The Day the Earth Stood Still

From Academic Kids

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Film poster for The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 science fiction film which tells the story of a humanoid spaceman who comes to Earth to convince its leaders to learn how to live in peace.

It stars Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, and Lock Martin. The movie was adapted by Edmund H. North from the story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates, and directed by Robert Wise. The score was written by Bernard Herrmann and is notable for its use of a theremin.



Klaatu (Rennie) arrives in a flying saucer in Washington, DC, wearing a silver spacesuit and accompanied by a large human-like robot called Gort (Martin). As Klaatu exits the saucer, he is welcomed not by politicians but by soldiers. When he offers a device as a gift to the humans, he is shot when the device opens with a snap and is mistaken for a weapon. Subsequently the robot Gort is activated and makes all weapons evaporate. Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital, where he quickly recovers. Visited in his hospital room by "Secretary to the President" Mr. Harley, played by Frank Conroy, Klaatu fails to convince the humans to organize a meeting among world leaders, where he wants to present to them an important message that "all humans" have to hear. The United Nations is cited as a largely defunct and irrelevant organization. "I'm impatient when I encounter stupidity. My people have learned to live without it," Klaatu says to the Secretary, upon hearing of the world leaders' infighting. "My people haven't," says Mr. Harley. "I'm very sorry. I wish it were otherwise."

Klaatu escapes from the hospital and decides to meet a typical human family. He applies at a boarding house on Harvard Avenue, and meets the family and other guests there, who are riveted to a television news special on the escape of the space man. He tells them that his name is "Carpenter," taking the name from a laundry label on a suit he has presumably taken from Walter Reed Hospital. Two of the residents of the house are an employee of the U. S. Department of Commerce, Helen Benson (Neal) and her son Bobby (Gray).

Helen is a widow of World War II, whose husband (Bobby's father) was killed "at Anzio." He listens to the paranoid breakfast-table banter among the boarding house residents, who are convinced that the space ship is the work of the Soviets, or Democrats, or some other real or imagined enemy of the cold war. When asked by one resident what he thinks about the desires of the "spaceman," Klaatu (who is the spaceman) replies, "I must admit, I'm a little confused."

Helen has a boyfriend named Tom, played by Hugh Marlowe. When Tom plans a day-trip getaway for himself and Helen, Klaatu offers to take care of Bobby for the day. Bobby gives him a tour of Washington, D.C., including Arlington National Cemetery, where Klaatu absorbs with dismay the fact that "all these people [were] killed in wars."

Together, the two visit the Lincoln Memorial, where Klaatu is impressed by the inscription of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and concludes that there may be great minds on Earth who would understand his message. When he asks Bobby to name the greatest person in the world today (besides the space man, Bobby's immediate reply), Bobby replies that the smartest man in the world is a leading American scientist, Professor Barnhardt, who lives "right here in Washington, D.C."

Klaatu-as-Carpenter proposes that he and Bobby visit Barnhardt. Barnhardt isn't home, but Klaatu uses his abilities to open the door to Barnhardt's study and leaves a "calling card" in the form of a mathematical solution to the n-body problem scrawled on Barnhardt's blackboard. Barnhardt's housekeeper returns home, discovers Klaatu and Bobby in the study, and angrily demands that they leave. Klaatu leaves her with the address of his boarding house and the admonition not to erase his solution to Barnhardt's problem.

When government agents show up at the boarding house, and escort Klaatu back to Barnhardt's house, Klaatu reveals his identity to the scientist. Barnhardt dismisses the military guards outside his study. Klaatu convinces Barnhardt to organize a meeting among world scientists, who in turn are to carry Klaatu's messages to their leaders. Barnhardt cautions Klaatu to think of a back-up plan in case his message is rejected...a "little demonstration." Klaatu, fascinated with the everyday objects on this alien planet, toys with a delicate tobacco pipe of the Professor's, and agrees. A convincing demonstration...but not destructive. At last, he has found a human being on his own wavelength.

