From the moment the first movie flickered into existence, fantasy has been a common subject, including trips to the moon and other planets. But to my mind, the first full-blown, serious SF movies began with the 1950s. In 1951, two films featuring visitors from another planet appeared about three months apart: The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still. One was the archetype of the dangerous invading alien and the other the archetype of the godlike, paternal alien, trying to help the human race survive and mature, but with an implied death-threat if we didn’t behave. One is like Satan and the other is like God.
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and is quickly surrounded by the U.S. Army. A humanoid alien of impressive stature steps out, opening a small device which the army assumes is a weapon, and he is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier. An enormous robot, still scary after all these years, emerges and with a heat-ray disintegrates all the army’s weapons. After ordering the robot to stop, the alien explains that the destroyed instrument would have allowed the President to study other planets. Already we see that the humans of Earth are ignorant and violent by nature.
The alien, named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital. His own salve heals his wound as readily as the technology of a major hospital. The Army, meanwhile, is trying to break into the saucer and failing miserably, while the robot Gort (Lock Martin), stands silent and immobile and cannot be moved.
Klaatu has a message to be delivered to all the world’s leaders simultaneously, but this is judged impossible by the President’s secretary Mister Harley (Frank Conroy). Klaatu is kept under guard but escapes easily. He takes a room in a boarding house, meeting the widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Klaatu and Bobby hit it off right away. Helen’s suitor Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) is jealous and informs the authorities on Klaatu’s movements. The boy takes Klaatu to see the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. They go to visit the man Bobby thinks is the greatest scientist, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), but he is not home. Klaatu corrects his equations on the blackboard.
Klaatu returns and tells Barnhardt that the aliens of the Galaxy are worried about the human race developing rockets and atomic power. If they do not change their ways, they will be eliminated as an interplanetary threat. Klaatu returns to his saucer. The next day, at high noon, all the equipment in the world stops functioning for one hour, except for hospitals and airplanes in flight. Klaatu plans to meet with all the world leaders after his demonstration.
Klaatu tells Helen who and what he is, He tells her that if anything happens to him, she must go to Gort and say, “Klaatu barada nikto.” In a confrontation with the army, Klaatu is shot dead. Helen goes to Gort and he takes her into the saucer so we can have pictures of a monster carrying a woman. He retrieves Klaatu’s body and revives him, but only temporarily. Klaatu addresses the world’s scientists. There is an interplanetary police force of robots like Gort. Our choice is to live in peace among the planets of the galaxy or face obliteration. Promising to return for an answer, Klaatu and Gort depart.
Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains were considered for the part of Klaatu, but Michael Rennie was hired because he was relatively unknown, and the audience would have no expectations from him. The top journalists appear as themselves. The Motion Picture Association Film Censor would not let Klaatu be permanently brought back from the dead. He had to mention the Almighty Spirit. But the story is peppered with references to Jesus. Klaatu steals the clothes of Major Carpenter and calls himself John Carpenter. He is killed by the military in charge. He comes to Earth with a message for all and befriends a child. When a radar tech in the beginning sees how fast the saucer can move, he exclaims “Holy Christmas!”
Much of the story comes from a 1940 short story by Harry Bates called “Farewell to the Master”, which appeared in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. He was paid $500. Material was added by SF writer Raymond F. Jones. Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in designing the spacecraft. The film was directed by Robert Wise, without the help of the U.S. Department of Defense. When the Army refused to help, the production went to the National Guard, which had no problem making the Army look incompetent.
Gort was played by Lock Martin, who was an usher at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. He was seven-foot-four and could only work in his seamless suit for half an hour at a time. He could not lift Patricia Neal or Michael Rennie and they had to be supported by wires or trolleys. The brilliant music was by Bernard Herrmann, one of the first scores featuring a theremin, as was The Thing from Another World by Dimitri Tiomkin the same year. Danny Elfman was inspired to go into composing by the score. It was used later in Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space (1965) and his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series.
Sam Jaffe almost did not appear because of his liberal politics. It’s kind of amazing how many roadblocks were thrown in the way of this movie by religion, the right wing, and the military. The equations on Professor Barnhardt’s blackboard are part of the famous “Three body problem” and were written there by a physicist. Arthur C. Clarke listed this as one of the 12 greatest SF films. The American Film Institute had it as one of the Greatest SF films of all time. It was unnecessarily remade in 2008. The consortium that Klaatu represents is surely made up of good aliens, who have a great deal to teach us, though even the best aliens can be dangerous. They seem quite willing to wipe us out if we don’t shape up.