The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) ****
One of the earliest, and most intelligent, modern science-fiction movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still may be a little too far on the cerebral side for some people (if you mainly want to see shit blowing up, you’ve come to the wrong place), but it fully deserves its classic status. This film, which was based on a short story called “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, marks the first appearance to my knowledge of the aliens-warn-us-to-stop-killing-each-other-or-else theme, which would periodically reappear even unto the present day. Even such cinematic low-lifes as Sid Pink and Ib Melchior have riffed on this idea with some considerable success. Naturally, it comes across even better (even if it isn’t as much fun) in the talented hands of director Robert Wise.
The Day the Earth Stood Still admirably wastes no time getting down to business. The film begins with the detection, and subsequent landing in Washington D.C., of a rather cheesy-looking flying saucer. Within minutes, the alien ship is surrounded by forces from the nearest army base (and not a stock-footage army, either-- this is a 20th Century Fox movie, and the studio didn’t mind throwing some money at it). After a two-hour standoff, a hatch opens in the side of the saucer, and a man in a shiny plastic jumpsuit (Michael Rennie, who would repeat this gig fifteen years later in Cyborg 2087) emerges. As he walks down the saucer’s gangplank, he takes something that resembles an especially wicked dagger out of his pocket, and one of the soldiers panics and shoots him in the shoulder. While some rather more level-headed soldiers go to see how badly the alien is hurt, a massive seven-foot robot appears at the top of the gangplank and begins melting rifles, tanks, and artillery pieces with a death-ray fired from what might loosely be described as its eye. After a brief period of such chaos, the alien (his name is Klaatu, by the way) manages to restrain his robot and explain that he has come to Earth for entirely peaceful purposes. The soldiers then haul him off to the Walter Reed Hospital for treatment.
It is in the hospital that Klaatu first hints at the nature of his mission. When the president’s personal secretary (Return of the Terror’s Frank Conroy) comes to see him, Klaatu asks him to arrange an audience with the leaders of all the Earth’s nations. Now, remember, this was the early 1950’s, so this is obviously a ludicrous request to make. When the secretary protests the impossibility of giving Klaatu what he wants, and the alien accuses him of being overly cynical about his own people, the other man responds, “I have more experience with Earth politics than you.” Naturally, the secretary is right; the leaders of the world bog down in squabbling over whether the proposed meeting will take place in Washington or Moscow. Fed up with the situation (“My people have learned to live without stupidity,” the alien says in disgust), Klaatu steals a suit, escapes from the hospital, and goes to live among the natives for a while, in the hope of figuring out why they behave in such a ridiculous manner. He appears in the parlor of a boarding house on Harvard Street, and checks into an upstairs room under the name of “Mr. Carpenter,” the man to whom his suit belonged (it still had a dry-cleaner’s tag attached to it when he stole it). Here, Klaatu befriends a young widow (or maybe a divorcee?) named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal of Stranger from Venus and Ghost Story), and her son Bobby (Billy Gray, who grew up to confront rather nastier things than Klaatu in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters and Werewolves on Wheels). It is with Bobby that the alien tours the city, learning all that he can about the people, history, and customs of Earth. Eventually, he hits upon the idea of paying a visit to a scientist named Barnhardt (Bobby says he’s “the smartest man in the world”) in the hope that he might prove more accommodating of Klaatu’s mission than the authorities.
Klaatu’s hunch pays off. The scientist (Sam Jaffe, from The Dunwich Horror and Battle Beyond the Stars) is thrilled to be in the presence of an actual extraterrestrial, and when Klaatu sketches the outline of his mission (something about the fate of all life on Earth hinging on his success), agrees to do all that he can to be of assistance. However, Barnhardt shares the secretary’s pessimism regarding Earth’s leaders. What he suggests instead is that Klaatu speak at a meeting of scientists from all over the world, over which Barnhardt is scheduled to preside in about a week. The professor believes that it would be of no great difficulty to expand the guest list for the meeting to include prominent thinkers from other, non-scientific fields, which would have the desirable effect of including representatives from nations that have yet to produce notable scientists. However, Barnhardt believes that something spectacular must be done to get the world’s attention first. Something dramatic, but not destructive. “How about the day after tomorrow, around noon?” Klaatu asks. Barnhardt thinks that will do nicely.
