The Day the Earth Stood Still

Klaatu Verata Nikto

An essay by: Witney Seibold


            There was a time when science fiction was taken seriously. When, as a genre, it was used as a serious forum for discussion of important philosophical or social issues. Books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 used their future worlds to comment on where human societies were headed. Isaac Asimov raised important questions about technology. “The Twilight Zone” regularly explored the human mind. “Star Trek,” while prone to occasional bouts of silliness (“His brain is gone!”), and to a greater degree “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” actually tackled hot-button items like civil rights, sexuality, immigration, and equality through intelligent discourse involving alien species (that there are no “Star Trek” films on my list is just an indicator that none of the films can match the insight and quality of the TV shows).

During the 1950s and 1960s, while Cold War fears and social upheaval were the words of the day, science fiction writers began, in a very real way, taking the fears of the people and expressing them in ways that were subtly and safely disguised behind the mask of aliens, radioactive monsters and mind-control devices. However cheesy it was watching Godzilla tromp around on a miniature Toho set, or seeing The Deadly Mantis poking its giant puppet head out of the Holland Tunnel, these beasts were, on a certain level, reflecting the people’s very real dread.

And in doing so, they cut right to the importance of science fiction as a genre: when you strip away the banal familiarities of everyday life in the present, all you’re left with is the truth. We may be in the future living among robots and impossible machines and space aliens, but we’re there to see what constants of human behavior still exist. Like any good art, science fiction allows us to see parts of ourselves, exorcize our fears, and nourish our souls.

            I think science fiction, as a film genre, began losing its credibility with the release of “Star Wars” in 1977 (a film, you may note, that is absent from my 100-best list). “Star Wars” is a marvel of special effects, and a cute adventure film that recalls the best parts of old science fiction pulp novel and matinee serials. It is also at least eight times more popular than it should be. Rather than using its genre to reveal human truths, “Star Wars” used it simply as a setting for adventure. “Star Wars” was not the first to do this, of course, but it is the most popular modern example, and the biggest in the world of cinema. A lot of the many, many “Star Wars” fan point out to me that there is indeed a lot of religious philosophy behind the series, what with the Jedi religion, and the lessons taught by Yoda. Well, they are there, but, let’s be honest, the thoughts aren’t that sophisticated (anyone over 14 will probably know more sophisticated religious philosophies; Yoda’s watered-down Buddhism is nothing compared to the real thing). And the series as a whole, especially with the recent computer-addled additions, strike me as shallow and charmless.

            And yet, with its insane success, “Star Wars” became the new golden standard in sci-fi filmmaking. So it became about chases, escapes, and the pulp-serial feeling of old. It became about the film as special-effect event, and not serious forum for reflection. The original authors of sci-fi (and I think it began with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne) would probably be slightly hurt by what happened to their works.

            But there was a time when it was all serious. And one of the best sci-fi films of said time has to be Robert Wise’s 1951 classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

            Robert Wise is the director of some very good films, among them “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “Star!,” “The Haunting,” and “The Andromeda Strain.” He also did the first “Star Trek” film. The screenwriter of “Day” was Edmund H. North, who would go on to write “Patton.”

            As not to be remiss is my duties as an essayist, I will go over the story of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But only briefly, and to leave the charm and surprises in tact. Also, to point out that the story itself is not really the highlight of this film; not one of the things that makes it great.

 Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington D.C., and the world reacts in panic. He emerges to announce that he has a message for all of Earth’s people, but will only tell them all at once, as not to add to their “petty conflicts.” He is shot pretty much the instant he lands, and retaliation is immediate from Gort, the enormous robot he is traveling with.

            Gort. What a great movie icon. Blank. Robotic. Deadly. And yet, the most striking character. The icon to emerge from the film. The thing that people remember, even if all else is lost in a sea of forgetfulness, is Gort. Gort was played by a very tall actor named Lock Martin who worked at Knott’s Berry Farm as a cowboy during its early days, and also was part of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. He was only in about six or seven films, but hosted a children’s program in the mid-‘50s called “The Gentle Giant.”

            Klaatu is take to a hospital where government people tell him that he cannot arrange anything so complicated as an immediate world summit. Things are just too sticky right now, what with the Cold War and nuclear terror and what have you. He’s come 25 million miles (making him from Venus, but that’s just my nerdy knowledge of astronomy, not anything stated in the film. Had he said 25 trillion miles, he would have been from Alpha Centauri. But I digress). Klaatu slips the government people guarding him, and goes undercover as a man named Carpenter in order to better understand the people of Earth. He lands in a local home run by a single mother Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), and populated by her boy, Bobby (Billy Gray). Bobby and Klaatu go out on the town, and Klaatu learns about the workings of the great American Way. He knows there are good ideas here.

