Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Written by Edmund H. North
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
US Release Sept. 28, 1951
RT 92 min.
Home Video 20th Century Fox
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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Warning: review contains plot spoilers; ending of movie revealed…

Although it’s undoubtedly a classic, the plot of The Day the Earth Stood Still is bare bones and the action is slight.  It’s elevated by the direction of Robert Wise, who creates palpable suspense out of almost nothing tangible.  (He’d do a similar thing with The Haunting 12 years later.)  As important, though, is the score by Bernard Herrmann, just part of a superior production that helps the movie endure today as one of the great science-fiction films of all time.

The excitement peaks at the beginning as there are reports worldwide of a large unidentified object circling the earth at incredible speeds.  Reflecting not only other movies, but also reality, I like the acknowledgment of actual television commentators that this isn’t another “flying saucer scare; it’s real.”  As it nears a landing spot on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., people stare with awe into the sky.  Drew Pearson talks about the “amazing phenomenon,” but also says he’s been “authorized to assure you there’s no reasonable cause for alarm.”

As a ramp lowers from the ship and an opening appears from solid material, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges to announce “we’ve come to visit you in peace and with good will.”  What do “we” do?  Shoot him, of course, squandering an opportunity for the President of the United States to accept a gift that would have allowed him to study other planets.  That’s when Gort, a towering robot, exits the ship, raises its visor, and melts the military’s guns and tanks.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those movies that reminds us how history repeats itself.  The world then (and now) is full of tension; “evil forces travel our world.”  Even though Klaatu says the future of the planet is at stake and all he wants to do is meet with world leaders, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), the secretary to the President, tells him that it’s just not possible.  “I’ve been dealing with Earth’s politics a good deal longer than you have.”  Klaatu responds, “I will not speak to any one nation. I’m very impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Even more familiar is a scene later when a fear-mongering reporter is soliciting panicked comments from observers at the landing sight.  When Klaatu, masquerading as “Mr. Carpenter,” starts to say, “When I see people substituting fear for reason…” the reporter is not interested and moves on to the next person.  In other words, this reporter is fostering the idea that we’d rather hear bad news than good news, be pessimistic than optimistic.

When the government won’t allow Klaatu to wander into the world in order to become familiar with humanity, he escapes from Walter Reed Hospital and rents a room at a boarding house as Mr. Carpenter.  Here, he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray), with whom he forms a bond.  They’re basically two of only a few people in the movie who have an open mind.  They befriend Klaatu and later help him when his true identity is revealed, even with interference from Helen’s boyfriend, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe).

Two days later, when radio reports insist that “the monster must be found, tracked down like an animal and destroyed,” Klaatu watches Bobby while his mother goes on a date.  In a moving group of scenes, they wander through Arlington Cemetery and visit the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a nice reminder of the potential for peace and understanding that stands in contrast to the actual violence and intolerance that exists in the world.  Talking about Lincoln as a great man of the past, Klaatu wants to meet to the greatest man of the present.

From Bobby’s perspective, that’s Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe).  Klaatu confides in him a little more than he has with others, but still wants a meeting of great minds to completely share his purpose.  He knows we’ve discovered atomic energy and are testing rockets.  If the two are combined, they would pose a danger to the universe that cannot be allowed.  “Must I take violent action to get a hearing?  That seems to be the only thing your people listen to.”  He and Barnhardt discuss a demonstration of force, something dramatic but not destructive, for the day after tomorrow at noon.

Finally we get to the name of the movie, although it’s really only the 30 minutes the earth stood still, not a full day.  Klaatu causes anything mechanical to stop working at noon… except for hospital equipment and planes in flight.  Trapped in an elevator with Helen, he tells her “electricity has been neutralized all over the world.”  It’s more than that, though:  telephones, blenders, newspaper presses, cars… anything mechanical.  Surely this causes the world’s attitude to change?  No.  Instead, they step up the manhunt.

It all culminates at the landing site.  Even with the persecution he’s suffered, Klaatu is concerned about Earth and what Gort might do to it if something happens to him.  He tells Helen if he’s harmed, she must deliver a message to it, “Klaatu barada nikto.”  Ultimately, Klaatu gets to speak before launching his ship.  He says that if we continue to pursue our present course and extend violence throughout the universe, we will face obliteration.  He and Gort are, in essence, policemen from space; he is the messenger, Gort is the enforcer.

It’s both a somber and a hopeful ending, as relevant today as it was 65 years ago.  It would be nice to view The Day the Earth Stood Still as a relic from a primitive time, to look back on it one day and say we considered its warning.  As it is, it’s just a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Although the movie deals with heavy material and evokes a range of emotions, the story is deftly told as sci-fi entertainment within a production that is light years ahead of other 50s cautionary tales.

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