The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Written by Edmund H. North
Directed by Robert Wise
This month (May 2021), I will be looking at films considered Science Fiction Masterworks. In October, I did this with some horror movies and wanted to do something similar. Science fiction is an extensive film category that has overlaps with other genres like comedy, action, and horror. It can also be very futuristic and high tech or grounded in our present-day with light elements of the fantastic. To start things off, I watched The Day the Earth Stood Still. I know some things about this movie, the theremin music by Bernard Hermann, the famous “Klaatu Barada Nikto” phrase, and the opening scene of the flying saucer landing in the middle of Washington D.C. A remake was done in 2008, which I have heard was dismal, while the original has garnered a ton of praise.
The film opens with a flying saucer swooping around the Earth and coming to land in Washington D.C. The ship opens up, and a humanoid emerges. He produces a device from his jacket and is shot by a nervous soldier watching this epic moment unfold. The humanoid’s robot companion begins to fire energy beams at the weapons in the area until his master commands him to stop. The wounded humanoid is taken to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he reveals his name is Klaatu. He is from another world, and they have become aware of Earth’s new nuclear capabilities. They estimate Earth will begin exploring outer space soon and warn them that if they do not abandon their aggressive warlike ways, more powerful civilizations will make them extinct.
Klaatu escapes his hospital room and takes on the pseudonym Carpenter, a name found on the clothing he steals to blend in. He gets a room at a boarding house where he meets Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby. Bobby takes a liking to Klaatu, and they wander around D.C., stopping to gawk at the saucer with the crowds. Klaatu begins to learn the nuances of humanity and eventually connects with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), and they plan to have a conference of the top scientific minds. But of course, other forces complicate things, and the path to peace becomes even more fraught with peril.
In 1951, the flying saucer was a reasonably new phenomenon, and this film manages to deliver a nuanced story of alien visitation that has been oft-copied but rarely matched. This never feels like a B-movie but rather something of substance. Klaatu is a very complex character, he’s on Earth out of a sense of duty to the universe but ultimately sympathetic to humanity. The film’s message is compelling when you think about it in the context of the nuclear scare hanging over the heads of people at the time. For us today, climate collapse is the pending horror on the horizon, one that feels even less manageable than nuclear war at this point. It’s truly heartbreaking that since this film’s release, humanity is still fighting the same battles over resources and destroying the greatest resources we have, the planet.
There’s an obvious Christ metaphor at the heart of the film. Klaatu is a visitor from another world, bringing a message & warning to humanity. He is holding back a destroyer figure (i.e., Old Testament Yahweh). He even takes the name Carpenter and is killed in the second act and resurrected. The film never gets heavy-handed with these allusions, but there are there in the subtext. I think contemporary American culture has forgotten how big the anti-nuclear movement was. I suspect the energy companies have studied its prevalence in the mid to late 20th century to suppress any environmental movements from achieving the same scope.
I think the film should also be applauded for its economical use of special effects. We get a grand opening with the saucer landing and the emergence of Klaatu and Gort. However, until the third act of the movie, we focus much more on the characters and building relationships between them. The music by Bernard Hermann is spectacular, and the theremin, invented in 1928, to a public that probably didn’t have much familiarity with the sound. As a result, this became the music associated with alien visitors, that wavy eerie tone. Robert Wise, previously the editor of Citizen Kane, does a spectacular job here. He was a journeyman director who would go on to helm West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Haunting, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This was his twelfth picture but his first to gain a legacy that lasts to this day.