Directed by Robert Wise
September 18, 1951
During the early days of the Cold War an alien visitor comes to Earth with a powerful robot to deliver a message that will affect the future of the entire human race.
This classic film is clearly a story against the nuclear arms race which was heating up at the time. They have a message which is anti-nuclear weapons, and they get it out without beating you over the head with it as is often the case in modern cinema. Message movies often shove what they are trying to say up your nose. This is more like slipping a pet medicine. The message is wrapped in something enjoyable that makes it go down easy. Movie makers need to relearn this.
Director Wise did not try to paint any shades of gray or get wrapped up in excessive drama or excessive story. Fluff could easily have messed this film up. There is just enough here in the story to establish the characters and the world that they will inhabit for the duration of the film. The narrative is tight and streamlined and flows smoothly to the climax. It is not too fast, and it is not plodding along either.
The core cast of characters feels relatively small for a message film. Maybe it is because I am so used to them having a large and at times bloated cast these days that one with a small cast and focused script feels, well, too small. We have our interstellar traveler Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who is accompanied by the robot Gort (Lock Martin-cool name). Along the way Klaatu meets what amounts to as close as we get to a love interest in young mother Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). There is no romance built, but they are friendly. Klaatu builds a bond with her son Bobby (Billy Gray) as the traveler takes in Earth with the child as his guide much to the jealous discomfort of Helen’s boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe).
Noted character actor Sam Jaffe shows up as Professor Jacob Barnhardt whom Klaatu sees as a possible avenue to complete his mission. What jumps out at me each time I see this is the casting of Frances Bavier as Mrs. Barley who is a resident at the boarding house where the core cast resides. She is best remembered as Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show and its successor Mayberry R.F.D. You half expect her to call Andy for help.
While the effects may have aged, the story itself has not. And that is key to being a classic film. The story needs to be well written. The acting needs to be solid and the direction at the minimum needs to be competent. This film has all that and then some. And the movie looks great. Whatever stock footage is in the film does not jump out at you and that is a real issue for me in older science fiction. The quality never quite matches the rest of the film but not here.
The effects, while dated, mostly hold up. They are not so poor looking that you are taken out of the experience. The only major special effects failure in my opinion is when Gort is carrying Helen into the ship and she is struggling. You can clearly see the black wires supporting her while she is supposed to be resting in Gort’s arms. Reportedly Lock Martin, a doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, was not a strong man despite his nearly seven-foot height. Patricia Neal did not appear tall or heavy so it makes me curious how weak he was.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was unusual at the time in way of the way of science fiction. This was a message movie in a science-fiction setting. More unusual though was that the aliens did not come to conquer or destroy the planet just because we existed. Saucer invasion films were quite common. Instead the aliens came to issue an ultimatum and that was we needed to stop our war like ways or else. We could not bring our bad behavior into outer space and not expect repercussions. And more importantly the aliens did not use violence to get their point across. They left enforcement up to robots like Gort.
The film has plenty of metaphors. Some of them definitely irked the MPAA censors of the time. Joseph Breen, the MPAA censor at Fox, took issue with Gort’s apparently unlimited power over life and death so a line was added where Klaatu explains his resurrection is only temporary and the rest is “reserved to the Almighty Spirit.”
Klaatu presents himself as at the boarding house as “John Carpenter” ostensibly taking his name from a tag in the suit he stole from the hospital where he was initially taken. Joseph, Jesus’s Earthly father, was a carpenter and that was the trade Jesus also learned. Klaatu’s Earthly initials (J.C.) have been viewed as representing Jesus Christ as has the message to benefit all of humanity. That is deep right there.
The film itself has had quite the cultural impact. Most significant is the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” which Klaatu directs Helen to say to the robot should anything happen to Klaatu when they decide to visit Dr. Barnhardt. Klaatu and Barada are two individuals who work on Jabba’s sail barge in Return of the Jedi with the former belonging to the Nikto species. The phrase in its entirety is used by Ash Williams in Army of Darkness when he forgets the magical words that he is supposed to actually use. The phrase in its entirety pops up again in the animated series Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius as a spell used during a Harry Potter parody.
Robert Wise was a solid director. He knew how to get a film done and he knew how to do it well. The man brought us a long list of classics over his career. He was behind such films as West Side Story, The Sound of Music; Run Silent, Run Deep, The Andromeda Strain among many others. He knew what he was doing, and that talent was on full display here. This is yet other work of his that has withstood the test of time.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a science fiction classic. It is a solid story with fine acting all around that gets its message across and still works today. Watch it!