The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) ****1/2
Director: Robert Wise
Runtime: 1h 34m
We live in an era of unprecedented peace. It certainly doesn’t seem like that would be the case between the ongoing carnage in the Middle East, the rocket-rattling from North Korea, and the incessant civil wars that wrack countries around the world, but it is no less true. This should of course, tell you something about human history: namely that it has been defined and characterized by near-constant warfare. Atomic weapons changed all that, as Robert Oppenheimer the father of the first atomic bomb put it: “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.” Before the bomb, a country that lost a major war could still exist and its leaders could still survive, and even remain politically relevant in some cases. The loser of an atomic war had not such solace. The field of war was made level at last, with warmongers as certain to die as the men they sent into battle. In a perverse twist of fate, these weapons would contribute more to world peace than any skilled diplomat, anti-war movement, or idealistic attempt to end war by declaring it illegal. The bombs became a tool a peace, if only because they have made the price of total war unendurable to all sane men.
This revelation, however, was far from obvious in the early years of the atomic age. Average people realized that all previous weapons had been built to be used in war, and saw no reason why there would not be another war with both sides employing these terrible devices. The aggressive foreign policies of the two first atomic powers and their mutually antipathy made this seem all the more certain. Even policy makers in the late 40s and early 50s saw nukes as just another tool of war. It was not until after he was elected president that Eisenhower, the father of the bombs for peace strategy, realized that the bombs were far more useful as a deterrent than as a weapon. Even then, he had some difficulty getting his advisors and subordinates onboard with his plan. I say all this, because for modern viewers, the way the aliens in today’s film achieve peace through the threat of annihilation may seem obviously trite. But when the movie was released in 1951, almost nobody had formulated the logic of mutually assured destruction. The idea at the center of Day the Earth Stood Still was revolutionary and prophetic, so much so that modern viewers take it for granted unless they know a bit more about the period.
Unlike this review, we begin today’s film with pleasant directness: A flying saucer streaks across the earth’s skies. Just like in Rocket Attack USA (1961) it is initially mistaken for a bomb, fortunately here there are no Anti-Ballistic Missiles lying around, so the authorities have to content themselves with watching helplessly from the distance. The flying saucer lands in a park in Washington DC, where it is quickly enveloped in a military cordon, who keep watch on the saucer while local police hold back mob of curious onlookers. The vessel promptly opens, revealing a lone figure in a space suit that obscures all his features. The space man introduces himself as Klaatu, and assures the gathered crowd that he comes in peace and his mission is one of goodwill. The soldiers watching the alien emissary are a bit jumpy though, my guess is that they have all seen The Thing (1951), and don’t want to risk having their blood water the ground for the next generation of intellectual carrot vampires. So, when Klaatu reaches into his jumpsuit and produces a strange device one of the soldiers assumes he’s going for a weapon and opens fire. This action triggers the wrath of Klaatu’s companion: Gort a gigantic humanoid robot. In short order, Gort vaporizes the guns and tanks of the surrounding cordon, only halting at Klaatu’s command. The device that caused this entire ruckus: a universal translator, that Klaatu intended as a gift for the American president. Obviously, this mission of peace is off to a rocky start.
Klaatu is rushed to Walter Reed Hospital, though his doctors quickly realize there isn’t much point in treating his injuries. The salves that Klaatu has with him are so potent they make the most sophisticated human healers look like “third-rate witch doctors.” While recuperating, Klaatu speaks with a representative from the American government, to whom he reveals that he came on a mission of grave importance to all mankind. Klaatu refuses to speak to any one nation or even group of nations, and instead demands that all the heads of state be brought together for him to address collectively. This is easier said than done, and in the petty-shortsightedness that is common to all human governments, the nations of the world begin to bicker about where the meeting shall be held. The Soviets insist on Moscow (which is probably accurate, in his old age Stalin refused to leave the country, this is why the Yalta agreements were held in such an inconvenient location) while the British will not attend unless the meeting is held in a Western nation. Kaatu is exasperated by the shortsightedness of the human leadership, and frankly I can’t say that I blame him: He came here with a message that will either save or doom mankind, and the daft terrans can’t even sit together in one room for half a hour to hear him out.
