Classic Reviews: The Day the Earth Stood Still

We’re all geeks, and I’m sure we’ve all heard that line: Gort . . . Klaatu barada nikto.

Once again, we have a Classic Review for your reading (and hopefully, viewing) pleasure here at The Catholic Geeks.  Last time, I reviewed one of my dad’s favorites; just to be fair, time to review one of my mom’s favorites.  Today’s subject:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal.

PosterThis one isn’t quite as influential as Forbidden Planet, but it certainly has its charms.  It is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1951.  It ranks seventh on Arthur C. Clarke’s list of the best science-fiction films of all time, above 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke co-wrote himself.  It still maintains a 94% “certified fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

Just for the record, don’t even bother with the remake of the same name.  No, I’m not going to give you a link to that remake.  Yes, it’s that bad.

This one is older than Forbidden Planet, and the story definitely has a Cold-War feel to it.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does have a slight message-fic aspect.  The plot is good enough that you don’t really mind, but I have to give the disclaimer here at the beginning.  Just remember what was going on in 1951, and you’ll forgive the writers for it.  Edmund H. North (scriptwriter) was a former Army officer.

I’ll start in the same place I did last time: the score.  It was composed by Bernard Herrmann, and inspired Danny Elfman to become a composer.  This score isn’t as groundbreaking as what the Barrons did for Forbidden Planet, but in its own way, it is unique.  It’s not your typical full-orchestra soundtrack.  Herrmann chose unusual instrumentation for it: violin, cello, and bass (all three electric), two theremin electronic instruments (played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure), two Hammond organs, a large studio electric organ, three vibraphones, two glockenspiels, a marimba, a tam-tam, two bass drums, three sets of timpani, two pianos, a celesta, two harps, one horn, three trumpets, three trombones, and four tubas.

That theme was used in the pilot episode of Lost In Space (1965).

Just like Forbidden Planet, we see a flying saucer right after the opening titles.  This time, though, the saucer is headed for Earth, not away from it, like most science fiction stories of the time.  We get to watch the reactions of various Earthlings as the saucer orbits for a while, then decides to land on the Mall in Washington DC.  Most of the dialogue is done by various news reporters, telling us what the flying saucer is doing and what the government proposes to do about it, and — as we would have recognized had we been alive at the time — they were real broadcast reporters, not actors: Gabriel Heatter, H.V. Kaltenborn, and Drew Pearson.

Of course, we have the usual curiosity of crowds of people, and then the spaceship opens up, and out comes our friend Klaatu (Michael Rennie).  He’s dressed in a very 1950s-style spacesuit, but speaks perfect English.  “We have come to visit you in peace and goodwill.”  As he approaches the obviously freaked-out Army guys, he makes a very stupid move and takes something out of his pocket.  The thing looks like a cross between an egg beater and one of those crazy lamps you can buy at Spencer’s.

And Klaatu gets shot.  Hasn’t been on Earth a full minute, and already he’s down.  I guess the Army didn’t believe his statement of peace and goodwill.  That might seem stupid, but this is a Cold War-era film.  At the time, I might have shot the strange alien just on principal, if I was really that scared.


I love the shiny fabric that always seems to turn up in old science fiction. 🙂

As they approach him, the spaceship opens up again, and out comes Gort, this movie’s SCARY ROBOT!

It’s obvious that he is Klaatu’s protector, because he immediately fires a ray from his head and disintegrates the weapons in the soldiers’ hands, as well as the nearest tank before Klaatu orders him to stop, which he does, very obediently.

As the Army guys take Klaatu away to the hospital, he explains that the device they shot him over was in fact a viewing device and a gift for their president.

At the hospital, the doctors are astonished to find that Klaatu appears to be human (and the x-rays prove that to be true), but heals amazingly quickly.  That bullet wound is gone by the next morning.  The doctor is baffled: “He’s very nice about it, but he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor . . . I don’t know whether to get drunk or to quit the practice of medicine.”

Meanwhile, the Army is still trying to get in to Klaatu’s ship, which is impossible.  No tool they have can even scratch it, and all the engineers marvel at the fact that the door that Klaatu and Gort came from isn’t even visible on the outside of the ship, like it has been fused back into a single piece.  Even more amazing is that Gort stands outside the ship, watching, but not bothering them at all.

Klaatu finally gets a visit from the President’s secretary, a man named Harley.  Klaatu insists that he has a message for all the leaders of this planet, and would be be so kind as to gather them all together so that he can deliver it in person?  Harley immediately wants to know what the message is, but Klaatu refuses to give it, on the grounds that it is not a message for one nation, but for all of them, and he doesn’t have time to worry about the squabbles between the stupid little nation-states.  “I won’t resort to threats, Mr. Hartley.  I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.”