So, if you were an alien who possessed such powerful technology as to appear godlike to the unwashed masses of Earthlings, and you wanted to come up with something flashy enough to get the attention of all two and a half billion of us (remember, this was 1951), but which would do so without killing anybody, what would you do? How about disrupting the flow of electricity all over the world, so that none of the machines upon which we are so dependent will work for half an hour? Sounds like a pretty good plan to me, and yeah, it does seem to catch people’s eyes. Of course, it also convinces just about everybody-- including and especially the U.S. military-- that Klaatu is a menace that must be destroyed by any means necessary. And it turns out that the time that Klaatu chooses to pull off his little stunt corresponds quite neatly with the time that his housemates are beginning to suspect that something isn’t quite normal about him. Helen’s boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe, who didn’t like aliens any better in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), for example, seems to think he’s some sort of communist, but naturally, it’s Bobby who figures out what’s really going on, following Klaatu to his ship on the night he sets up his little demonstration. Before long, Helen and Tom both know the score, but with very different results. Helen gets to hear the whole story from Klaatu, the first time he’s told anyone why he’s really here. It turns out that the inhabitants of the other planets have sent Klaatu to Earth to warn us that our recent forays into the fields of rocketry and nuclear power-- motivated as they are by hostile, militaristic aims-- make us potentially very dangerous to the interplanetary community. Klaatu is here to convince us to abandon our violent ways; Gort (Klaatu’s robot) is here to destroy the Earth if we refuse to heed Klaatu’s advice. Given this information, Helen obviously wishes to help Klaatu gain an audience. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, never hears Klaatu’s story, and the moment he figures out that “Mr. Carpenter” is really the fugitive alien, he calls the Pentagon to turn him in. And surprisingly enough, for once the combined efforts of the entire U.S. Army actually are sufficient to apprehend a lone alien and his single human accomplice.
The problem is that the army “apprehends” Klaatu by shooting him in the back. This is a particularly big problem because Gort is programmed to respond automatically with maximum force in the event that anything should happen to his organic companion. As Klaatu suggests shortly before he dies, “maximum force” includes the complete destruction of the Earth. Fortunately, Klaatu is a man of foresight, and he gives Helen a message to give to Gort in the event that the robot should begin some sort of rampage. This she does, and Gort cuts short his killing spree (he ends up killing only two soldiers) to break Klaatu’s corpse out of jail. This somewhat counterintuitive action makes some sense when you realize that the spaceship contains a machine that is capable of temporarily reviving the dead, under certain circumstances (presumably relating to promptness of treatment and severity of injuries). Just as the military closes in on the saucer again, the resurrected Klaatu emerges to deliver his warning to Barnhardt’s assembled luminaries (who had conveniently convened at the saucer’s landing site not long before the army tracked the robot there), gets back into the ship, and goes home.
There’s a lot of neat stuff to look out for in this movie. We’ll start small-- note, for example, the taboo-breaking bloodstain on Klaatu’s jacket when Gort carries him into the resuscitation chamber. How many gunfights have you seen from 40’s and 50’s westerns in which huge numbers of people were shot down with nary a trace of blood? Also notice, in the same scene, the extraordinary lengths to which the movie goes in order to defuse beforehand any umbrage from religious conservatives who might take offense at the idea that a mere machine might wield power over life itself; after all, if Gort can resurrect Klaatu, who needs Jesus? And try to keep in mind as you watch how radical The Day the Earth Stood Still’s avowedly pacifist message would have sounded in 1951. There is also one major and hilarious point of clunkiness on display here, and I’m not just talking about the cheap-ass flying saucer. There is, of course, a scene in which Gort carries Helen into Klaatu’s ship. (You didn’t think we’d have a huge robot and an attractive woman in the same film without also having that, did you? Not in 1951?!) Lock Martin, the actor who played Gort, really was an enormous man-- he stood about seven-foot-one-- but like most people afflicted with hormonal gigantism, he wasn’t very strong. It took just about all of his muscle power to propel himself under the weight of the robot suit, and there was just no way he was going to be able to carry any women around. So when the time came, the crew rigged up a crane from which Patricia Neal would be suspended by wires, creating the illusion that she was being carried by Gort. Take a good look at the screen when this happens; those are some of the most obvious wires I’ve ever seen! Finally, even if you’re a complete philistine who can’t sit through a movie unless somebody’s getting dismembered or taking off their top every ten minutes (not that I have anything against movies where that happens, mind you), there’s still a reason to watch The Day the Earth Stood Still: where do you think Sam Raimi stole the words from for the incantation that Ash has to recite in Army of Darkness?