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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) - A Warning from Space
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was directed by Robert Wise and based on the short story "Farewell to the Master" (1940) by Harry Bates. An emissary from outer space arrives by flying saucer and lands in Washington, accompanied by an 8ft robot.
Klaatu (Michael Rennie, excellent as the iconic space visitor) disembarks from the saucer, speaking the words 'We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill', only to be shot at by a nervous soldier.
Klaatu is taken to an army hospital, where he is found to be human-like, but stuns the doctors with the quickness of his healing. Meanwhile his indestructible robot bodyguard Gort stands by the saucer, mute and unmoving. Klaatu escapes from the hospital and takes up room in a boarding house where he meets Helen (Patricia Neal who gives a superb, restrained performance) and her young son, Bobby (Billy Gray).
Bobby takes Klaatu to an eminent scientist (Sam Jaffe), together they hatch an ingenious plot that will enable Klaatu to deliver his message to a world shocked into silent attention. In a demonstration of his powers – Klaatu stops all electrical equipment, all over the world for 60 minutes.
However before Klaatu can deliver his message he is betrayed to the army by Helen’s boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe). The army shoots and kills Klaatu before he can return to his ship.
Fittingly, it is Helen who saves the day, told by the dying Klaatu to reach Gort and utter the immortal phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto!”, stopping the robot from destroying the planet. (In the shock ending to Harry Bates original story it is the robot “Gnut” who is the master not Klaatu.)
Like Christ - the parallel seems deliberate – Klaatu (who had taken up the name Carpenter) is resurrected by Gort and finally delivers his message - that various alien races are disgruntled at the human use of atomic weapons, and that if we do not stop our planet will be obliterated.
Here is Klaatu’s message in it’s entirety – “I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle.
We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.
The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
Submission to the rule of omnipotent aliens and robots is an authoritarian proposal for a supposedly liberal film. Nevertheless The Day the Earth Stood Still is a seminal SF classic and, with its acute, intelligent approach to its subject matter, as well as its inimitable style, it remains a benchmark by which all other alien movies are judged.
Bernard Herrmann's eerie atmospheric music for the film was scored for two theremins, pianos, harps, different electrical organs, percussion, amplified solo strings and a large brass section including four tubas. The role of the robot Gort was played by 7' 7" tall Lock Martin, the doorman from Grauman's Chinese Theater. However, he was too weak to pick up Patricia Neal and had to be aided by wires. Martin also played a Martian in the film Invaders from Mars (1953).
Director Robert Wise (1914-2005) went on to direct two of the most popular musicals of all time, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), the horror classic The Haunting (1963) and two successful sci-fi movies of the 70's - The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979).
The Day the Earth Stood Still, an inferior remake directed by Scott Derickson and starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu was released in 2008.
The critics wrote -
"The Washington backgrounds are well used, especially in night sequences where stark side-lighting gives a hard-edged intensity to the white flying saucer squatting in the park. Klaatu’s recipe for peace - a robot police force unsusceptible to corruption or scientific tampering - sounds alarmingly Fascist but whatever its political pedigree, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains one of the most entertaining excursions into SF attempted by Hollywood.” (John Baxter, Science Fiction in the Cinema, 1970)
“Thoughtful rather than horrifying, with subtle antifascist hints scattered throughout. (Scheuer)
“Interrupts its wonders to lecture us on the dangers of international aggression and the duties of the interplanetary police; and gaiety is restored only by the idiocies of dialogue. Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie accept their situation with gravity, and Robert Wise has directed the story for far more than it is worth.” (Dilys Powell)
"Cold-war wish-fulfillment fantasy, impressive rather than exciting but very capably put over with the minimum of trick work and the maximum of sober conviction. “Klaatu barada nikto” the command given to the robot has achieved cult status." (Halliwell)
“Remains not only a SF cinema classic, but one of the few really intelligent science fiction films." (James Van Hise, Films Fantastique)
"We've seen better monsters in theatre audiences on 42nd Street." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)