Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

The Day the Earth Stood Still



Notes: Twentieth-Century Fox. 92 minutes.
Klaatu: Michael Rennie
Mrs. Helen Benson: Patricia Neal
Dr. Barnhardt: Sam Jaffe
Bobby Benson: Billy Gray
Tom Stevens: Hugh Marlowe
Gort: Lock Martin
Drew Pearson: Himself
Harley: Frank Conroy
Mrs. Barley: Frances Bavier (Aint Bea)

Producer: Julian C. Blaustein
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Edmund H. North
Music: Bernard Herrmann, experimenting with electronic music
Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master,” published in Astounding magazine, by Harry Bates

Summary: Earth’s radar monitors register weirdness and military functionaries alert the authorities. A worldwide radio alert tells of a UFO circling the earth at 4000 mph. One announcer insists on the “normalcy” among the tourists in Washington D.C. We see the glowing UFO pass landmarks like the Capitol building and the Washington Monument before it lands in a ball field. Troops await for hours with tanks and artillery pointed towards the space saucer while the media personalities offer palliatives: “I am authorized to assure you….” A space-suited humanoid emerges and proclaims, “We come to visit you in peace and with good will.” Holding out a contraption of some sort, a soldier shoots the spaceman down. A robot emerges from the spaceship, and the people panic and run as this robot raises its viser and beams guns and tanks into oblivion. The contraption was a device to study life on other planets. We’ve got a good interplanetary cop / bad interplanetary cop situation.

Secretary to the President, Mr. Harley, visits the spaceman, named Klaatu, as he recovers in a crummy room. The alien insists that they are “neighbors” and wants a meeting with all the world leaders, but Harley insists that the international situation involves “too many tensions.” Klaatu suggests the United Nations and Harley is surprised he knows about that, but Earth’s radio broadcasts are monitored. Klaatu has no time for the “internal affairs” of Earth, the “childish jealousies” and “petty squabbles” — he is “impatient with stupidity”: “The future of your planet is at stake.”

Back at the spaceship site, regarding the immobile robot, “metallurgic experts have found his huge body impregnable” and other workers can’t find the spaceship’s opening. Still other experts are shocked that Klaatu is not 35 or 38, but 78 years old and quickly healing. He claims people of his race have a life expectancy of 130 years, and one doctor claims he “made me feel like a third-rate witch-doctor.” All these doctors smoke cigarettes because they’re morons from the 1950s.

Harley brings to Klaatu reports of Moscow’s and Washington’s demands to show the inescapable red tape and macho posturing which precludes a meeting of world leaders. Klaatu escapes to “get out among your people” and media panic ensues about the escaped “monster.” The media warn people to take the “ordinary precautions.” Again, panicked voices tell us to “remain calm!” so children are snatched off the sidewalks and everybody stays inside, trembling, to watch tv.

Under the alias Mr. Carpenter, Klaatu appears as a shadowy intended border in the home of a widow named Helen Benson, her godawful son Bobby, and various other people like Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show who seems especially foolish with her paranoid fixation on the Red Menace. The media points out: “obviously the monster must be found; he must be hunted down like an animal….” And the representative public asks (perpetually), “Why doesn’t the government do something?”

“Mr. Carpenter” and Bobby visit Arlington Cemetery where daddy Bobby is interred (some fun!), and the Lincoln Memorial, and agree to see a movie, Klaatu trading Bobby precious diamonds for the couple bucks to be used. When they visit the spaceship site, Bobby realizes it’s like totally weird that atomic power can be used for the spaceship instead of just for bombs. When a random would-be interview goes sour, Bobby asks, “What’s inertia?” Klaatu refers to the need for “an outside force.”