Klaatus’ message, as we will learn at the film’s conclusion, certainly lives up to the alien’s hype. Earth has been watched by neutral alien intelligences for some time now. Until recently, these alien planets have been content to leave mankind to their own devices. However, the advances in both rocket technology and atomic weapons have made humanity a potential threat to their stellar neighbors. The alien confederacy of worlds has abolished war among their members by use of gigantic robots like Gort who have the power to destroy entire worlds. If one member planet makes war on another, the robots will destroy the world of the aggressor. Klaatu has come to tell us that if mankind can give up war, they will be welcomed into the brotherhood of worlds. If we cannot, then our planet will be destroyed. I’s a messy system, as Klaatu freely admits, but it is the only way that these celestial beings have come up with that lets disparate civilizations keep the peace.
Having exhausted governmental channels, Klaatu opts or a different route. Having heard that Professor Barnhardt is calling an international meeting of scientists, Klaatu decides that maybe addressing the scientists of the world will be more effective than the politicians. He escapes from the hospital, stealing a suit along the way that once belonged to a Major Carpenter, and adopting the officer’s name. Aliens still have to sleep somewhere though, so Klaatu rents a room in a local boarding house, whose proprietor mistaken him for a damn Yankee. In short order Klaatu befriends Helen and Bobby Benson, a single mother and her son who are also living in the boarding house. Indeed, Klaatu is quite taken with the boy and helpfully offers to babysit him while his mother goes off on a date with her spook boyfriend, Tom Stevens. Klaatu takes the boy to Professor Barnhardt’s laboratory, where he reveals himself by solving a complex equation the professor has been laboring over, and leaving his address with the professor’s secretary.
Barnhardt pays Klaatu a visit at the boardinghouse, and quickly realizes that he is dealing with the runaway spaceman that the news won’t shut up about. Barnhardt agrees to help Klaatu address the world’s scientists and even increases the guest list to include other specializations. However, without something dramatic, Klaatu’s message may go unheeded, so Klaatu comes up with the novel idea of cutting out all the world’s nonessential electrical power for half an hour. Planes in the air still fly, hospitals still run normally but everyone with bad luck that stepped into an elevator is just gonna have to wait it out. Indeed, it’s in just such a situation that Helen finds herself with Klaatu, and its here that Klaatu reveals his true nature to her. He also asks for help, if he is hurt somehow, it will fall to her to bring the famous command to Gort that will save the earth from the robot’s wrath: “Klaatu Berada Nikto.”
Unfortunately, the US military that has been hunting for Klaatu since his escape from Walter Reed sees the global blackout as a threat escalation. They still want to capture Klaatu, but are now not so concerned about getting him alive. Helen is not gonna rat out Klaatu to the army, but unfortunately, her boyfriend, Tom Stevens, has also put the pieces together. Helen and Klaatu make a run for the saucer, but during their escape Klaatu is attacked and mortally injured. Gort see this act as declaration of war between human and aliens, and prepares to destroy the earth in retaliation against the human warmongers. Only the emergency override command Klaatu gave Helen can stop the robot’s rampage. The question is, will Helen make it in time?
I covered the revolutionary political/military ideas behind this film in the intro, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s religious aspects as well. As savvy viewers have already guessed, Klaatu is a fairly obvious Christ figure. He comes to earth with a message of peace, brotherhood, and goodwill toward men only to be killed unjustly and promptly resurrected. Hell, he even takes the name Carpenter, which was Jesus’ earthly profession before becoming the messiah. After his resurrection, Klaatu actually acknowledges the existence of God, in case we missed the obvious symbolism. Day the Earth Stood Still, is very much in the same camp as Red Planet Mars (1952) and The Space Children (1958) where religion in the guise of friendly aliens brings about the miraculous end of the Cold War. However, The Day the Earth Stood Still, is unique in that Klaatu is not here just to help us reach peace by ourselves. He also comes with one hell of a big stick in the form of Gort to bludgeon us into submission if we don’t go along with the program. In this sense, it’s a much more complete theological picture than the other Saviors from Space films. Gort stands in for God the Father, the inscrutable, violent and often cruel God of the Old Testament, while Klaatu plays the humanist God of the New Testament. What’s more is that the film works weather you look at it through a religious lens, or through a purely military/political lens. In either case it wouldn’t make any sense without both the alien and the robot. Quite the accomplishment for a film that was selling tickets based on its nifty looking robots and sleek flying saucers!
There is a reason why Day the Earth Stood Still is still recognized as the ultimate, intellectual 1950s sci-fi movie. There is hardly any action, but the intellectual content of the movie is more than enough to keep audiences engaged. The visual effects are obviously a notch below the spectacular War of the Worlds (1953), but then again War of the Worlds is not trying to be a spectacle but a somber meditation of mankind’s future in an age of apocalyptic weapons. Anyone with a passing interest in the period owes it to themselves to check out this film.