IMDB #218 The Day The Earth Stood Still

Next up, the classic 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, recently remade into a bland Keanu Reeves vehicle. Grab a fedora-style hat, some thick-framed glasses, and cozy up to your talking radio boxes and living room picture machines for the latest inflammatory broadcasts. And no commies!

The Key Players:

Robert Wise. Does that name ring a bell? No? It didn’t with me, but he’s only the editor of Citizen Kane, and the director of The Sound Of Music and West Side Story, for which he won four Oscars, total. Apparently he’s one of the most renowned directors without a distinctively recognizable style- the anti-auteur, if you will. He also directed horror classic The Haunting (another remake victim) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Our stars are Michael Rennie, a british actor mostly famous for this film, and Patricia Neal, an Oscar winner for Hud storied Hollywood veteran.

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The Story:

We begin with a War Of The Worlds style news montage, as reports of a flying saucer speeding through the atmosphere (and towards America, gasp!) reach various parts of the globe- we see news broadcasts from Calcutta, though oddly not from Moscow (as important as the Soviets loom over later events).

A standard, upside-down-bowl-looking flying saucer does indeed land on the Washington, D. C. mall, and the military takes “standard precautions” in response (which involve surrounding with a dozen soldiers while letting the public (who are all seemingly in their best Sunday clothes) mill around the entire spacecraft). Soon a silver humanoid figure emerges, and is promptly shot when he reaches inside his silver coat. Then an even taller, silver humanoid robot emerges and laser-zaps everyone’s guns and tanks into nothing.

The first figure, it turns out, was a very human-looking alien named Klaatu (Rennie), who has come to deliver a warning to Earth about our primitive wars and stuff. He tries to engineer a meeting of every world leader while recuperating (at super-alien speed) in Walter Reid hospital, but is told that American and Russia are too busy thumbing their noses at one another for that to happen.

So he escapes, and decides to befriend an annoying Beaver-ish kid and his mom, the widowed Mrs. Benson (Neal), in the interest of studying the Earth’s inhabitants. He also seeks out a pre-eminent scientist to call together the world’s scientific leaders, all to help him make some mysterious decision.

But Mrs. Benson’s jerk-off suitor and of course, that meddling kid, expose him as an alien and threaten his message of world peace. Oh no!

The Artistry:

Apparently, people in the fifties were either listening to the radio or watching the news on television at every available opportunity, because when they’re not actually talking to the alien, they’re listening to some blowhard on the radio jabber about it or a bespectacled reporter assure them there is no cause for concern.

The beginning of The Day The Earth Stood Still is nearly dialogue-free, as we watch troops assemble and people huddle by the radio. I suppose the title implies the world is united by important extra-terrestrial events, but we only get a few token shots of foreigners to assure us that it’s a global concern.

The score is of particular note, as it’s a classic example of the use of the theremin in sci fi music (you know, the theremin! It goes ooo-EEEEEE-ooooo).

It also has a tendency to blare out melodramatically after long stretches of silence- my hands-down favorite sequence is when Klaatu engineers (by mysterious alien ways) for all of the electricity on Earth to be “neutralized” for half an hour, leading to several shots of things failing to function. They’re all accompanied by a blaring of “oh no!” music, but they get increasingly banal as the montage goes on: a roller coaster that’s stalled, a milkshake machine that won’t work, or even an automatic milking machine that can’t properly affix to a cow!


Klaatu tells Mrs. Benson of his real identity and mission (which is basically to tell us to shape the heck up and stop warring). Fearing exposure, he tells her that should anything happen to him, to find the robot (which is adorably named ‘Gort’) and say the now-famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto.”

Immediately afterward, he gets shot dead (which is accompanied by no score, by the way. So if you’re scoring along at home, “hero of film getting shot” = silence, while “milkshake machine won’t turn on” = DUN DUN DUUNNN!). The police take the body to a prison cell (?), while Mrs. Benson rushes to the spacecraft, where Gort has mostly been standing around the entire film.

But he awakens when Klaatu dies, and immediately vaporizes the two soldiers guarding him. Mrs. Benson arrives, and after a brief horror movie freak out, gives Gort the safe word/phrase. The lumbering metal man picks her up and locks her in the space ship, then goes to bust Klaatu’s body out of jail. He puts him in a very noisy brain-microwave, and our friendly alien hero is alive again!

Klaatu delivers a long speech about how his kind learned to live without wars (by creating a race of sentient super-robots that will destroy them with lasers if they make war), and that the denizens of Earth should lay down their arms.

He leaves, with a departing wink to Mrs. Benson, after concluding that the choice is up to us (but not really, because if we put one toe out of line sentient super-robots will destroy us. With lasers.).


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Oh man, it was cheesy, but fun. Does that count? I say higher, for lasting cultural influence and fun factor.

The Legacy:

Film Registry preservation: check. Clueless and poorly-received remake: Check. “Klaatu barada nikto” having its own Wikipedia entry: Check!

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Not too many clips of the non-Keanu variety. But since someone posted the whole thing in clips, I behoove you to skip to the 6:16 mark of the part below for the hilariously sensational “things not working” montage. Oh no! The motor on my dingy! My washing machine! Not the automated car assembly line!

Leftover Thoughts:

-In this movie, newsmen speak like this: “It is now two AM, and the giant robot STILL hasn’t moved!”

-Klaatu, however, is kind of condescending: “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

-Love the old-timey trope of monsters carrying ladies (I. e. King Kong, The Creature From The Black Lagoon). Was our early-century male consciousness that worried about our ladies being slowly carried places by lumbering behemoths? Also the lady being carried in TDTESS’s poster is not even Patricia Neal, who is not blond!

-Apparently screenwriter Edmund North intended the Christ comparison for Klaatu to be subtle, even though he carries a message of peace, dies and is resurrected, and adopts the alias “Carpenter” for the majority of the film.

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