Hartley returns after informing the President, who, just as requested, informed Russia (they never use the country’s name, but even to someone not living in the middle of the Cold War, it’s obvious who they’re talking about).  Hartley shows Klaatu all the messages that have been passed back and forth between Washington and Moscow: Russia refuses to participate in any meeting held on United States soil.  The meeting of these national leaders must be held in Moscow.  Great Britain refuses to participate in anything involving Moscow; London is a much better place for a meeting.  And so forth and so on.

What Klaatu sees during that conversation.

What Klaatu sees during that conversation.

Hartley actually manages to look embarrassed as he explains this to Klaatu.  Basically, everyone on Earth is too petty to listen:

“Your impatience is quite understandable.”

“I’m impatient with stupidity.  My people have learned to live without it.”

“I’m afraid my people haven’t.  I’m very sorry . . . I wish it was otherwise.”

Changing tactics, Klaatu wants to go out and visit with the ordinary people of this world.  Hartley forbids it, and leaves guards around Klaatu’s room.

Of course, no such silly human things can stop our alien friend!  Klaatu escapes and makes a run for it, after stealing a suit and a briefcase.

He ends up at a local boarding house, and arrives while the residents are listening to the radio.  Of course, the broadcast is all about the escaped alien.  Klaatu says that his name is “Mr. Carpenter” (which was the name on the dry cleaning receipt in the pocket of the suit he stole) and asks for a room.

Among the residents are Helen Benson (Patricial Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), who, in the manner of curious small boys, immediately takes a shine to Mr. Carpenter (later: “I like you, Mr. Carpenter.  You’re a real screwball!”).

Mrs. Crockett, the landlady, is just plain cute:

“You’re a long way from home, aren’t you, Mr. Carpenter?”

“How did you know?”

“Oh, I can tell a New England accent a mile away.”

PicardFacepalmThe next morning at the breakfast table, the residents of the boarding house are discussing the alien again, giving Klaatu a chance to observe.  They’re all worried about what the alien is up to, and what they should do about it.

My favorite bit:

Mr. Barley: “Why doesn’t the government do something, that’s what I’d like to know.”

Mr. Krull: “What can they do?  They’re only people, just like us.”

Mr. Barley: “People, my foot, they’re Democrats.”

ApplauseThen, the residents start coming up with hypothetical situations, what they would do if they were the alien:

Klaatu: “Perhaps before deciding on a course of action, you’d want to know more about the people here — to orient yourself in a strange environment.”

Mrs. Barley: “There’s nothing strange about Washington, Mr. Carpenter.”

Klaatu: “A person from another planet might disagree with you.”

Mrs. Barley: “If you want my opinion, he came from right here on Earth.  And you know where I mean.”


Look out, Mrs. Barley! The Russians are coming! In SPACESHIPS!

Mr. Krull: “They wouldn’t come in spaceships, they’d come in planes.”

Mrs. Barley: “I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

It’s an interesting look at what being scared does to people.  They’re immediately wary, and they’re even talking about the government lashing out at the alien invader, and don’t even want to believe that he might be here for a good, and peaceful, reason, even though that’s exactly what he said when he got off his ship.

Helen is going to spend a day with her boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe), and Klaatu volunteers to watch Bobby for her.

I love how trusting people are of other people in the 1950s.  Helen just met Mr. Carpenter, and already he’s trustworthy enough to watch her son for the day.  Bobby, too, immediately knows that Mr. Carpenter is a good guy.  And I don’t see anyone calling Child Protective Services on Mrs. Benson.  It’s an interesting difference between the hostility towards the alien on one side, and the automatic trust of “respectable” people on the other.

I know some haters are going to insist that it’s all a big plot, that it’s just the idyllic perception we have of the 1950s, where the War is over and everything is sunny and happy!  Well, people, this movie was made IN the 1950s, and I think I’d trust them to make a movie that reflected their society, just like we do now.  So yes, I think it was a different, more trusting world on one hand, with the same fear that people get of something “alien” on the other hand.

I think we’ve just amplified our definition of what is “alien” in our society.  And what is “alien” is dangerous.  Even your next-door neighbors and everyone on the street that you don’t personally know.  So hide your children!


Bobby takes Klaatu on a tour of the city.  They stop by Arlington Cemetery, where Bobby’s father is buried:

“That’s my father.  He was killed at Anzio.”

“Did all these people die in wars?”

“Most of ’em.  Didn’t you ever hear of Arlington Cemetery?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“You don’t seem to know much about anything, do you, Mr. Carpenter?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Bobby, I’ve been away a long time.  Very far away.”

“Is it different where you’ve been?  Don’t they have places like this?”

“Well, they have cemeteries, but not like this one.  You see, they don’t have any wars.”

“Gee, that’s a good idea.”