Bobby rats out our country, God Bless It!, by mentioning Professor Barnhardt, who does complicated national security math with crappy chalk on a blackboard facing a window on the first floor of his home where any passer-by on the sidewalk can catch a gander. Klaatu illegally enters and fixes the formula, leaving a calling card. That night a Mr. Brady shows up and escorts Klaatu to the Professor’s home. Barnhardt, a rare good scientist/humanist driven not by faith but by curiosity, is impressed, and Klaatu relates the threat earth poses now that it is about to start applying atomic energy to spaceships and become a threat on the larger sphere —— to life on other planets. So now it’s interplanetary and therefore personal. Such power exists to eliminate the planet? Barnhardt agrees to try to assemble the world’s scientists, since they “are too often ignored or misunderstood” and therefore could bring the message to the great ruling minds (?). Sounds good. But how to prove that earthlings can be stopped? “My patience is wearing thin,” warns Klaatu: level New York City? or sink the Rock of Gibraltar? We need a demonstration of force to “dramatize the seriousness of the situation.” How about a global shut-down of all machinery for a half-hour at mid-day?

Everyone is so (paranoid) “jittery,” says Helen. When Mom tells Bobby to see less of Mr. C. and goes out with her steady date Tom, an insurance salesman and big bastard to her and Mr. Carpenter, Klaatu borrows a flashlight from Bobby, who then tails Mr. Carpenter to the spaceship, where he activates the robot, Gort, who conks the two guards while Klaatu enters the saucer where hand-swoop-activated devices control everything.

Future-CIA-swine Bobby then stays up half the night and rats out Klaatu to Mom and Tom when they get home. Tom goes to Mr. Carpenter’s room but finds only one of those diamonds on the floor. Tom will pursue this; you’d better believe it, Mister!

Klaatu visits Helen at work and when the elevator stops because of the global shut-down (“people are running around like ants”), he has the chance to spill all. (For some reason it looks like day all over the world at once. But at least the hospitals and planes in flight are okay.) Meanwhile, Tom finds a jeweler who says he’s never seen diamonds like this before and Gort is encased in “KL93” which is stronger than steel. Helen then tries to stop Tom from pursuing the persecution, but he is not to be swayed —— the diamond and Bobby: “That’s enough for me!” Klaatu told Helen why he has come here, and “the rest of the world is involved.” “I don’t care about the rest of the world!” says Tom.

On their way to the scientific meeting, Klaatu’s cab, shared with Helen, is closely monitored by the military. When this becomes clear, Klaatu tells Helen that Gort, the robot, is programmed to become a danger without Klaatu and that she is to say, “Klaatu barada nikto” if something should happen. When the army closes in, Klaatu runs from the cab and is shot dead in the street.

Gort busts out of the special super Army plastic and vaporizes the two guards. Helen says the magic words and is carried onto the spaceship by the robot, who then retrieves the body of Klaatu. The professor is told that the meeting must be dispersed and that all must go. Klaatu is resurrected for a limited period by an almighty power, he doesn’t know for how long. He emerges with Helen and Gort and announces to all that “The universe grows smaller every day,” that Earth puts itself at risk from programmed eliminators, universe-patrolling robot police whose automatic reactions against aggressions cannot be revoked, if Earth starts screwing around in ways that would threaten other planets. They would not be giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly. This is for the mutual protection of all planets. If Earth continues pursuing its present course, it will be “reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

Klaatu and Gort fly off.

Commentary: The film has a delightfully belittling attitude towards the Cold War, and Americans look like the morons they are. For example, the radio announcements that while there’s no need to panic, “ordinary precautions” should be taken translates immediately into panic and paranoia. “Remain calm,” they scream. So here aliens are not an excuse to indulge in a horror fest but to deliver a message.

No women really appear until the domestic context of the house where “Mr. Carpenter” rents a room, although we catch a glimpse of Helen at work later, as a secretary.

Without being heavy-handed about it, the adoption of the name Carpenter for the man who comes from beyond; his message for humankind which is ignored or rejected; his persecution, death, and resurrection for a short period — all these have obvious resonances. He has been interpreted as both Jesus and a vampire.

Both the original short story and this film share “the idea that once man has passed a certain evolutionary level, it is technology that masters man” (Kawin, qtd. in Landon 15). Here, “the people of earth must submit to the authority of robot policemen because earth has already become servant to nuclear technology” (Landon 16). Although representing a rather fascist police force, Gort was given two suits, one front and one back, so that no zippers would show.

Impressively, the equation Klaatu finds on the professor’s blackboard is real —— an in joke for mathematicians: the “Three Body Problem” seeks to account for all possible relationships among three objects in space (Landon 85).