Sci-Fi Nerd: Commentary, reflection, and accolades from a fan’s point of view on all things sci-fi and fantasy.
A thinly disguised reference to the messiah myth was a cause of concern for censors in this iconic science fiction classic.
There is no denying The Day The Earth Stood Still is a product of the time that created it; it’s a fifties movie through and through. In many ways, the film and the story it tells get presented as if it is a play. The story the film tells is straightforward without being cluttered by sub-plots the way movies tend to be today. The message is the movie, and the movie is the message. Dramatic moments are emphasized by the use of light and shadow, along with the remarkable and memorable soundtrack composed by Bernard Herrmann, which was one of the first to make use of the theremin, which, of course, became a science fiction standard in films and television that followed.
The story begins right after the world gets turned upside-down when a vast flying saucer lands in Washington DC and a humanoid alien visitor accompanied by an eight-foot-robot emerges. The ship is quickly surrounded by the military, press, and the curious. When the visitor advances to present a gift, a nervous soldier shoots him. The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) responds by vaporizing the army’s weapons with a beam from his eyes until the wounded alien orders him to stop.
We soon learn the alien’s name is Klaatu (Michael Rennie). Rennie represents a popular romantic idea of the period. A mature man, sophisticated, educated, and reasonable, ivy-league academic in appearance. The alien gets taken to Walter Reid hospital, where he undergoes treatment with success. He applies an ointment he has with him on the wound, which it quickly heals.
As the story unfolds, we meet more characters that play a role in the narrative: Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), her son Bobby (Billy Gray). her boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe), and Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe)
The story mainly concerns itself with alien visitation and the message he brings to our planet. It is a warning to change our ways or face elimination by the other races of our galaxy before we can harm other worlds with the technology we have developed and our war-like courses.
This film is a blunt expression of one of science fiction’s most essential and socially relevant roles in our world. Hold up a mirror to humanity and give us cause to think about our way of thinking and responding to things. Even in the context of modern films, it’s still a brilliant piece of work. What sets this movie apart is how it presents the possibility that humans would be more hostile in the event of an alien arrival than the aliens would be. The Day the Earth Stood Still addressed the notion that humans were more likely to destroy themselves through fear and mistrust than being killed by an invading force. That notion seems more and more relevant with each passing year.
This classic film still serves to warn us we need to wise up before it’s too late and reign in our aggressive tendencies before the technology we have developed results in our doom. Gort represents an enforced system of staying reasonable in our dealings with each other and finding ways to avoid war and conflict as a means of reaching solutions when disagreements occur. This movie represents a plea for peace and the abandonment of warfare altogether before it’s too late. A direct and not too subtle response to the creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy was a significant concern for our world in the years following the second world war and still is today.
The use of Klaatu as a Christ-like messenger from outer space, who is killed but rises again, was perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but that was in keeping with the times when messages meant to be consumed by the general public usually lacked subtlety in this manner. The film still gets considered a milestone in the evolution of science fiction films in the 20th century, and a classic among classics still enjoyed today by fans worldwide. The iconic phrase, KLAATU BARADA NIKTO, has come to represent science fiction excellence in a world that still needs to, on occasion, get reminded to be careful, or it might spell our doom.