Film

Don't Open That Door! #31: 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: humanity gets an offer it can't refuse in The Day the Earth Stood Still.


The Day the Earth Stood Still

Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe, Hugh Marlowe
US Release Date: 1951-09-28

Alternate titles: True Gort; Love One Another as I Have Loved You or I Will Reduce Your Planet to a Burned-Out Cinder

POSITIVES:

Great performances, even from the little kid.

Sci-fi thriller evokes tension with a minimum of gimmickry.

Effective use of light & shade—moody as hell.

After a slow 1950, the decade really kicks off here.

NEGATIVES:

Alien isn't precisely a "monster"—but robot Gort acts menacingly enough for our field-guide purposes.

Not exactly action-packed (but it this a negative?).

Christian allegory won't be to everyone's taste.

SYNOPSIS: When an alien spacecraft lands on a baseball field in Washington, D.C., there's nothing to do but call in the army and get ready to blow the hell out of whatever decides to show its face. Unfortunately, this is pretty much what happens to a slender, soft-spoken spaceman who steps from the craft saying something like, "I come in pea—agghhhhh!" No sooner does our visitor hit the dirt than his oversized robot buddy starts zapping military equipment with a ray-beam from his eyeballs. Spaceman Klaatu—wounded but not yet dead—orders robot Gort to stand down before things get out of hand, and the oversized but obedient fella duly obeys. The army takes Klaatu into custody and takes him to the hospital, where he heals with remarkable speed.


It soon becomes apparent that Klaatu has come to Earth for a purpose, but he's coy about exactly why, until every world leader can be collected into a single room to hear him out. When he's informed that this is impractical—not to say impossible—Klaatu ducks out of the hospital, changes his name to Carpenter, and hides out in a boarding house. There he meets the nonjudgmental Helen, her son Bobby and her smarmy boyfriend Tom. Bobby takes "Carpenter" around town to get a clearer sense of how humans tick. (Given that he was shot on arrival, he already has a pretty good idea.)

Not until he meets up with brilliant Professor Barnhardt do we learn of his mission: Klaatu has come to Earth in order to divert humanity away from its violent tendencies, before people can bring their murderous ways into outer space. Barnhardt agrees to try to pull together a group of world leaders and scientists, but suggests a demonstration of Klaatu's power in order to make his presentation more convincing. Klaatu promises to think of something.

Unfortunately, smarmy boyfriend Tom is thinking of something too, and it ain't world peace. With his help, the army gives Klaatu a terminal headache, but Gort's got a trick or two up his sleeve—even though he isn't wearing any—and patches up Klaatu well enough to deliver his final ultimatum to Professor Barnhardt's gathering of cultural and intellectual leaders. Basically, Klaatu says: "Grow up—or else." Will humanity listen? The jury's still out, kids.

Best line of dialogue in the movie: "Klaatu barada nikto!", of course.

What gets brought to a permanent standstill: Five rifles; a tank; two anti-aircraft guns; two soldiers; one "Carpenter" who descends from the skies with a message of peace, gets betrayed by someone he trusts, is killed by the authorities and is later resurrected before ascending into the heavens. Hmmmm.

What gets saved (against its will, natch): In theory, the human race has a chance.

Did you know? The bombastic score, featuring the electronic instrument called the theramin, was provided by Hollywood legend Bernard Hermann, who also wrote the music for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and many Alfred Hitchcock films. Famed as as innovator and experimentor in testing the limits of film-music effects, he's probably best known for the nails-on-the-chalkboard violins—Scree! Scree! Scree!—accompanying Psycho's infamous "shower scene."

This reminds me of... …numerous aliens-bring-warnings-to-Earth movies, including Warning From Space (1956), Stranger From Venus and The Cosmic Man (both 1959). The 2008 DTESS remake with Jennifer Connelly (yay!) and Keanu Reaves (yawn) was… okay.

Moral of the story: Love one another as I have loved you. (Sometimes those old morals are still the best.)

Somehow their careers survived: Michael Rennie (Klaatu) began his career in 1936's Secret Agent, and would go on to play the Apostle Peter in The Robe (1953—another Jesus connection) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). In the '60s his TV career included such shows as Batman, I Spy, and The Man From UNCLE. Patricia Neal (Helen)'s long film career included roles in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) alongside Audrey Hepburn, and Hud (1963) with Paul Newman. Sam Jaffe (Prof. Barnhardt)—blacklisted by Joe McCarthy—played the title role in Gunga Din (1939) and would feature in 1959's Ben-Hur, while Hugh Marlowe (Tom)'s starring turns would come in World Without End and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (both 1956). Seven-foot-seven-inch Lock Martin (Gort) would play an uncredited role in Invaders From Mars (1953). Director Robert Wise's movies included West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and The Andromeda Strain (1971); his projects as an editor included The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941). Pretty good resume you've got there, Bob.


BOTTOM LINE: A classic movie all around—go watch it.

NEXT WEEK: Queen of Outer Space (1958)

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