The Day the Earth Stood Still stands as a classic and a relic of another time. That it sits comfortably with those contradictions raging throughout is a testament to Robert Wise’s skill as a director. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a fun and somewhat satirical Hollywood romp.
Wise wastes little time in setting up the story. A ship lands in Washington, D.C. A man steps out, in a spacesuit, his identity is hidden. The army surrounds the UFO and upon seeing the alien shoot him. This of course triggers a massive robot named Gort (Lock Martin) to appear and start firing on the army. But it is merely a flesh wound. The alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) calls Gort off. Klaatu is taken to, where else, Walter Reed.
Klaatu looks like a regular man but looks can be deceiving. He is stronger and smarter than the average man, and he seems to be able to regenerate faster as well. Rennie’s performance is the engine that powers The Day the Earth Stood Still. He embodies a sort of genteel stoicism.
A string bean of a man, Rennie’s lanky body seems all the more unusual with his granite-like face and smooth baritone voice. He comes to Earth with a message but is having trouble getting anyone to listen. There is a sort of running gag throughout the film. Time and time again, Klaatu tries to gather the leaders of the world to give them the message, but no one can agree on where or when to meet.
The Americans try to persuade Klaatu to give them the message, promising to pass it on to the rest of the world. But while Klaatu is an alien, he was not born yesterday. Klaatu soon finds himself a prisoner at Walter Reed. But he merely smirks at his predicament. He easily escapes.
Hiding out among the American people, Klaatu is bemused by humans, if not a little worried.
For a movie about an alien landing on Earth to announce that he has an urgent message to give us, The Day the Earth Stood Still is shockingly slim on story. That’s not a slight against a film so much as an observation. Most of the film consists of Klaatu merely observing, and that’s partially why the movie holds up as well as it does.
Edmund H. North’s script, based on a story by Harry Bates, is filled with shrewd observations. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film that is deeply amused at the human condition. Despite the sermonizing at the end, the film is filled with sly, nuanced observations rooted in our belief that we are the center of the universe.
While hiding out at a hotel, Klaatu, now going by Carpenter, listens to the news. He remarks on how this is all very strange. “There is nothing strange about Washington, Mister Carpenter.” “A person from another planet might disagree with you.”
Early on in the movie, Klaatu is examined by doctors. The doctors stand around and talk about the strangeness of it all. He looks human, but in small ways, he isn’t. Another doctor enters the scene scratching his head. When asked what his opinion is, he shrugs. “I don’t know whether to just get drunk or give up the practice of medicine.”
It’s moments like these that the timelessness of The Day the Earth Stood Still is evident. Wise and North construct the movie on a teeter-totter of sorts. At times people don’t seem at all bothered by aliens and flying saucers, while at times, people are freaking out because there are aliens and flying saucers.
Amidst all of this Klaatu, meets Helen (Patricia Smith) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen is a working mother who needs a babysitter. Since the world leaders can’t get their act together to meet with extraterrestrial lifeform with an urgent message, Klaatu volunteers to babysit Bobby. After all, it’s not like he has anything else to do.
Bobby takes Klaatu on a whirlwind tour of Washington. Eventually, Klaatu asks the kid if he knows of any important people. It just so happens he does, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). Barnhardt is a prominent physicist, and Klaatu figures it’s as good a place to start as any. Of course, the problem of not looking like an alien is people have trouble believing you are one, whether you say so or not.
After proving, with math, that he is an alien, Professor Barnhardt is all ears. Klaatu’s message is simple. Humans have developed atomic energy. One day they will use it to go into space. If that happens, and humans have not changed their warlike ways, then the other planets will have no choice but to destroy Earth.
You have to love a pacifist who carries around the threat of total annihilation as his “We come in Peace.” It’s right about here where The Day the Earth Stood Still begins to fall apart. Because eventually, Gort, the giant indestructible robot with laser eyes who only obeys Klaatu’s voice, is revealed to be part of a galactic police force. Gort was created to be the ultimate weapon against violence. In other words, they created an automated fascist police force with unlimited capacity for violence and destruction as a way to curb violence and destruction.
But put all that aside for a moment.
