The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Directed by Robert Wise. With Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Billy Gray.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was a seminal moment in science fiction cinema. Boasting one of the best titles ever, it has since become an iconic landmark in the great pantheon of the genre. Let’s be absolutely clear, I’m talking about Robert Wise’s 1951 black and white classic, not the one starring the bloke from Bill and Ted.
The set-up is simple. A flying saucer lands in the broad daylight of Washington DC. The world goes nuts. After a while, a mysterious man called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from the alien craft, which triggers a response that sets the plot of this intelligent study of the state of humanity in motion. Released just six years after World War II, and a few years into the Cold War, the film is ultimately a rallying call for peace in the world. It is a judgement on humanity, telling us to change our ways, or else…
There is no denying the historic status of the film, or for that matter, its cultural significance. That is not to say it isn’t flawed. Although the overall message remains intact today, in many other ways it has become a product of its time. The more discerning viewer will see through some of the peculiarities of the plot (even in 1950, would a mother have ever allowed her young son to spend the day in a city with a complete stranger?) and engage with the central idea.
There are a few ‘Plan 9’ moments dotted around (you can see the wires), and the threatening robot, Gort, has lost much of his menace over the years. In truth, he looks more like a bad cosplay attempt, than the foreboding presence of intergalactic doom that he is supposed to represent. It’s a saving grace then, that Michael Rennie’s performance as the alien visitor, Klaatu, is a blend of kind, gentlemanly manners underpinned by a broodingly sinister feeling of unease. Furthermore, the script isn’t at pains to explain absolutely everything, leaving the audience plenty of imagination space to make their own decisions about where the aliens are from and what they ultimately intend.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic, albeit a flawed one. Its better aspects have informed generations of science fiction, and Bernard Herrmann’s score effectively moves between describing the rumbustious chaos of humanity in confusion, to the mysterious intrigue of an alien force. “Klaatu barada nikto!” 3.5/5