind, hinges on poignant what-ifs, specifically how humanity might handle the discovery of intelligent life on other planets. It was a ground-breaking film that laid the foundations on which Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek would be built a decade later. While the latter has the existence of other species of intelligent life as a given, the former is still focusing on the “first encounter” moments between two peoples. Furthermore, it is not set in the distant future, but rather set in the decade in which the film was made, even using real news casters to lend an edge of authenticity to the production.
Artistically, the movie is well-crafted. The stark black-and-white filming and eerie music enhances the effect of both realism and otherworldliness. There is a lot of camera play with regards to the effects of light and shadow, exemplified by the shots of Klaatu and Helen getting stuck in an elevator when all the electricity dies. Even though they are in the dark, light shines through the grate, creating a striped pattern across both their faces as they eye each other warily. Complimenting this, there is the spacing out of the musical score with long periods of silence that build the tension.
The acting in the main is good. Michael Renee really does look suitably otherworldly and/or supernatural to fit the bill, which is also why he managed to land the previous roles as Fr. Junipero Serra in The Seven Cities of Gold and St. Peter in The Robe. Patricia Neale is stoic and sensible, as well as being attractive enough to make us think Klaatu might begin to have eyes for her. Also, Frances Bavier, who played Aunt B. from The Andy Griffith Show, and Billy Gray, who played Bud from Father Knows Best, both make appearances in the boarding house where Clatu is staying, leaving me jumping up and down on the sofa shrieking, “It’s…it’s…it’s…what’s-her-name and what’s-his-name!!” This just lends to the creepy feel of the picture, since we are seeing characters that are “normal” in every sense of the word confronting the totally abnormal!
Unfortunately, the character development tends to be a bit shallow. Even though he looks just like us (and the use of humanoid aliens was somewhat new for the sci-fi of the time), we don’t really get to know Klaatu as a person, mostly because he is not being treated like a person, but rather a creature. Unlike the (un)emotionally complex yet universally beloved Spock, Kaatu comes off as seriously less “fascinating”. The same goes for the development of Spock’s Vulcan culture in comparison with Klaatu’s. We are also told little to nothing about Klaatu’s home planet, except that it is highly technologically advanced and law and order is maintained by a race of programmed robots.
But I for one want to be told more about these things: what are the people emotionally like? What is their way of life like? Do they have any religious or spiritual beliefs? How do they measure time and the calendar year? What is their main source of sustenance? Do they have holidays, and what do people do for fun? Are there multiple political entities up there, or one “world” order? Without the answers to these questions and others being provided to flesh things out, the story feels rather flat, and in need of being boosted by creative fan-fiction supportive beams. The reason for this seems to be the emphasis on larger themes but not personal development.
Furthermore, the good aspects of humanity are basically left in the shadows. Instead, the story focuses almost solely on the fractious and paranoid elements of human behaviour, with splattering of superior intelligence (such as the professor, and even Helen when she realizes where things are going), but not courage or nobility or love. I know the movie was supposed to be a critique of intolerance and irrationality, but I can’t help but desire a more well-rounded portrait of earth life. There are so many opportunities that are missed to show this interplanetary visitor our good side, and they just slip right by. For example, when Klaatu shot, Helen doesn’t even try to stop the bleeding or comfort him in any way. She doesn’t even seem particularly disturbed by the prospect of his death…except for the fact that a monster-robot-thing will go bananas if he croaks!
What does shine through is a clear anti-war and anti-nuclear agenda championed by the producer. This is all well and good in its own right, but while the goal of global (or galactic) peace is certainly a laudable one, as creatures with free wills, we are bound to find ourselves battling through life in one way or another, and atomic energy can be used in beneficial ways, as well as to secure the balance of power that is necessary for peace. And in reality, is the concept of forcing people to behave through a regime of terror, executed by machines, such an enlightened plan? I for one don’t see how ethical it is to wipe out a whole planet unless they comply with such a policy. Lastly, I really am rather sick and tired of the worn-out premise of perfectly enlightened aliens who don’t have problems like us miserable earthlings. Percentage wise, if we find aliens out there somewhere, they’ll probably just be dealing with problems of their own.