CemeteryYep, out of the mouths of babes.  The nice thing about lines like that in this movie is that in any other setting, it would have been a preachy, stupid statement just stuck into a random bit of dialogue to get a hippie, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing message across.  The way it’s written here, though, it’s part of the story.  A little boy on one hand, and an alien on the other.  You know you’re being given a message, but the message doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story.

The best kind of message-fic.

There’s a bit of dialogue about money, when Bobby wants to go to the movies, but Klaatu wants to treat him to it.  We see that Bobby has two dollars, but Klaatu has a little pouch full of diamonds, which are used for currency wherever he’s from.  Klaatu can’t pay for a movie ticket with diamonds, so he trades Bobby two diamonds for his two dollars.  Sneaky kid.  This is important later.

After that, Bobby wants to see the spaceship, so they go with the crowds to watch, and there’s the ship and Gort, still there just like before, only now the place is swarming with reporters.  Bobby wants to know how the ship flies, and Klaatu begins a very scientific explanation before another onlooker laughs and tells him “Keep going, mister.  The kid was believing it!”

The reporter shows up and wants to interview Mr. Carpenter, after talking to a few other bystanders.  Klaatu’s answer to the reporter’s question about whether or not he’s afraid is:

“In a different way, perhaps. I’m always fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.”

The reporter cuts him off and moves on.  As we know, intelligent statements like that aren’t newsworthy.  I guess reporters haven’t changed much in fifty years.

Then Bobby and Klaatu visit the Lincoln Memorial.  He reads the Gettysburg Address, and tells Bobby:

“Those are great words.  He must have been a great man.  That’s the kind of man I’d like to talk to.”  He asks Bobby who is the greatest man in the world today, and Bobby tells him about a scientist named Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) who lives in Washington DC and is supposed to be the smartest man in the world.

Of course, they go to his house, but the Doctor is not home.  On the blackboard, though, is a complex math problem, with instructions to DO NOT ERASE!  Klaatu starts solving it.

BarnhardtIt turns out that the math on the board is real math.  According to Wikipedia, it is a set of equations describing the three-body fundamental to space travel.  The housekeeper catches him and is about the call the police, but Klaatu leaves his boarding house contact information with her and asks that Dr. Barnhardt call him as soon as he returns.

Now we get to the good stuff.

Some government men escort the mysterious Mr. Carpenter from the boarding house and to Dr. Barnhardt’s home.  They had been there at his request, and were worried that he might have been a foreign spy.  The Doctor clears all that up, and has a nice chat with Klaatu:

“Have you tested this theory?”

“I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to another.”

The short version is: now that the Earth has discovered how to use atomic power as a weapon, they have become a place of interest for the rest of the galaxy.  They don’t care what happens ON Earth; they care about Earth being able to take their destructive power into the rest of the galaxy, which is unacceptable.  If the world leaders won’t listen to Klaatu’s message, then he must give it to someone else.  Dr. Barnhardt is holding a meeting of the greatest scientific minds from all over the world, a conference of geniuses, more or less.  So Klaatu agrees to give his message to them, trusting them to take that message back to their homes.  There is a catch, however:

“One thing, Mr. Klaatu.  Suppose this group should reject your proposal.  What is the alternative?”

“I’m afraid there is no alternative.  In such a case, the planet Earth would have to be eliminated.”

“Such power exists?

“I assure you, such power exists.”

So the stakes are high.  All Barnhardt needs is for Klaatu to demonstrate the kind of power he has, something not deadly, but enough to get everyone’s attention, no matter who they are or what they’re opinions are.  Klaatu agrees, and returns to his ship to set it up.

Of course, it’s not that easy.  Bobby follows him, and sees the mysterious Mr. Carpenter talk to Gort and go inside the spaceship.

He runs home to tell his mother and her boyfriend, who don’t believe him.  Poor kid: “I’d never call YOU a liar.”  Of course, this gets the jackass boyfriend all in a tizzy over the mysterious Mr. Carpenter (jealousy, much?).  He actually looks through Carpenter’s room, and that’s when he finds one of the diamonds.  And takes it.  All of a sudden, Bobby’s story about their new housemate being an alien isn’t quite so implausible.

The next morning, Tom takes the diamond to a bunch of different jewelers, trying to find out where it came from, and they all give him the same answer: they’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s completely impossible, because there’s nothing like it anywhere on the Earth.

Meanwhile, Klaatu finds Helen at her office, and wants to talk to her.

PatriciaNealWhile they’re in the elevator going down to the first floor, it stops completely.  It turns out that at exactly noon, all the power everywhere on the planet — electricity, cars, batteries, everything — stopped.  The only exceptions were situations in which people might be killed by that lack of power — planes in flight, and hospitals were left untouched.  Now you know why it’s called The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Klaatu explains that he is responsible, that he’s trying to help, and that he needs her to assist him.

At exactly 12:30, the power is back on, like nothing happened, but now the manhunt for Klaatu has intensified.

