Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)
Release Date: September 28th, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Wise Actors: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Frances Bavier
saucer-like spacecraft lands in Washington, D.C., capturing the attention of denizens across the globe. Humanoid emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges with an immediate introduction of peace and good will – alongside his intimidating, hulking, 8-foot robot bodyguard Gort – but is accidentally shot while presenting an exotic gift. As the military takes control of the situation by rushing Klaatu to a hospital and confining him to a cell, the strange visitor decides he must intermingle with other humans to help him with his ultimate mission: to warn the leaders of the world that total obliteration awaits if human aggression and violence are not put to a halt.
After escaping from his quarters and assuming the name of Mr. Carpenter, Klaatu rents a room adjacent to Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her inquisitive young son Bobby (Billy Gray). He interacts with them to experience the decency and reasoning humankind can exhibit, which the strict, unfriendly, regimented U.S. war machine could not offer. When Klaatu arranges a meeting with the top scientists in the nation, jealousy and paranoia from Helen’s boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe) lead to further military intervention.
Klaatu doesn’t want to clarify his assignment to individuals, but he has no problem detailing his advanced methods of medicine, his 130-year life expectancy, or his knowledge of space travel. His people have learned to live without war and violence; presidential advisor Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy) admits that mankind has not learned to live without stupidity. The government’s ability to solve the escalating situation of utilizing deadly weaponry is questioned, alluding to the Cold War paranoia, political turmoil, and general economic unrest of the post-WWII era. But Klaatu readily provides a solution, with a demonstration of Earth’s dire predicament necessary to dictate the seriousness of the situation. The complete neutralization of electricity, which literally causes the Earth to stand still (giving substantial meaning to the title), is imposed over a 30-minute blackout – resulting in a panicked, nationwide manhunt and the quarantining of the city.
In the 1951 classic, alien visitor Klaatu arrives simply to deliver a message – one that leaves the fate of the planet in the hands of the people yet cautions them to govern with moral proprieties. In the 2008 remake, Klaatu arrives for a different reason: he must pass judgment over the guilty as well as carry out an execution. The differences in his purpose cause both films to head toward drastically contrasting plot directions. But what is most surprising about the update is the removal of almost everything creative, allegorical, and thought-provoking devised in the original.
Writer Edmund H. North’s adaptation (of the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates) proves that an intelligent, well-written script can easily make up for a lack in visual luster. A few visible wires, a crash of cymbals to replace onscreen intensity, and a clunky robot design (which is now famously iconic) are quickly forgiven as an engaging storyline and memorable characters fill the void of what would nowadays be computer-augmented special effects. While some accuse “The Day the Earth Stood Still” of preaching messages over delivering thrills, it’s a frequently recognized science-fiction staple of alien invaders, the near-miss engaging of failsafe switches for out-of-control technological dependence, and a prescient warning of the decline of civilized international cooperation.
– The Massie Twins