It’s 1951. The United States is four years into the Cold War, and one year into the Korean War. The specter of nuclear annihilation looms. It’s a moment of enormous global tension and equally enormous promise. Humanity seemed to be at a tipping point. The nuclear horrors of World War II were still in public consciousness, and the United States was enjoying never-before-seen prosperity. It’s into that volatile mixture that Robert Wise and Edmund H. North released The Day the Earth Stood Still, possibly the most visionary science fiction film ever made.
This prophetic warning against nuclear war not only broke the mold of previous pulpy sci-fi by casting humans as the threat, it also erected several conventions still used in basically every sci-fi movie today. It remains a really fun watch, despite its advancing age.
So What’s This About?
The whole thing launches when an alien spacecraft lands on the White House lawn, and an alien named Klaatu mistakenly tries to talk to people. After he’s shot by an army guy, Klaatu is taken to a nearby hospital to recover. From there, the alien escapes the government’s custody to experience a real slice of humanity, taking up residence in a boarding house and using the name Carpenter.
As the visitor walks around Washington, D.C. — befriending a war widow and spending time with a plucky youngster — higher levels of government speculate wildly on the reasons for the his arrival. Their predictions are increasingly dire in the face of growing panic.
Let’s Start With the Cool Shit
Pretty much every movie with aliens also features a state-of-the-art flying saucer or kitted-out spaceship. You can credit The Day the Earth Stood Still for being among the first films to portray flying saucers on the screen.
In addition to the UFO, The Day the Earth Stood Still also made robots and the obligatory “heavy” part of nearly every science fiction flick. In the film, that role is occupied by Gort, one of the most iconic robots in movie history. Even if you haven’t seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, you’ve likely seen this guy.
Throughout the film, Gort symbolizes the level of technology present within Klaatu’s mysterious alien race. He is, at once, protector and threat, operating on a set of principles which are inscrutable to the humans around him. Okay, so, sure, these days it’s obvious he’s just a tall dude in styrofoam, but with a little imagination and the right context, he’s plenty terrifying.
Fortunately, The Day the Earth Stood Still provides plenty of good context.
Forecasting a Modern World
Pretty early on, it’s clear that Klaatu is a man on a mission for peace. He’s come to Earth to evaluate the potential harm a developing humanity may do to the galaxy at large. See, these aliens have noticed that humanity is growing exponentially deadlier with the advent of nuclear war, and they want to know what we’re capable of (and whether or not it’s worth keeping us around).
Throughout Klaatu’s journey, director Robert Wise — who would eventually make a name for himself by helming the big-screen, Oscar-nabbing versions of West Side Story and The Sound of Music — creates an America all too familiar. Governed by hesitant bureaucrats and drowning in an ever-present stream of paranoia, the people Klaatu encounters have been scared into believing that fear is their only choice.
Of course, Wise and writer Edmund H. North (who also wrote Patton) point their accusatory finger squarely at the media for crafting this pervasive environment. At one point, a reporter who’s assumes that Klaatu is human, asks for a comment on his obvious fear he must be feeling after the alien’s arrival.
Klaatu begins to explain that he’s afraid, but not in the way the reporter intend him to. Says Klaatu, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” Of course, he’s promptly interrupted by the reporter, who moves on to find someone who gives him the sound bite he’s clearly pursuing.
Even further, the background of several scenes are dominated by the constant drone of paranoia-inducing radio broadcasts that mean danger — all presented by a man authorities know basically nothing about. Watching Klaatu smirk knowingly at the broadcasts’ excitable stupidity is a masterful exercise in Shakespearian irony and a borderline-prophetic glimpse into the modern day media cycle.
Don’t Watch the Remake; Go Old School
In 2008, Hollywood decided to turn this pacifist masterpiece into a glossy, climate-change-themed piece of shit that totally undercut the original. In 1951, the purpose of the story was to spur humanity to aspire to something better than their current behavior. The Day the Earth Stood Still urged humanity to look to the stars and ditch the petty squabbles that rule our lives.
As Robert Wise explained, “It’s very much of a forerunner in its warning about atomic warfare, and it shows that we must all learn to get along together.”
In 2007, the story wants punish humanity for its misdeeds. The undercurrent of hope for the future is entirely lost in exchange for a climate change parable that falls flat because it misses the whole fucking point of the original. There’s no opportunity for humanity to repent in the remake, because they’re completely removed from the bigger picture at the end of the film.
Even more to the point, skip the muddled remake because the original is still objectively awesome, even 65 years later. The special effects are dated — yet somehow still captivating — the story is still thrilling, the dialogue still well-written, and the performances perfectly on pitch.
Don’t be put off by the black-and-white or the film’s age; this is one classic that more than earns its reputation.