1951’s seminal The Day the Earth Stood Still had a major impact on atomic-era sci-fi and pop culture. A nuclear-age warning to the people of Earth, it was based on “Farewell to the Master,” the Harry Bates story concerning Klaatu, an alien who arrives on Earth with his robot Gort in a flying saucer from the far beyond.
The arrival of the UFO in front of the White House in Washington D.C. raises an international ruckus. The press, the military, and the merely curious approach the craft, and after a period of tense waiting Klaatu, who looks entirely human, and the big robot emerge. Klaatu vows that “We have come to visit you in peace and with good will,” but when a scared soldier shoots and wounds Klaatu the robot, Gort, counterattacks with a weapon that disintegrates all the military hardware trained on the newcomers.
Klaatu gets Gort under control and goes with the brass to a military hospital. There he requests an audience with all Earth’s national leaders, for whom he bears an important message. But politics intrude, and Klaatu ends up on the run. Pretending to be a human, he adopts the name Mr. Carpenter and ends up at the gentle young widow Helen Benson’s boarding house. Klaatu hears, and learns, from Helen and her son Bobby that humanity isn’t totally devoid of positive impulses and common sense. But he still must deliver is message.
Klaatu hooks up with Dr. Barnhardt, a scientist, who helps him set up a demonstration of his alien powers: he shuts off all the electrical power to the whole world (barring hospitals and airplanes in flight). Though it’s only a demonstration, and the power is off for only an hour, Earth’s powers-that-be go into panic mode. When an earthling “friend” turns Klaatu in, the alien’s urgent message – and with it the future of our planet – hang in the balance.
The story of Klaatu and his message helped bring science fiction into the mainstream film world; both serious and entertaining, it featured a memorable Bernard Herrmann score that shot the electronic Theremin into sci-fi music stardom. (The instrument can also be heard in the theme to the original Star Trek series, among other places). Directed by Robert Wise, who had worked as a film editor on Citizen Kane and would go on to direct The Sound of Music and West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its grave warning for the atomic age, was more than just a B-movie. Its influence is still felt in alien-contact movies today, and the phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto” has popped up in later science fiction flicks as a specific tribute.
In 2008, a remake of the classic was released, starring Keanu Reeves, John Cleese and Kathy Bates. Although heavy on state-of-the-art special effects, most fans of the original felt the remake was a pale imitation. Critics overwhelmingly panned the film, but it did manage to do respectable business at the box office, at least in the first few weeks of its release. Meanwhile, the original endures as a timeless sci-fi classic, one that no fan of the genre should miss seeing.
If you remember seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still in your youth, either in the theater (a drive-in, perhaps?) or during its countless airings on television, we hope you’ll share your memories of this classic in our comments section.