The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Review

A true 1950s drive-in classic (along with War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet), The Day the Earth Stood Still anticipated the earnest, melodramatic artiness and social commentary of sci-fi TV series such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. From the opening sequence, in which a flying saucer lands in front of the Washington Monument and a giant robot comes out, you will not be disappointed. The robot looks like a tall guy wrapped in packing tape and the flying saucer looks so fake you will look for Ed Wood’s name in the credits. From then on, suspension of disbelief is a non-issue.

As guns and tanks surround the saucer, an alien humanoid named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes out and announces that he comes in peace. Klaatu is taken by the U.S. government and demands to ‘deliver a message to all nations.’ The U.S. reluctantly agrees to set a meeting but the Russians refuse to come to the table. Impatiently, Klaatu escapes and boards with a divorcee (Patricia Neal), befriending her well-scrubbed American boy (Billy Gray), who shows him around Washington. Meanwhile, he tries to contact eminent scientists to persuade them to meet and hear his message.

The film is a little talky and slow-paced at first, a Robert Wise trademark. But by the time you get to the suspenseful conclusion (which I won’t give away), you’ll be hooked.

Like many Cold War sci-fi movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still succeeds as anti-nuclear allegory even as the music, costumes, and dialogue ratchet up the cheese factor (‘Deploy all Zone 5 units according to Plan B! Immediately!’). Audiences in the 1950s didn’t care if it was cheesy. The irony and cynicism of the ’70s and ’80s killed movies like this. It’s a shame.

Perhaps the most unbelievable element of the script is that some of the politicians and scientists in the movie behave with politeness and intelligence. At least, it would be unbelievable now. Another noteworthy aspect of this film is that Klaatu speaks several lines of dialogue in his own language to his robot doppelganger, Gort. One phrase, ‘Gort, Klaatu barada nikto’ was a catchphrase through the late ’60s. Like a lot of things in the ’60s, I guess you had to be there.

The new Special Edition DVD includes commentary from Wise and Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer, a new historical commentary track, and an isolated score option. A second disc largely filled with retrospective featurettes is also included.