There are a few questions about the plot as a whole that I still have. Why were the cars and motorcycles stymied when the electricity is neutralized? I mean, don’t most of them run on gas? How does Helen remember the magic space-words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” to turn off the zap-happy-robot after Klaatu just blurted them out to her in the taxi? Why didn’t Klaatu say a proper farewell to Bud, one of his only real human friends? I admittedly let out a long “awwww” when Klaatu gives a cutesy smile and farewell wave to Helen (hey, after Tom, Mr. Space man is a knight in galactic tin foil armour…there *is* hope for those two yet!).
One humorous foible in the film has to be mentioned: notice the film speed as everyone flees from the landing spaceship in the beginning! Apparently, the extras appeared to be moving too slowly and lackadaisically in the original take, so it was decided to speed up the clip to add to the element of fright! Also, have you ever wondered why Gort disappears behind a wall when he goes to pick up Helen? Well, evidently, Lock Martin, the very tall actor portraying the robot, could not bend over in his stiff space suit to lift her, so they rigged her up with wires and used the wall to avoid shooting the pick-up sequence!
There is a definite aura in this film that indicates near-supernatural forces are at work in the grand scientific achievements of Klaatu’s planet. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that the modern fascination with UFO’s could serve as something of a replacement for genuine spirituality, especially among the atheist community, and there is certainly a flavour of this to be found here. The quirky thing about this attitude is that if there were other beings possessing an intellect and will, they would say it proved humans weren’t special at all, and if none were found, they would probably say we must certainly be accidents of chance! But one thing is certain: human beings love the mysterious, and if materialism is the name of the game, well, we will likely embrace belief some materialistic mysticism…if that makes paradoxical sense!
However, one scene in the film makes clear that spiritual and physical manifestations should be put in separate departments. When Klaatu is shot and then revived by the robot, a startled Helen inquires if it has the power over life and death. No, says Klaatu, only the Almighty Spirit holds that power. This is merely an advanced scientific method for restoring the breath of life that sometimes works, just like reviving a drowning person with C.P.R. It was said that this little clip of dialogue was added in for the specific reason that Christians complained about the murky implications associated with the various allegorical connections that can be made between Klaatu and Christ. After all, he does come to earth from another realm; walk among humans without arousing suspicion; uses the alias “Carpenter”; and is killed and brought back from the dead.
Of course, the comparison is imperfect, but some still wondered if Klaatu wasn’t in fact supposed to be a “new and improved” materialist Christ. Then and now, people who appreciate and imaginative and far-reaching nature of the sci-fi creation process roll their eyes at such complaints, but I can still understand the crux of them. The fact is that the exploration into hypothetical alien life, no matter how far-reaching their potential technology, just doesn’t cut the mustard when trying to explain and/or fulfil the spiritual essence of humanity. For that matter…our presence would fail to explain and/or fulfil the spiritual essence of any aliens who might show up on our futuristic radar screens. So perhaps the inserted clip actually made all the difference after all.
Beyond all this, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains an all-time classic, and is definitely worth a viewing (or two!). It does leave one with quite a few profound thoughts to unpack about the importance of being responsible stewards of our man-made nuclear resources, the importance of understanding in the face of unreasoning prejudice, and the realization that whether or not there are any other intelligent beings floating around in the galaxy, we must always be respectful of all living creatures, especially those with consciousness, free will, emotions, and all the attributes that apply to spiritual beings such as ourselves. Also…learn memorization skills. Who knows when you might be tasked with saying the magic words to turn off a microwave-monster on the rampage?
Filming: Black & White
Length: 92 minutes
Maturity: G (Suitable for All Ages)
Cast: Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Lock Martin (Gort), Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Gabriel Hatter (Himself)
Director: Robert Wise
Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.