THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951, Director Robert Wise)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker[1]

The Day the Earth Stood Still, a statement in favor of international peace and cooperation at the height of the Cold War, was a courageous film that can rightly claim to be the first truly important work of American science fiction cinema. A thoughtful, well-made, relatively high-budget film that was also a box-office success, The Day the Earth Stood Still demonstrated that science fiction on the screen need not be limited to low-budget B-films or films for children. In so doing, it paved the way for future developments in the genre, setting the stage for the explosion in SF films that marked the decade of the 1950s. At the same time, it also exerted a powerful influence on the look and sound of the SF films that followed it.

The Story: Aliens, Robots, and the Cold War

From the basic, and rather simple, short story on which it was based, screenwriter Edmund North and producer Julian Blaustein, eventually joined by Director Robert Wise, crafted a sophisticated, message-laden film, keeping only a few basic elements of the original. In the film, an alien flying saucer lands on the mall in Washington, D.C. The Christlike alien Klaatu (British actor Michael Rennie) and the giant robot Gort (portrayed by 7’ 7” giant Lock Martin, inside an aluminum-painted rubber suit that makes him appear even taller) emerge from within, bearing a message of peace. They are, however, greeted with violence, triggering a chain of events through which the film broadcasts a stern warning against automatic hatred of anyone who appears to be different. The film also condemns the rapidly accelerating Cold War arms race and applauds the notion of international cooperation, with the recently formed United Nations looming in the background as the ultimate hero of the piece.

As the film opens, news of the approaching spacecraft is broadcast around the world. Police and military react swiftly, mobilizing to surround the ship (a classic flying saucer) as it lands amid several baseball diamonds near the Washington Monument. They train their weapons on the ship as Klaatu emerges to walk down a long ramp onto the grassy surface. Klaatu immediately announces that “We come to visit you in peace and with good will.” However, when he attempts to offer a gift for the President of the United States, it is thought that he is pulling a weapon, and a trigger-happy soldier shoots him down. Gort responds by vaporizing the weapons in the vicinity (including tanks and artillery) with a ray that emanates from his visor. Luckily, Klaatu calls him off before any humans are harmed, but his demonstration of power adds a note of suspense to the film, a note that will be dramatically reinforced later when it becomes obvious that Gort has the power to destroy the entire planet if he so chooses.

Klaatu finally gets a chance to explain his peaceful intentions and is taken away to Walter Reed Army Hospital, where his wound heals overnight thanks to the use of a powerful salve that he happens to have in his possession. Examinations in the hospital show that he has an entirely normal human physiology, though he claims to be seventy-eight years old, yet looks thirty-five. He explains that, due to advanced medicine, life expectancy on his planet is one hundred thirty years. The unspoken implication is that the knowledge of Klaatu’s people might be of great benefit to earth, though the xenophobic earthlings are so concerned with defending themselves that they never really pursue this possibility.

The identity of Klaatu’s home planet is never revealed. “Let’s just say we’re neighbors,” he says when asked, though he does say that he has come from 250,000,000 miles away, a distance that would place Klaatu’s planet well within the solar system, but that does not correspond well to any given planet. (Media speculation on Klaatu’s origins predictably focuses on Mars, which is generally much closer than the cited distance). When the U.S. government sends a high-level envoy to invite Klaatu to an audience with the President, the alien visitor refuses, insisting that he wants to speak simultaneously to representatives from all of the nations of the earth. Told that the tense geopolitical situation makes such a meeting impossible, Klaatu announces that he is “impatient with stupidity,” then slips out of the hospital to go among the earth’s people in pursuit of his mission. Having stolen a suit from the hospital that still carries a laundry tag identifying it as the property of a Major Carpenter, Klaatu adopts the name “Carpenter,” in one of the many motifs in the film that identify him as a sort of Christ figure. He then takes up residence in a boarding house, apparently so that he can live among the people of earth and learn more about them and their ways.

