The autumn of '51 was a good one for sci-fi fans. Following just a month after the impressive film, When World's Collide, came another movie that would also become a classic. The Day the Earth Stood Still (TDESS for short) was shot in black and white, but was not a cheap affair. TDESS made a big impression on audiences. For years afterward, the key line "Klaatu barada nikto" was part of the American vocabulary. TDESS is one of the must see sci-fi classics.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A flying saucer comes to earth, touching off much anxiety. (recall The Thing just six months earlier). The saucer lands in Washington DC. Troops encircle the ship, weapons drawn. The alien, Klaatu walks out (in full helmet) says he comes in peace. An edgy soldier mistakes a device Klaatu holds as a weapon and opens fire, wounding the him in the shoulder. His big robot, Gort, emerges, sending the crowds running and screaming. Gort zaps some rifles, a tank and a couple artillery pieces before Klaatu stops him. Klaatu is taken to the hospital. He wants to meet with earth leaders but is stymied by red tape and petty politics. He escapes the hospital and, incognito, and takes up a regular human life in a boarding house as Mr. Carpenter. He's still trying to get the earth to listen to his message. If the earth takes its nuclear threat tinto space, the galactic powers would be forced to destroy the earth. Klaatu gets the earth's attention by stopping all electric power for a day. Hence the film's title. He tells Patricia Neal that if anything happens to him, she must say to Gort: "Klaatu barada nikto" or Gort will destroy the earth. The authorities discover Klaatu. A chase ensues. Klaatu is killed. Neal delivers the cryptic message to Gort. Gort brings Klaatu's body to the saucer. There, he resurrects Klaatu. Armed soldiers surround the saucer. Klaatu emerges and sternly repeats his warning to the earth, then leaves. Only behaving responsibly with nuclear power will spare mankind from annihilation.
Why is this movie fun?
TDESS was the first "friendly alien" movie (if we leave the Man from Planet X as undetermined) that stands in stark opposition to the very-hostile alien in The Thing. Michael Rennie is great as Klaatu/Carpenter. You find yourself rooting for the alien instead of the earthly powers. Patricia Neal is great as the sensitive human. Her jealous boyfriend (the venerable Hugh Marlowe) is credible too. The pacing is good, even by modern ADHD standards.
The inside of the Klaatu's ship is pretty cool too. The set designers put a lot of thought and effort into making the interior un-earthly. Lots of metal and acrylic. This might be the first interior set of a flying saucer in movies. TDESS set a high standard for others to meet. Few do.
Cold War Angle
The Soviets aren't mentioned as villains. Instead, there's a tense spy-on-the-loose subpot which depends on Cold War anxiety for its motivation. The robot, Gort, is an embodiment of "the bomb". As Klaatu explains, his people created a bunch of robots like Gort to act as galactic policemen. Perpetrators of violence would be vaporized. Gort-bots keep the galactic peace via the threat of annihilation. (A Carthaginian Peace?) Even though Klaatu's people created the Gort-bots, they live in fear of them. Sounds rather like The Bomb (with legs).
Biblical Analog -- TDESS interweaves several Biblical themes to tell its basic Cold War pacifist warning message. A stranger comes to earth to deliver his message that mankind can yet be saved from impending judgement. Rather like Christ. Klaatu adopts the name Carpenter -- Jesus' occupation as a young man. He goes about life on earth as "one of us," for awhile. Like Christ, Klaatu dies undeservedly, and is brought back to life. Still the benevolent messenger, he delivers his warning, then rises into the sky (in his saucer). This story line -- a misunderstood benevolent messenger from on high telling mankind of impending judgement -- makes for a strong plot line. No wonder TDESS makes a lot of people's top 10 lists.
They're After Our Women! -- TDESS may be the first sci-fi movie to have one of THE big archetypal sci-fi visual scenes: The Abducted Woman -- the alien/robot carrying off the beautiful earth woman. This visual icon has deep and profound roots in our culture. It deserves an essay of its own, so I won't go into that here. Many movie posters featured The Abducted Woman imagery, even if the scene never took place in the film. TDESS actually has one. In this case, it's benign, but the power of such a visual is huge.
Remake: New Agenda -- The basic story was remade in 2008, by 20th Century Fox. Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu. He has a giant robot named Gort. Klaatu has come to save the earth, but from there, the two movies diverge. In 1951, mankind's sin was not taking nuclear weapons seriously. In 2008, mankind's sin was not taking the environment seriously. In 1951, Klaatu came to warn mankind to behave and live in peace..or else. In 2008, Klaatu came to take samples of nature away from us and destroy us for being bad to the environment. In 1951, the message was hope. In 2008, the message was doom. Quite a few fans of the '51 version dislike the trendy changes.
Bottom line? The original TDESS is a must-see for any classic sci-fi fan. There are just no two ways about it.