Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Graffiti messages tend to be clichéd, obscene or vapid, but once every few years I get a smile on my face when I see “Klaatu barada nikto!” scrawled on some random bit of fence or wall. It’s a critical line in this week’s film recommendation, Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In a decade when countless movies showed the good people of Earth being threatened by evil aliens (e.g., Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The War of the Worlds) Edmund H. North’s subtle, intelligent screenplay inverted the usual premise. In this case, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and disgorges a literate, moral, peace-loving and thoughtful alien (Michael Rennie, in his finest hour) who spends most of his movie under siege by petty, violent and backward Earthlings.

The alien, Klaatu, hopes to persuade humanity to renounce war and atomic weaponry, but mankind isn’t ready to agree (This is wistfully conveyed to Klaatu early in the film by Frank Conroy, in an uncredited, quietly powerful performance as an advisor to The POTUS). After an initial brutish encounter with the military, Klaatu escapes and decides he must learn more about humanity if he is going to save it. He adopts the name of Carpenter (ahem) and moves to a rooming house run by a widow and her boy (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray, who are believable and appealing). The two of them give Klaatu’s hope for humanity, leading him to confide in them about his true nature and mission.

The ingenious premise of the script allows this film to be as much social comment as science fiction. As the alien visitor watches human beings interact, tours the graves of Arlington Cemetery and reflects on our greatest president’s words at the Lincoln Memorial, we see ourselves through his sadder and wiser eyes, with profound emotional effect.

The special effects are solid for the period, with the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced flying saucer being a particular highlight. Yet the effects don’t overwhelm the story or acting as they often have in more recent zillion dollar CGI-laden sci-fi films. Bernard Herrman’s score is also appropriate to the visuals and themes of the movie. All of this is a credit to Robert Wise’s ability to maintain tone throughout a film. To a number of film buffs, Robert Wise is the hack who destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons, a company man who did whatever project he was assigned but had no artistic vision of his own. If you hold to that negative view of Wise, you really should watch this movie, observe how well it is constructed, see how consistently excellent the performances are, and note how efficiently and effectively the story is told. Wise won Oscars for other films, but in my opinion this movie best demonstrates his considerable skills as a film maker.

Here is the cleverly crafted trailer to this masterpiece of science fiction:

p.s. for trivia fans. There are two scientific errors in the script and they both appear on the same scene. Klaatu, whose ship we see approaching our solar system from far away during the opening credits, tells the POTUS’ advisor that he is from another part of the galaxy that is 250 million miles away (oops!) and that he knows how to talk like a contemporary American because he has been monitoring Earth’s radio programs on his own planet (double oops!).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day the Earth Stood Still”

  1. Also worth pointing out: the movie was based on Harry Bates’s classic short story “Farewell to the Master”, but with some crucial differences. The movie left out the story’s surprise ending. Most people who read the story (at least if they encounter it before encountering the movie) probably remember the surprise ending more than anything else.

  2. The line that immediately runs through my head is, “Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still/But he told us where we stand.” Busted.

  3. I saw this years ago in an undergrad honors seminar called America in the 1950’s. It’s one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, in my opinion.

  4. «There are two scientific errors in the script and they both appear on the same scene. Klaatu tells the POTUS’ advisor that he is from another part of the galaxy that is 250 million miles away (oops!) and that he knows how to talk like a contemporary American because he has been monitoring Earth’s radio programs on his own planet (double oops!).»

    Well, 250 milion miles is within the Solar system (and in another part of the Galaxy in the trivial sense that two points are in diferent parts if they’re not the same one) , so radio is quite usable when only listening

    1. An alien who learned our languages by listening to radio waves far off in the galaxy (The opening credits show Klaatu’s ship coming in from outside our solar system) would be hearing old radio and would therefore not talk like a contemporary person.

      (and p.s. there is no planet 250 million miles from Earth).

      1. Well, if the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun, the number is real close to 250 million.

        1. Again, the movie’s opening shows Klaatu’s ship coming from outside the solar system. It’s a mistake…let it go already..it’s still a great movie.

  5. This is one of my favorite movies. I am always surprised at how angry many nationalists I know get about this movie – that some alien will tell the US not to wage war. With the similarities between Klaatu and Christ (both are carpenters, both came to the Earth with a message of peace, and both widely ignored except by “wise men”, women and children; and both are killed by the authorities, then later resurrected), I think it is also a great morality tale.

    Based on how badly folks misinterpret Christ’s teachings, I think that most so-called Christians will be on the wrong side when Christ returns.

    The remake of this movie sucks.

    1. Interesting that while North was consciously invoking Christian parallels in his script, Wise said afterwards that he didn’t see that while making the movie. He only recognized it reading critical reactions when it came out.

  6. A classic film, indeed.

    Also, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ is one of my all-time-favourite great-sounding titles. Other faves include ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ and ‘Battle For The Planet Of The Apes’. After hearing any of those titles, how could you not want to see those films?

    As well, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ has an all-time-favourite piece of dialogue, courtesy of Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) after he meets Klaatu: “Sit down, please. There are several thousand questions I’d like to ask you.”

Comments are closed.