The lodgers at the boarding house include Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), as well as a Mrs. Barley (played by Frances Bavier well before she became the beloved Aunt Bea of The Andy Griffith Show), who stands as a marker of Cold War anti-Soviet bigotry with her theory that the spacecraft and its inhabitants come not from outer space but from right here on earth: “and you know where I mean,” she archly explains. Carpenter/Klaatu strikes up a friendship with Helen and (especially) Bobby, who serves as his guide around Washington and eventually takes him to see Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a renowned physicist. Klaatu convinces Barnhardt to convene an international meeting of the world’s leading intellectuals, hoping to find in them a more receptive audience than he had found among politicians. As these luminaries gather in Washington, Klaatu gets their attention with a show of force, immobilizing all the earth’s electrical/mechanical devices for half an hour—and giving the film its title. However, hospitals, planes in flight, and similar critical cases are spared this demonstration, thus presumably assuring that the electrical stoppage will not lead to loss of human life—and confirming that Klaatu is a benign visitor.

Unfortunately, before the meeting of intellectuals can begin, Klaatu is hunted down by the authorities using information supplied by Helen’s self-serving insurance salesman boyfriend, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). He is shot down and killed, his body locked in a cell. Before he dies, however, he gives Helen a message to take to Gort, knowing that Gort will otherwise automatically retaliate with mass destruction. Helen then averts this destruction with the now famous message: “Klaatu barada nicto,” quoted in numerous science fiction works in the subsequent half century. In response to the message, Gort retrieves Klaatu’s body and takes it back to the ship, where he uses advanced technology to resurrect his fallen leader, again echoing the story of the execution and resurrection of Christ. The risen Klaatu, however, explains that his resuscitation is a matter of science, not miracles, and that he will now remain alive only for a limited time, absolute power over life and death being reserved to the “almighty Spirit.”

The film reaches its didactic climax as Klaatu emerges from the spacecraft to issue his stern final warning to Barnhardt’s gathered dignitaries. He explains that he represents an organization charged with keeping interplanetary peace, something it has managed to do by inventing a race of invincible robot supercops (of whom Gort is one), programming those robots to enforce peace by any means necessary. “It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet,” he tells the gathering. “But if you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” He and Gort then reenter the ship and fly away into space, ending the film with this ultimatum hanging in the air.

The Source of the Movie

The Day the Earth Stood Still is very loosely based on a story by Harry Bates entitled “Farewell to the Master.” In the story, a strange craft (apparently traveling through both space and time) suddenly materializes just outside the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. When the humanoid (but somehow godlike) alien Klaatu emerges from the craft accompanied by Gnut, a giant metallic robot, he is shot and killed by a sniper. Fearing retribution, the authorities order Klaatu buried in a hero’s monument, then build a special new wing of the Smithsonian around the craft, which remains on the ground with Gnut standing motionless outside it. Most of the plot involves the efforts of protagonist Cliff Sutherland, a reporter-photographer, to get a scoop by hiding inside the museum at night to try to catch Gnut engaged in some sort of secret activity. He finds that Gnut does indeed move during the night, becoming involved in strange goings-on such as a battle with a large gorilla that emerges from the craft in the night. Eventually, it turns out that all of the activities are part of an effort to find a way to resurrect (or, actually, re-create) the fallen Klaatu, an effort that seems headed for success after a suggestion made by Cliff himself. Armed with the necessary information to make a perfect duplicate of Klaatu, Gnut prepares to leave. Just before his ship dematerializes, he reveals a final plot twist: he is not Klaatu’s loyal servant, as Cliff has assumed all along. Instead, it is Gnut who is the master and Klaatu the servant.

Science Fiction with a Message: Aliens and the Arms Race in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still was a landmark of American science fiction cinema. Unlike most of its immediate predecessors (and, for that matter, successors) it was a well-crafted A-list film, with strong support from a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and a top-notch director and cast. Moreover, in opposition to the notion that science fiction films were intended for pure entertainment (oriented especially toward children), The Day the Earth Stood Still was a film for thinking adults; serious and cerebral, it addressed crucial contemporary political issues in a mature and courageous way. At the same time, the film is highly entertaining, even to children, especially because of the important role played by young Bobby.

Due to the controversial antimilitaristic stance of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the U.S. Department of Defense refused to cooperate when asked to loan some equipment and soldiers from the army for use in the film. Instead, the makers of the film had to borrow equipment and manpower from the Virginia National Guard, which was reportedly happy to cooperate. The film’s message of international peace caused The Day the Earth Stood Still to be awarded a Golden Globe Award for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.” Then again, the Golden Globes are given out by the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an organization that might have been expected to support international peace and oppose American militarism. Meanwhile, the film’s political stance may also have contributed to the fact that it received no Academy Award nominations, though the science fiction genre of The Day the Earth Stood Still might have precluded it from extensive consideration by the Academy in any case. Granted, the politically orthodox Destination Moon had won an Oscar for Special Effects and had been nominated for another for Best Art Direction a year earlier. However, The Day the Earth Stood Still is an elegantly simple black-and-white film that actually includes very little in the way of razzle-dazzle special effects or space-age stage settings. The most impressive demonstration of superior alien technology occurs in the scene in which the earth’s machinery is brought to a halt, a phenomenon that requires no special effects at all—just a few shots of stalled machines. Similarly, Klaatu, the principal alien, appears entirely human, so that his representation involves no special effects at all. Gort, portrayed by a man in a rubber suit, requires little in the way of special effects either, though the scenes in which a ray emanates from his eyes (created simply by adding animation to the filmed sequences), destroying earthly weaponry (and, in one case, two earthling soldiers) are in fact the most obvious examples of special effects in the film. The other instance of special effects concerns the ship itself, though those effects are minimized by the fact that the ship spends most of its time sitting motionless on the ground. While in that position it is primarily represented by a full-scale model made mostly of wood, though some scenes (especially those shot from above the ship) employed a smaller scale model. The design of the ship is rather minimalist, a simple, smooth flying saucer with no lights, bells, or whistles, though the hatch that opens to extend a long entry ramp, then completely disappears when closed, is a good touch. The simple, clean design of the interior of the ship was quite effective as well, providing a model for any number of future cinematic alien interiors. Finally, the most impressive special effect in the film may be the initial landing of this craft (also achieved via animation), which shows it flying past various Washington landmarks, then coming to rest among the baseball diamonds, complete with the shadow that it seems to cast on the ground as it lands.

Director Robert Wise had been the film editor on such illustrious works as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Wise had also started his career as a director on the latter film, though with a somewhat inauspicious debut: at the behest of RKO Radio Pictures and with Welles away in South America on another project, Wise directed a new ending sequence for Ambersons (the one that was ultimately released in theaters) that many criticshave felt undermines the entire film. Nevertheless, by the time of The Day the Earth Stood Still,Wise had already begun to show genuine talents as the director of a number of competent Westerns and as the director of at least one film, The Set-Up (1949), that is now considered a film noir classic and one of the best boxing dramas ever made. Meanwhile, he got his start as a director of his own films working with producer Val Lewton, whose films for RKO Pictures were the most important horror films of the 1940s. For Lewton, Wise directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944), as well as The Body Snatcher (1945), a now much-admired horror film that featured legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Wise would go on to direct a number of classics, including West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). He would also later expand his science fiction credentials as the director of The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

The Day the Earth Stood Still clearly shows the mark of its director’s hand. For one thing, it is extremely competently made, well-photographed and well-edited. Stock shots, process shots, and location shots of Washington, D.C. (shot by a second unit directed by Bert Leeds) are seamlessly merged with the rest of the film (shot in the 20th Century-Fox studios) to create an effective sense that the action occurs in the U.S. capital, even though the cast members and the main crew never left California during the seven weeks of shooting. The entire film is shot in black and white (Wise at that time had yet to make a color film), and that medium is used to good atmospheric effect. In particular, low-key lighting and dramatic shadows are used to build tension and to create a sense of suspense, much in the mode of the German expressionist predecessors of American science fiction film but also in the manner of American film noir, a genre that shared an aesthetic with the horror films of Lewton and to which Wise also made important contributions in such films as The Set-Up, The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). For example, when Carpenter/Klaatu first appears at the boarding house, the boarders sit in a dimly lit room watching television reports concerning the alien visitor that urge citizens to be on the lookout, though they acknowledge that available photographs are of little help for identification purposes because they are mostly silhouettes that do not show Klaatu’s face. When the boarders look up upon Carpenter’s entrance, already jittery from the news reports, they see only a dark, ominous-looking, back-lit silhouette that immediately links the newcomer to the television reports. As Carpenter steps into the light, the boarders are ironically reassured, concluding that his calm human visage could not be that of an invader from outer space.

One of the most striking technical aspects of The Day the Earth Stood Still is the music, based on Bernard Herrmann’s outstanding score, which smoothly merges with the noirish look of the film to further enhance the atmosphere of strangeness and potential peril. Herrmann’s impressive screen credentials include classics such as Citizen Kane and many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. He also worked extensively in science fiction, supplying the scores for such films as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Mysterious Island (1961), and Fahrenheit 451 (1966), as well as several episodes of The Twilight Zone. The music of The Day the Earth Stood Still has been so widely imitated that it now sounds almost clichéd. It is important to realize, however, that, at the time, the music marked a genuine breakthrough in science fiction cinema. Herrmann himself stated that this score was the most innovative and experimental film music he ever wrote. It features a number of electronic-sounding effects produced through the creative use of instruments such as harps, electric violins, and a mixed brass section.[2] However, the most important instruments in this regard were probably the two theremins that were used to produce particularly eerie and otherworldly background music for the opening titles and for key sequences during the film, especially those involving Gort. The theremin, then very seldom used, is an electronic instrument (invented by the Russian engineer Léon Theremin, subject of the 1994 documentary film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey) that produces a tone with two high-frequency oscillators, the pitch of which is produced by the movement of the player’s hands over the instrument’s electronic circuits—much in the way the controls of the spaceship in The Day the Earth Stood Still are operated by the movement of Klaatu’s hands over them. The theremin would go on to be used in popular music such as the Beach Boys’ 1967 hit “Good Vibrations,” though its greatest importance to popular music probably came from the inspirational effect it had on Robert Moog in the development of his synthesizer, which dramatically changed popular music. The theremin itself had been used earlier to create an eerie atmosphere in such noir films as Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (both 1945, both with music by Miklós Rózsa), but it has seen its widest use in science fiction film, where it quickly became a staple.

However, despite its highly influential look and sound, The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably best remembered today not for its technical accomplishments but for its advocacy of peace and international cooperation, an advocacy made all the more striking by the fact that the film appeared during the Korean War and thus at the very height of international Cold War tensions. Of course, the film also appeared in the midst of a rising tide of “UFO” sightings and popular concern over the possibility that alien spacecraft, generally in the form of “flying saucers,” were visiting earth, possibly with hostile intentions. This concern had been particularly spurred by the widely publicized rumors of the crash of a UFO near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its vision of benevolent aliens who have come to earth on a mission of peace (only to be greeted with suspicion and violence), thus went against the grain of both anti-Soviet and anti-alien hysteria. Of course, these two forms of hysteria are informed by a similar xenophobia, and it is no accident that the height of fears over invasion by extraterrestrials occurred precisely when the American public had been primed by official propaganda to expect an unprovoked attack by the sinister forces of communism. Indeed, the numerous alien invasion films and novels produced during the 1950s are quite widely regarded as allegorical responses to the fear of Soviet invasion on the part of American audiences during that period.[3]

Thus, if the paranoid treatment of the possibility of alien invasion in many SF films of the 1950s can be taken as an allegorical representation (and sometimes even endorsement) of the fear of communist invasion or subversion, the critique of xenophobia in The Day the Earth Stood Still can be taken as a sort of counter-allegory—as a critical commentary on the anticommunist hysteria that was then sweeping the United States. This aspect of the film includes an extensive interrogation of the role of the media in producing and stimulating mass hysteria by sensationalizing accounts of the dangers posed to earth by the alien visitors. Indeed, from its very opening scenes, in which radio commentators in India, France, Britain, and the United States are seen announcing the approach of the spacecraft even before it lands, the film acknowledges the crucial role played by the media in determining the popular perception of events in the world.

The then-new medium of television is prominent among the media represented in The Day the Earth Stood Still, marking still another way in which the film was a landmark in American cultural history. Indeed, film historian Vivian Sobchack has argued in her book Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film that the depiction of television broadcasts in the film may have “set the standard for all traditional film telecasts and news montages to follow.” Radio, however, remains the dominant medium in The Day the Earth Stood Still—and the one most given to lurid accounts of the alien threat. In one scene, a radio interviewer questions the crowd gathered on the mall around the spacecraft, clearly leading those interviewed to express fear and anxiety. When Klaatu (in the guise of Carpenter) is himself questioned, he begins to make a statement against fear and in favor of understanding; the interviewer abruptly cuts him off and moves on, hoping for more interesting responses. The most sensational account of all occurs in a radio broadcast made by nationally-known radio commentator Gabriel Heatter, who appeared as himself in the film despite the fact that it portrays him and similar commentators in a very negative light. Heatter, urging his audiences to aid in the hunt for Klaatu, announces in a mood of near hysteria that “the monster must be found. He must be tracked down like a wild animal; he must be destroyed!”

Given what we already know about Klaatu, Heatter’s frenzied entreaty comes off as particularly wrongheaded, and the similarity between his rhetoric and the rhetoric that was being used daily to whip up anticommunist hysteria among the American populace gives this scene a much broader significance. The Day the Earth Stood Still clearly suggests that earth’s violent response to the appearance of aliens on the planet is immature and reprehensible, and it is certainly the case that the construction of the film invites audiences to identify with Klaatu and to side against the military forces that are mobilized against him. Audience sympathy with Klaatu is reinforced by the numerous parallels between the alien visitor and Christ, which also serve to suggest that the wave of militarism sweeping Cold War America at the time of the film was inconsistent with America’s claim to be a nation informed by Christian principles.

Of course, the antimilitaristic message of The Day the Earth Stood Still is quite clear even without these Christian parallels. Indeed, Wise himself has stated that he was entirely unaware of these parallels until they were brought to his attention after the film had been completed. On the other hand, these parallels are so obvious that Wise’s claim seems a bit difficult to believe; the film even film ran afoul of 20th Century-Fox’s censors over the scene in which Klaatu arises from the dead, a scene that the censors felt made the parallel between Klaatu and Christ all too clear, causing them to insist on the insertion of the line concerning the limited nature of Klaatu’s resurrection.

In any case, the most important message of the film concerns its plea for international cooperation rather than nationalist competition, accompanied by its rejection of the kind of xenophobic hysteria that informed contemporary American anticommunism. In his book Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties,film critic Peter Biskind thus describes The Day the Earth Stood Still as “left-wing sci-fi” (150). Moreover, he suggests that the film was able to make its left-wing statements precisely because it was science fiction, a genre that provided “freedom for uncompromising left-wing statement” because it was “so thoroughly removed from reality” (159). Then again, one might also argue that the film was able to get away with its controversial political stance partly because it was made by 20th Century-Fox (one of the more conservative of the major studios) and endorsed by studio head Zanuck, a Republican who had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel as the head of a documentary film unit in World War II.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is certainly critical of the anticommunist fervor that was so widespread in the U.S. at the beginning of the 1950s, and there is no doubt that the film’s politics are further to the left than those of many alien-invasion films of the decade. On the other hand, the political stance of the film is probably not nearly as far to the left as Biskind seems to indicate. The film is in no way pro-Soviet or procommunist but is simply an antimilitarist denunciation of the folly of the Cold War arms race. More accurate as an assessment of the film’s politics is James Shaw’s description of it (published in the journal Creative Screenwriting in 1998 and based on interviews with several of the film’s principals, including Wise, North, and Blaustein), as a “rational response to the McCarthy era,” arising from the politics of the New Deal. More than anything, the film is an endorsement of the then relatively new United Nations and a plea to give the UN more power to enforce international peace. The interplanetary organization represented by Klaatu is clearly a sort of galactic UN, and the film’s endorsement of the power granted this organization to keep peace by any means necessary can be taken as a powerful statement in favor of such intervention on earth by our own UN.