Who or what he is, outside of the giant indestructible space robot with laser eyes, isn’t revealed to us until the final scene. Even then, Rennie’s Klaatu has to sell the convoluted sermon with a straight face, which he does with aplomb. “In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us.”
All that aside, The Day the Earth Stood Still is well shot and ingeniously put together. Robert Wise is a name not known to a lot of modern movie buffs. But those familiar with him, know the name is a mark of quality.
Wise started as a sound editor and worked his way to being an editor. From there, he became a prolific and reliable director. Looking at the movie and you won’t think, “This is directed by the guy who edited Citizen Kane and directed The Sound of Music.” Even though he did.
But you will be impressed by how smoothly and effortlessly the film moves from one scene to the next. Wise and his editor William Reynolds find clever ways around having to use special effects, like choosing to show montages of crowds looking on combined with shots of traffic jams in different settings.
Wise tells a story about spacemen, flying saucers, and death-ray robots with very little of either.
To prove to Professor Barnhardt the vastness of his abilities, Klaatu cuts the electricity to the entire world. Wise demonstrates this by giving us a scene of Helen and Klaatu in the elevator. It goes dark as it grinds to a halt. Klaatu then explains to Helen what’s happening.
Wise then cuts to establishing shots of cars parked around the Eiffel Tower, followed by people in cafes speaking French, looking confused. Reynolds and Wise do this over and over, effortlessly cramming a subplot’s worth of information into a short amount of time. The duo also intercut scenes with generals meeting in a room confirming what Klaatu has already told us. It’s here we discover while the world has stopped, hospitals are still running and airplanes are still flying.
A peaceful demonstration of power. The United States military, of course, decides Klaatu must be brought back, dead or alive. One is the same as the other in their eyes.
Leo Tover, a cinematographer, who has been shooting films since the silent era, gives the film a polished look mixed with documentary-style realism. The fantastical clashes with simple realism. Tover prefers simplicity over garish design. I suspect this is why the film lingers in our popular consciousness.
Take the spaceship for example. Simple, round, and disc-like. The image of it rocketing across the sky, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score, sears the moment into our collective memory. The ship is a blank canvas that allows us to project our own beliefs and fears onto it.
Wise doesn’t concern himself with scenes with Government Officials and other world leaders arguing and discussing. None of that matters to him. He’s much more fascinated by how the working man reacts to all of this.
The fulcrum of the plot rests on Bobby telling Helen that he saw Mister Carpenter go into the spaceship. She pats him on the head and tells him it was just a dream. Then she notices, as he goes up the stairs, that his shoes are wet. Bobby tells her again that the grass around the spaceship was wet.
After hearing this Helen and her boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe), still don’t believe Bobby. And this is after they know that aliens have landed in their city. The scene is a testament to American obtuseness.
Wise undercuts his cynicism almost immediately. He wishes people were different. That’s what Helen is there for.
Patricia Smith is not your typical B-movie siren. Aside from a scene in which she screams in terror and faints as Gort stalks toward her, she spends little time in any kind of distress. Helen is a loving mother but is also one of the few who understands Klaatu is trying to save us, not harm us.
Once Tom discovers Carpenter’s true identity, he calls the army hoping for a reward. Helen begs him not to. She asks him to think about the fate of the world.
“I don’t care about the rest of the world. You’ll feel differently when you see my picture in the papers.” Rarely has a more American sentiment been uttered in a film.
After hearing that Helen whisks Klaatu to safety, or tries to. It is she who utters the all-important and infamous phrase “klaatu barada nikto” to Gort. The command is to stop him from going on a killing spree and revive Klaatu from death.
It’s hard not to feel Wise fighting against his cynicism. One broadcaster even opines, “And I might add that though this man may be our bitter enemy, he could be also a newfound friend.”
Underneath it all, Wise and North are playing at Cold War-era McCarthyism. Klaatu is the stranger from a strange land fighting suspicions and mistrust everywhere he goes. The paranoia surrounding the unknown is the threat.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve most likely seen something referencing it. It is science-fiction with little faith in humanity, much less, America, or so it seems. But even as it acknowledges our failings, it has hope we can do better.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox