The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951

Not many movies have more reviews on this site than this one. And for good reason: The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of the best of ’50s sci-fi movies. I’d put it up there with The Thing, Invaders From Mars, Forbidden Planet, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As others have said, it’s unusual in some crucial ways: intellectuals and scientists aren’t depicted as goofy ‘nuts’ getting in the way, but take a rather more reasonable view towards the alien visit than the authorities. That’s possible, of course, due to Klaatu’s (Michael Rennie’s) apparently benevolent mission. That mission’s purpose gets kind of fuzzy, though, as there is an implicit danger; I’m not sure if that’s a contradiction or not.

On the other hand, ordinary folks have more nuanced views of Klaatu/Carpenter. Some are suspicious because he’s different, others don’t mind him at all. Prof. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) treats him as a peer. The scenes of domestic and everyday life give the movie more of an authentic flair, making suspension of disbelief very easy. A nice blend of this down-to-earth with otherworldly drama is Tom’s (Hugh Marlowe’s) eagerness to turn Carpenter in, not least because he sees Carpenter as his rival for Helen (Patricia Neal). Revealing Carpenter’s identity leads to the frightening sequence in which the authorities are completely reactive and one-dimensional; referring to Carpenter’s taxi as “the target vehicle” and then shooting him down in cold blood.

Some have mentioned film-noir aspects in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The scenes with Carpenter and Helen in the elevator, Klaatu emerging from the shadows as he enters the boarding house, the spacecraft site when Gort sneaks up on the guards, and the chase scene, are some of the more tangible noir moments. The creepy music accentuates the generally menacing tone. One could see the Klaatu/Carpenter role as a noir wronged-man protagonist on the run from an array of enemies, with only a few faithful buddies.

Even with the Klaatu-Helen-Tom-Bobby subplot, the pacing is excellent. As many have noted, the movie begins as quickly as possible, with just enough of the worldwide backdrop for verisimilitude. The typical sci-fi pitfall between the local and the global situation is deftly handled. Some of the details get crossed-up, though. Why doesn’t the spacecraft land in New York City so Klaatu can address the U.N.? I recall a Twilight Zone episode having a similar visiting-alien premise incorporating a U.N. meeting. And (to repeat other reviewers a bit), if the aliens have studied us so much, to the extent of learning our language(s), why is Klaatu ignorant of our history? And why can’t Gort cook up some greenbacks so Klaatu doesn’t have to go around with a pocketful of diamonds?

The movie gets a bit preachy at the end, after we’ve already had a ton of political hints. I still can’t figure out if we’re asked to buy into the universal peace message. Do we really want to give up “the freedom to act irresponsibly”? The robot “policemen” he refers to seem too arbitrary; “they act automatically against aggression”. As he puts it earlier, if we don’t accept his conditions “the planet Earth would have to be eliminated.” Doesn’t sound like peace to me. Maybe it’s good that Klaatu is talking out both sides of his mouth. We can both reject the paranoid response to outside influences and still be wary of utopian quick-fixes.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is great filmmaking as well as entertaining sci-fi. There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff going on here, so, despite some flaws, this is definitely worth standing (or sitting) still for the ninety minutes. 9/10.

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