In his book Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s, Mark Jancovich argues that The Day the Earth Stood Still is not left-wing at all. Instead, he believes the film’s positive figuration of Klaatu’s interventionism makes it an intensely authoritarian work that supports and defends “the scientific-technical rationality of the American state” (42). This reading probably goes too far in the context of 1951. However, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, when the U.S. has openly accepted the role of global policeman, the film’s acceptance of interventionism seems almost prescient. There is very little difference between Klaatu’s warning that the earth will face dire consequences if it develops weapons of mass destruction that pose a threat to other planets and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq precisely on the premise that Iraqi aggression was a threat to America and other nations.

In any case, The Day the Earth Stood Still is politically charged in ways that go beyond its obvious opposition to the Cold War arms race. For one thing, the film takes a number of passing satirical swipes at various aspects of American society. For example, the boarder Mr. Barley (John Brown) is not only just as thick-skulled as his wife, but he is also apparently a Republican, thus linking the narrow-mindedness of both Barleys to that party. Told that the people in government (then the Democratic Truman administration) will handle the crisis caused by the arrival of the alien visitors, Barley scoffs, “They’re not people—they’re Democrats.” In addition, it is no accident that the Judas-figure Tom Stevens is an insurance salesman; his negative depiction as a venal, opportunistic cad takes a jab not only at that particular profession but at American business in general. Stevens is more than willing to sell out Klaatu, even though he has been assured of the alien’s good intentions. After all, he reasons, if he can become known as the man responsible for the capture of the alien invader, it might open up all sorts of opportunities for him. Warned by Helen that his intervention might lead to dire consequences for the rest of the world, he simply announces, “I don’t care about the rest of the world.”

One of the most important political statements in The Day the Earth Stood Still involves its extremely positive representation of Professor Barnhardt as a figure of courage, wisdom, and compassion. Barnhardt serves as a transparent stand-in for Albert Einstein, a controversial figure during the Cold War: not only was he both a foreigner and a Jew (World War II had discredited, but had not eliminated, American anti-Semitism), but he was also an international celebrity who openly used his prominence to agitate for peace. Meanwhile, the casting of Jaffe in the role made Barnhardt even more controversial as a character. The anticommunist purges that swept Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s were at their very height, and many actors, directors, and screenwriters had been blacklisted for suspected communist sympathies. Jaffe was among those who were suspected of having such sympathies, causing the film’s casting director to ask that he be replaced in the role of Barnhardt for that reason. Backed by Zanuck, producer Blaustein insisted on keeping Jaffe in the role, though it would be his last appearance in an American film for seven years.

Science in general had a complex and contradictory reputation in 1950s America. On the one hand, science was widely endorsed as a key to progress and prosperity and to continuing improvements in a variety of technologies, including communication, transportation, and even household appliances. On the other hand, science had also led to the development of atomic weapons that threatened to destroy human civilization. Further, science (especially atomic physics) had become so complex that ordinary people increasingly saw it as beyond their understanding. Scientists seemed engaged in unknown and mysterious activities, a fact that immediately made them objects of suspicion in the paranoid 1950s. To make matters worse, many of the leading scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and who remained crucially involved in key American  research projects were foreigners, which again made them objects of xenophobic scrutiny. 

In addition to the specific link between Barnhardt and Einstein, The Day the Earth Stood Still represents intellectuals in general as positive figures who can potentially provide better leadership toward global peace than can the world’s political leaders. Klaatu himself is clearly an intellectual of sorts. Thoughtful and wise, he is well enough versed in mathematics and science to be able to help Barnhardt complete a thorny calculation that had previously proved intractable.