Of course, the evil boyfriend tattled on Klaatu to the government, and now they know exactly where to find him.  Helen learns about what Tom did, and kicks the guy to the curb (which is a big deal, considering the night before she was about to agree to marry the jerk).

Helen and Klaatu try to avoid the military men trying to arrest him, and get to Dr. Barnhardt’s house.  While in the cab, Klaatu tells her:

“I’m worried about Gort.  I’m afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me.”

“Gort?  He’s a robot.  Without you, what could he do?”

“There’s no limit to what he could do.  He could destroy the Earth.”

That’s when he gives Helen the message.  If something happens to him, she has to get to Gort and tell him “Klaatu barada nikto.”  No matter what.

The Army finds them, so Klaatu jumps out of the cab to run, and is shot.  Fortunately, Helen runs straight to the spaceship parked on the Mall.

Now we get to see some creepy giant robot kick some serious ass.

Before Helen could get to him, Gort wakes up and kills two guards who tried to stop him from leaving the area.  He zapped them with his laser, and they just disappeared.

GortHe is coming after Helen when she finally manages to get the famous message out: “Klaatu barada nikto!

Gort stops what he’s doing, picks up Helen, and carries her into the spaceship.  After that, he goes to get Klaatu.  The Army put his body in a safe place — give that there’s no telling what a dead alien might do to you — and Gort breaks down a thick concrete wall, grabs Klaatu, and carries him away.

Helen watches as Gort puts Klaatu into a machine, turns it on, and stands back.  There are blinking lights and loud noises, and finally, Klaatu wakes up.

Gort2Now for the interesting conversation of the movie.  This was added after the censors saw it, and before its general release.  Helen is absolutely amazed:

“I — I thought you were –”

“I was.”

“You mean, he has the power of life and death?”

“No.  That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.  This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.”

“But . . . how long?”

“You mean, how long will I live?  That no one can tell.”

It seems that the censors at the MPAA balked at the comparison to Christ.  Klaatu’s alias is John Carpenter, so initials JC.  Carpenter is Jesus’ profession.  Klaatu is misunderstood and killed, only to be resurrected.  The scriptwriter wanted the comparisons to be subliminal, and said that it was only a “private little joke.”  After reading that, I asked my mom if she ever made the comparison, and she looked at me like I had just sprouted another head.  This is one of her favorite movies, she saw it as a kid, and has seen it over and over and over again, and she never once made that connection.

I’m beginning to think that censor was a bit paranoid, but you never know.

Now for the best part.  All the scientists have gathered outside the spaceships, and are waiting for the appearance of Klaatu and his message.  He, Helen, and Gort come out of the ship, and Klaatu makes his speech:

I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more… profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, 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. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

SpeechUnfortunately for all the saps out there (like me), there’s no happily-every-after with Helen and Klaatu.  She steps away from the ship and watches with everyone else as Klaatu and Gort leave, having delivered their message.


Said message is definitely very Cold War.  Live in peace, or be destroyed.  You can definitely tell that an Army vet wrote the screenplay.  Mutually assured destruction, only with alien robots on the other end, instead of Russians.

That doesn’t mean the story isn’t entertaining.  You just have to take it with a slight grain of salt.  We can learn a little from Klaatu.  I like to think of it as just another way of teaching people that, yes, there are consequences to your actions.  If you want to be a jerk, eventually you will run into Gort, who will teach you a lesson.  Or, you can keep it as a big-picture message if you want: stop killing each other off.  Otherwise, we’ll be obliterated, not by aliens, but by each other.

Policing robots don’t stop people from making bad decisions.  You can decide to be a killer all you want.  But if you do, someone will come down on you, and you have to accept that.  You’ve been warned.  What you decide to do is up to you.

Free will, at its finest, but with a caveat: there are bad consequences for bad actions.

Sound a bit Catholic to anyone?

Or, you can take the movie with no message at all.  Just as an example of classic science fiction at its best.

Oh, and it does have its share of influence.  As a tribute, George Lucas named two of the bounty hunters in Star Wars “Klaatu” and “Barada Nikto.”

And for anyone who uses Mozilla Firefox: open a new tab, and type in “about:robots” and hit enter.  I dare you. 🙂

lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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2 Responses to Classic Reviews: The Day the Earth Stood Still

  1. Always one of my fave SF movies…must have seen it easily 20-25 times over the years and I never made the JC connection either until I read of it somewhere! One thing about it being a reflection of its time. One thing I did notice is the crowd scenes around the saucer…White and Black people mixed up together and no one acting as if the other doesn’t belong. Sure there was segregation at the time, but apparently it wasn’t as hard and fast as we’re led to believe today. Final word: This film hasn’t aged at all!


  2. hieronymusillinensis says:

    The stopping of all power on Earth reminds me of the three days of darkness in Catholic prophecies.


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