The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Klaatu: I’m worried about Gort. I’m afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me.
Helen: Gort? But he’s a robot. Without you, what could he do?
Klaatu: There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth.

The Day the Earth Stood Still deals in a tension that arises from the impossibility of putting seemingly simple plans into action. The story is a humble but powerful one, centring on Klaatu, an alien who has journeyed to earth in a UFO alongside his robot companion Gort. He intends to warn the world not to interfere with other planets in the solar system, and to live as peacefully as possible without war and bloodshed. He repeatedly asks for representatives of the world’s countries to meet in order discuss pressing issues, only to find said representatives at petty war with each other, thus refusing to cooperate. After escaping forced confinement, Klaatu becomes Mr Carpenter, and for much of the film he travels around Washington D.C philosophically musing to a young boy who he befriends through the family he is lodging with. While he is experiencing life, his space ship sits quietly and patiently in a field, as does Gort. There are no loud explosions, and no dramatic battles. Instead we are treated to conversations between intellectuals, and an exploration of human relationships.

Beautiful to watch, and to listen to, the film manipulates shadow and sound to great effect. Boasting a multitude of striking shots, one of the best occurs when the UFO makes its first appearance in the sky. It hovers eerily as a white oval against the grey, with a slither of people’s upturned heads and waving hands visible at the bottom of the screen. Another strong scene is again towards the beginning, where Klaatu is silhouetted in the foreground in his room. He is a giant, shaded form, looming over Mr Harley sat small and insignificant in his chair, and this contrast stresses the importance of the character’s mission in the face of trivial politics. The sound effect used on the travelling UFO is never crass or artificial, but instead consumes the senses as powerfully as it would have done sixty two years ago, and the soundtrack from Bernard Herrmann is suitably dramatic with booming brass racking up the tension. The special effects are dated, but still retain an air of magic. Despite Gort being very obviously a man in a suit, his presence is an intriguing one, and the shining white light that he destroys weapons with is more effective than any violent blast or shot.

The film is not just about aesthetics though. Involving a long list of themes ranging from religion to friendship, The Day the Earth Stood Still employs depth of feeling alongside high stylisation. It’s no accident that Klaatu takes up the name of “Carpenter”, that he preaches peace and goodwill, or that he is resurrected from death only to rise in to the sky at the end. On one level he is most definitely a Christ symbol, and yet this angle is never forced. It’s an interpretation that you can choose to ignore as you can appreciate the messages of universal benevolence without sponsoring Christianity. Michael Rennie is the perfect alien in human form; tall, polished and graceful, he towers over the surrounding cast, only surpassed in height by Gort. The robot is of especial interest; a silent, streamlined assassin, he is designed to be impassive and cold, and yet is uncannily captivating. It is assumed that he kills on command, his metal is impenetrable, and he cannot be contained even by the strongest of materials. However, he only kills two people in the film, a couple of guards who have come to him with guns, with his laser being used mostly to obliterate weaponry. Condemner of reasonless violence and police officer of the stars, he is enforcer of a primitive “good”.

With possibly one of the most iconic lines of command from a Science Fiction (“Gort, klaatu barada nikto”), Robert Wise’s film is a strong if slightly simplistic study of human fear in the face of the unknown, and the destructive force of that fear when left to escalate without reason. Klaatu means no harm, and yet is met with suspicion, a lack of cooperation, and violence. Gort is the answer to this ignorant reaction of aggression, offsetting the American tanks’ ammunition with his blinding white light which disintegrates matter seemingly cleanly. With the exception of Helen Benson who is one of the only ones to defend the “space man”, The Day the Earth Stood Still is about inaction, the unwillingness of those in power to do anything to promote positive change. The final speech attempts to make the audience feel the insignificance of their own quarrels in the face of the universe, and advocates a collective law enforcement that runs on morals rather than personal politics and greed. In this ideal world that Klaatu talks of, the robot “police” have authority over everything and everyone, which seems like a recipe for disaster if you ask me, and yet his plea for humans to be more respectful of each other and the environment is a desire that I’m sure we can all identify with.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

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