Klaatu returns to his space ship that night to file a radio report to his colleagues. Bobby follows him and is amazed to see his friend, "Mr. Carpenter" enter the space ship. When Tom and Helen return home from their evening out, Bobby tells them that Carpenter is the space man. Helen refuses to believe that Bobby is relating anything other than a dream, but while Bobby is headed upstairs to bed, notices that his shoes are soaking wet. Their suspicions grow when Tom finds an obviously expensive diamond in Mr. Carpenter's room, which he takes to a jeweller to have appraised.

As a demonstration of the seriousness of his message, Klaatu decides to turn off all electric power, all over the world (including combustion engines) -- with some notable exceptions, such as hospitals and planes in flight. This is the situation referred to in the movie's title. The blackout finds Klaatu trapped in an elevator with Helen, to whom he explains the whole situation. At the same time, Tom is at the jeweller's, who exclaims that such a diamond could not have come from Earth.

Because of the standstill, which lasts thirty minutes, Klaatu is now perceived as a security threat by the Americans, who decide that he must be taken dead or alive.

Helen now understands Klaatu's real mission. After the blackout is over, Tom confronts Helen with his knowledge that Klaatu is the space man. Tom is sure that by betraying Klaatu, he can become rich and famous. "You'll feel differently about me...." "I feel different right now." Helen asks Tom about the impact that betraying Klaatu will have on the rest of the world. "I'm not interested in the rest of the world," is Tom's reply, expressing the movie's theme of the unconcern most people have about the larger world around them. Helen is repulsed by Tom's indifference, and rushes to help Klaatu.

Klaatu is indeed shot before he and Helen can reach the scientists' meeting.

Klaatu barada nikto

Klaatu has benevolently warned his earthling friends that Gort has been programmed to defend him and that he will wreak great destruction if anything untoward happens to him. Concerned far less about his own death than about the lives of countless others, he urgently sends Helen Benson to deliver to the robot Gort the words that will cancel the attack: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto". In a dramatic encounter, the huge robot nearly kills Helen before she gets the words out.

After these words are spoken, the robot aborts his attack against Helen, carries her into the flying saucer, retrieves Klaatu's corpse, transports him to the saucer, and revives him from death.

After Klaatu is revived, he steps out of the saucer and speaks to the assembled scientists. Earth, he tells them, can either decide to abandon warfare and join other spacefaring nations – a peace ensured by a massive deterrent force, the robot race Gort belongs to – or be destroyed as a threat.

(This phrase was hilariously mangled by Ash of the Evil Dead series, whose mispronunciation leads to the awakening of the Army of Darkness.)

Critical reaction

The Day the Earth Stood Still has been interpreted to contain religious symbolism, especially because of Klaatu's death and subsequent resurrection, and his chosen name "Carpenter". Further, Mr. Carpenter's initials are "J.C.", perhaps another allusion to Jesus Christ. Klaatu does explicitly refer to the "almighty spirit" when asked whether Gort has the power over life and death.

The surprise ending of the short story "Farewell To The Master" by Harry Bates (where it is revealed that the robot – originally called Gnut rather than Gort – is the master and the alien man, Klaatu, the servant) was not used in the movie, where this remains an open question. The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In spite of the undeniable cliches of the movie (a race of killer robots, a spaceman in a silver suit and a flying saucer, etc.), its message of peace and dark outlook regarding human society separates it from the fray of 1950s science fiction and has made it a classic. Filmed in black and white with minimal, but effective special effects, the movie is a model of brisk, economical storytelling and direction.


Many see value in the film's statement of universal moral standing, finding an association with Klaatu as a well-meaning upstart, whose time had not yet come. This interpretation holds that it is the fearful hostility of "the government," not the will of people, that was the sole obstacle to Klaatu's plan. Some speculate that the film and others like it contributed to a popular philosophy that blossomed in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Others find resonance in the themes of the ascribed "uselessness" of the United Nations and of the assembling of the world's scientists to hear a message of peace. This view tends to see Klaatu as a misinformed or nave idealist, unfamiliar with the nuances of world conflict.

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