Of course, the fact that Klaatu’s facility with mathematics goes beyond even that of Barnhardt (portrayed as the earth’s greatest scientist) is one of the film’s many reminders of the superiority of his civilization to that of earth. The vast superiority of the medical knowledge of Klaatu’s people (which makes the doctors at Walter Reed feel like primitive witch doctors) is another such example. Thus, the final lesson of the film is one of humility, suggesting that the people of earth have a long way to go before they are sufficiently advanced to be able to deal with Klaatu’s people on equal terms. Indeed, from the lofty perspective of Klaatu, the various political and other disagreements that seemed of such cosmic importance to humans in 1951 are downright silly, the squabbles of ill-behaved children.

Serious Science Fiction: The Legacy of The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still is an effective counterweight to any number of paranoid alien invasion films of the 1950s. It also influenced several other films that represented aliens in a positive light. One of the most effective of these is Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), in which an alien craft crashes on earth due to mechanical difficulties, but in which the aliens otherwise have no interest in earth or earthlings (who, of course, greet them with suspicion and violence). Also worth a look is The Man from Planet X (1951), directed by the semi-legendary Edgar G. Ulmer, famous for his ability to turn ultra-low-budget films—such as The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945)—into minor classics. Here, a perfectly harmless alien is greeted with hostility by paranoid earthlings and eventually blown to bits by the British military. Ultimately, of course, the suggestion in The Day the Earth Stood Still that the Cold War is just plain silly leads directly to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), the film that virtually finished off Cold War paranoia as a film motif by demonstrating the utter folly and absurdity of the arms race. However, in Kubrick’s film a nuclear holocaust occurs precisely because the most deadly of earth’s weaponry has been handed over to the control of machines, a move that The Day the Earth Stood Still seems to believe might be a good idea.

The Day the Earth Stood Still suggests that we might be better off were we to allow superior robots like Gort to have dominion over us. This suggestion in turn echoes that made in Isaac Asimov’s story collection I, Robot (1950) that the earth might be well served if vastly sophisticated thinking machines ruled the planet. However, a very different take on this kind of suggestion can be found in Joseph Sargent’s Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Perhaps building on the antiauthoritarian 1960s, this film views planetary rule by an advanced computer as a horrifying tyranny, despite the fact that the computer seems devoted to the overall good of humanity and to solving various problems (such as wars, famines, and plagues) that humans have proved unable to solve for themselves. Paul Verhoeven’s later Robocop (1987) splits the difference. Automated law enforcement is depicted in the film as an unscrupulous ploy on the part of a giant corporation, which cares very much about profit and not at all about people. However, the title “robot” (actually a cyborg) is a positive figure, if only because he is part human and retains many of his human characteristics, thus setting him apart from other automated products of the corporation. Similarly, the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the later Terminator films is a positive figure because he sides with humanity against machines, though his character in James Cameron’s original Terminator film (1984) exemplified the vision in that series of computerized machines with no use for human beings at all.

The Day the Earth Stood Still also anticipates a spate of films in the late 1970s and early 1980s that presented aliens in a relatively positive light, including Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and John Carpenter’s Starman (1984). These films then lead directly to James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), in which vastly superior aliens once again issue an ultimatum demanding that the opposed forces of Cold War to bring their rivalry to an end. Positive representations of aliens have continued to appear since that time, the most prominent recent example being Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). The Day the Earth Stood Still was itself remade in 2008, directed by Scott Derrickson and with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. In this case, the threat of nuclear warfare is replaced by the threat of catastrophic environmental decay, updating the warnings of the film, though most observers felt that the new film lacked the effectiveness of the original.

NOTES


[1] This discussion is adapted from my chapter on The Day the Earth Stood Still in my book Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Praeger, 2006).

[2] Herrmann’s comments are contained in an interview with Ted Gilling printed in the journal Sight and Sound (vol. 41, Winter 1971/72).

[3] See, for example, my discussion of this phenomenon in my book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War (Greenwood Press, 2001).