1951, Directed by Robert Wise
Twentieth Century Fox, 92 minutes
The Day The Earth Stood Still, a black and white film from 1951, is still the best alien visitation SciFi film ever made and still one of my all time favorite motion pictures. The story is simple. A UFO from another Galaxy lands in Washington, DC. amongst the familiar monuments and only has two passengers aboard, Klaatu, a perfect humanoid clone able to speak perfect English — a snap for such an advanced civilization — and Gort, an infinitely powerful robot under Klaatu’s commands which are related to him in terse intergalactic language.
The arrival of the extraterrestrial spaceship is given added authenticity by snippets of TV enacted by prominent Newscasters of the time; Drew Pearson, Elmer Davis, H. V. Kaltenborn and Gabriel Heatter. (They don’t make them with names like that anymore!)
In panic US Army units surround the space ship and bombard it with their best weaponry which is useless against the alien invulnerability of giant robot Gort. Gort opens his visor and sends out a series of death rays which vaporize the attackers in their tracks.
Now Klaatu needs to do some field work among the Earthlings to analyze their mentality and intentions. He adopts the earthling name of Carpenter and is taken in by a single mom, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) who treats him with awesome respect and, perhaps, an inkling of romance.
Carpenter contacts a leading scientist (Sam Jaffe, think Einstein) asking him to assemble all the world leaders to hear his message. He comes in peace but wants to tell the world that with their current accumulation of atomic weapons of mass destruction they have become a menace to other civilizations. To demonstrate his beyond human mental powers Klaatu solves a board-full of equations Professor Barnhardt has been working on for years with a single stroke. To demonstrate his power to the collected heads of stare he literally makes the Earth stand still, for twenty four hours, all this very convincingly realized on screen. He quietly but firmly informs them that if they do not comply with his simple request to stop testing and accumulating nuclear weapons Gort has the power to destroy the earth.
Now seen as an awesome threat to humanity Klaatu is fatally shot. With his dying words “Klaatu berata nikto” he informs the robot to rescue him, restore him to life temporarily (think, Jesus and resurrection) and bring him back to the spaceship for a return to where they came from. Whoosh — and away they go. Leaving us to wonder whether the leaders of Earth will get the message and control their collective atomic madness, or go on blindly to self destruction.
Klaatu/Carpenter is played by British actor Michael Rennie, who with his sharply chiseled features and other worldly clipped English accent, seems to have been born for this single role. No other actor could have pulled off the role of Carpenter so convincingly. The main reason that this picture remains fresh even today.
The story plays out more as personal drama than science fiction and all elements of the drama, scientific and earthly, are perfectly handled by director wise. When I saw this movie upon initial release I didn’t know much about Christianity and did not relate to the obvious parallels with the life of Jesus who was a carpenter by trade! I just saw it as an extremely intelligent science drama addressing the fears, rampant at the time, of an atomic war between Russian and the US. Einstein was sill alive and must have enjoyed seeing himself impersonated by versatile actor Sam Jaffe — who played Gunga Din back in 1939.
“The Day The Earth Stood Still” is a classic that has stood the test of time and, now, 68 years later, is just as relevant to the problems of the world as it was then, if not even more so. But, above all ,a marvelous piece of screen entertainment. I would love to see it revived and circulated once again.
PS. I once met Robert Wise at a film festival in Seattle and asked him if the rumors I had heard that the alien Space language used in his film was actually based on an obscure American Indian language were true. He waved my query off with an amused chuckle saying, “Hell no, we just made all that stuff up”. ~~ Gort, Berenga! (bring on the big guns).
Alex Deleon is a roving American film critic, creative historian, and Social Satirist, currently residing in Armenia because his best friends are mostly Armenians. He is addicted to Taco Bell bean burritos and has been suffering severe withdrawal symptoms.
Sydney Levine is one of the most respected voices in the world of Independent Film. Her extensive experience in the international film business includes executive positions in acquisitions as well as teaching and writing. She co-founded Film Finders, the first independent film database. She writes and curates this column.