The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Synopsis: A spaceship lands in Washington D.C., capturing the attention of the world. But the peaceful alien emissary (Michael Rennie) it brings fails to earn the public’s trust. When a young women and her son befriend him, they son realize they may be all that stands between the human race and total destruction.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) 8.0

eyelights: its universal anti-war, anti-violence message.
eyesores: Gort’s rubbery-looking uniform.


Klaatu: “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.”

Before Robert Wise gave us the gripping science-fiction thriller ‘The Andromeda Strain‘ and the lamentably under-rated ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, he created one of the most timeless American sci-fi classics: ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’.

Released in 1951, during the post-war era and in the early years of the chilling Cold War, it was originally devised by producer Julian Blaustein as a response to the political climate of the time: in it, we find a space messenger who warns Earth’s peoples that their warring ways, combined with the recent discovery of the atom bomb, make them a threat to inter-galactic peace.

But, on top of being redolent with political messages, it also had hints of religious commentary, thanks to screenwriter Edmund North. North apparently intended his Klaatu to be somewhat analogous to Christ, but also wanted the parallels to be subtle. It was his small wink at the audience, and he had not consulted the producer or director on this matter before turning in the script.

Surprisingly, given the era, the film was hardly controversial. But it wasn’t exactly a box office smash either – unless one considers its position of 52nd top box office earner of the year a huge success, that is. However, over the years, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ grew in popularity, fuelled by a fanbase of science-fiction aficionados that include even Arthur C. Clarke – one of the geniuses behind ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

Now, with hindsight being 20/20, it’s consistently acclaimed as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. It was even selected for the U.S. National Film Registry back in 1995. It’s also been influential in pop culture: its iconic phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” alone has been reused in films as wildly diverse as ‘Army of Darkness‘ and ‘Return of the Jedi’.

What I especially like about ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ is its anti-war message and the way that it teases this pacifist’s imagination: Oh, how I wish that we were forced by an outside force to be peaceable for lack of being able to get along on our own. Since I doubt that I will ever see a world without war and injustice, a part of me daydreams that it could be imposed until we are set in new, peaceful ways.

I realize that it won’t happen and that it’s not a practical solution, of course. That’s where fiction comes in.

I also loved how cool, calm and collected Klaatu, our protagonist and observer, was. For all intents and purposes, he is Spock-like – one of my all-time favourite fictional characters (in Leonard Nimoy’s original interpretation, at least). What I enjoyed most beyond his composure is how, although he carried a message of peace, and was peaceful himself, he didn’t balk at giving humanity an ultimatum that hung annihilation over its head.

I was also impressed with how the filmmakers focused on the international scientific community as a solution to humanity’s predicament over governments, concluding that at least they would be willing to listen instead of bickering amongst themselves. This seems realistic enough, in my mind. Of course, setting science as a focus puts a unique spin on the notion that Klaatu is a Christ-like figure, because it eschews religion entirely and strips Christ of his traditional background/origin.

Another thing that I quite enjoy are the special effects. Oh, of course they’re extremely dated at this point – and yet, I still find them kind of impressive to see. For example, I loved watching Gort (the hand of God, perhaps?) removing all weapons from the surrounding army, even if it had nothing of the realistic look of modern CGI effects. It must have been quite something at the time.

And, although I’m no fan of the use of the theramin as a musical instrument, Bernard Herrman’s theramin-powered score created a uniquely otherworldly backdrop to the movie. It can get a little grating, in my opinion, but it was used with enough restraint to strike the right chord – not enough to become an irritant. In the remastered Blu-ray soundtrack, the score takes on an even greater legitimacy, blown as it is through multichannel audio.

If the film has any weakness, it’s in the moderately hokey-pokey or “golly-gee” way in which people interact. It’s quite representative of the era’s entertainment, but I wonder just how realistic it actually was: were people this naïve back in the early ’50s? Or did our entertainment merely reflect a desire to be something other than what we are? A part of me believes that we’re definitely more cynical these days, but I can’t gauge exactly to which extent. Anyway, it was amusing to watch strangers live in a boarding house together – it would have played out very differently now, I’m sure.

This leads me to the remake, which I haven’t seen on account of Keanu Reeves. I can’t even fathom how much adaptation the basic story must have undergone just to reflect the changes in political climate as well as the supposed “sophistication” of modern culture in the five decades since the original. A part of me is curious to see it now, even though I expect that it will be a big load of dog poopie – classics rarely retain their sheen when revisited/updated, and I’ve no doubt that this one will suffer almost as much as I will.

The 1951 version of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, however, will always remain a favourite of mine. Not only does it stand out from its peers, but it conveys a message that is likely timeless: that we should be together as one, as siblings even more so than neighbours – not divided over trivialities and in a constant process of self-destruction. It offers reason and logic over ego, hot-headedness and gut responses – and, quite frankly, this is a lesson that we need to take to heart more than ever.

Klaatu: “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.”


Date of viewing: November 11, 2012

2 responses to “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

  1. Pingback: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) | thecriticaleye·

  2. Pingback: War of the Worlds | thecriticaleye·

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