The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

“Klaatu, Barrada, Nikto”. Those famous words were first uttered in this intelligent B/W science fiction classic (and then in Army of Darkness!) and it’s interesting to note how they’ve resonated through cinema history…just like the message that propels this whimsical flick along. As the ominous spectre of The Cold War seeps into the lives of the frightened people of the early ’50s, a flying saucer makes itself known and sets down in Washington, DC. Almost immediately, the humanoid pilot is wounded by a jittery soldier with a .45 and hospitalized. He escapes to roam amongst us humans, trying to get an understanding of the paranoid and violent nature of our flawed species. Meanwhile, a giant robotic sentinel named Gort stands guard outside the cordoned spacecraft; baffling and threatening the hysterical people of the city. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive alien Klaatu (AKA Mr. Carpenter) as he interacts with the people of his boarding house hideout and those he hopes will help spread the grave message he brings. This flick was clearly handed a chunk of dough from 20th Century Fox and it seems to have been put to good use. For the time period the special effects are slick, and made all the more effective by a sense of restraint. There’s also some impressive ‘big crowd’ scenes and sequences depicting large scale ‘events’, such as an abrupt world-wide power depletion where many different locales are shown as affected. Some of the acting is expectedly stiff, especially from the obligatory ‘kid’ character, but the broad-minded concept behind the script overrides it. Klaatu basically comes to tell humanity that if we intend to take our caveman-like grasp of atomic power (namely nuclear weapons), mixed with our immature, war-like disposition and extend it to the stars…we’re fucked. The ‘elevated’ races that have been watching us, with growing alarm, have determined that we’re NEARLY too big for our atomic britches and can no longer be left to our own (nuclear) devices. So they opt to grace us with a kindly warning before the Almighty extra-terrestrial bitch-slap; care of Klaatu and his pet Robot of Death, Gort. It’s somewhat surprising to see that a big-league studio pushed a transparently progressive (and liberal!) idea like this; especially so soon after WW2 and the flat-out triumphant ‘nuking’ of the evil ‘Japs’. It also pits the ‘Military’ and ‘Science’ mind-sets against each other (at a VERY pro-military time) with ‘Science’ coming out on top as the ‘path to understanding’. And, I think, therein lies the answer to this flicks well-renowned status in the annals of science fiction entertainment. It’s worth seeing it on THAT merit alone. And yes…it IS better than the questionable (but not awful) Keanu Reeves remake of a few years ago.


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