Bobby leads him to a government scientist, Prof. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who gives him the idea to get the world’s attention; something noticeable, but not violent. Klaatu makes the Earth stand still by shutting off all the electricity for one day. This makes the scientists at least take notice. After some discovery, thanks to Helen’s unscrupulous boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe), there is a chase and Klaatu is shot again. This time Helen must find Gort and incant the phrase “Klaatu Verata Nikto,” else disaster strike. Gort, indestructible and destructive, retrieves Klaatu, and heals him.

Klaatu, not in the eye of the world’s great scientific leaders, announces what he came here to say: You have now mastered nuclear power, and have combined it with rockets. You have entered an age where your race is a threat to the welfare of the galaxy, seeing as you are petty and warlike and apt to blow things up. If you don’t knock it off, we have a race of police robots, like Gort, that have ultimate power over matters of war, and will destroy any aggression. Join us in peace, or face annihilation.

He saunters off into space.

Two things make this film great: the general atmosphere of casual discovery, and its famous message.

The atmosphere is, for all its panic and sensationalism, one of, I feel, relaxation and calm. It’s a film about a battle between blind prejudice and relaxed curiosity. This is exemplified in a scene around a breakfast table. Klaatu, disguised, is reading a paper and listening to an inflammatory radio broadcast. The paper shows a cartoon of Gort laying waste to Earth. The radio has a shock-jockey calling for paranoia concerning the alien visitor. Helen’s mother then says one of the funniest lines in the film: “I think that alien is from right here on earth,” and then with a conspiratorial look around the table, “…And you know from where I mean.” Of course we don’t know from where she means, but I like to think she’s talking about L.A. To buck up against all these things, Helen calmly points out that, well, maybe he’s not a threat this alien, and he’s only hiding because, well, he was shot the minute he landed here. Intolerance, suspicion, paranoia, and a single voice of reason and curiosity.

I think a lot of said “general atmosphere” rests on the performance of Michael Rennie. He has a sort of pitying smile that creeps across his face when up against the ignorance of humans. He has a dignified, quiet wince that gives Klaatu a kind of human credibility. Aliens in films, up to that point, had been, well, alien. Green-faced creatures, or killer beasts. Klaatu is a non-human who actually seems to possess a great deal more humanity that most of the humans. His message is urgent, and Michael Rennie gives us the growing urgency and the impatience with the way the world works. I also like his sense of humor. When he sees a rather complicated physics problem on a blackboard, his expression is priceless: one of amused patronizing pity. Like one would look at a child trying to sound like an adult.

This film was scored Bernard Herrmann, the composer behind many Hitchcock films like “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” as well as “Taxi Driver,” “Cape Fear,” “Twisted Nerve,” and “Citizen Kane.” In all, he wrote the music for over 80 films. With “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” he introduced a staple of science fiction music that still permeated today: the Theremin. That eerie whine, somewhat like a human voice, that haunts through the score. It was an instrument that emitted electromagnetic fields, and was played without touching it. This whine, Herrmann’s score, gave an inquisitive and tense quality to the proceedings.

The film also doesn’t insist on its climax (standing still), but is more about the events leading up to it. In fact, when the earth does stand still, we see people reacting in quaint, rather than horrified, ways. Farms can’t move their tractors, a woman has to unload the wet laundry, and, my favorites, a milkshake mixer just won’t work! So rather than dwelling on a climax, we spend more time wandering about DC, and more time talking about the idea of the alien than actually have horrible alien terror like in most exploitation films of the time.

Then, after a lot of though, we get The Ultimatum. The other thing that makes the movie great.

About that ultimatum: live with us in peace, or face annihilation… does it strike you as somewhat counterintuitive? Maybe even a bit fascist? Yeah, me too. Isn’t Klaatu telling us to live in fear of these robots? Aren’t the police robots pretty much the same kind of destructive threat that we pose with our nuclear rockets? Isn’t that the same kind of mindstate that leads to oppression, dictatorship, and, well, wars? These arguments have been posed for decades regarding this film. Klaatu comes in peace, wants peace, preaches peace, and gives a message of peace, but then proceeds to tell us that we might all be killed if we step out of line. Hardly peaceful. What comes out in the last scene can be called the ultimate alien threat; i.e. we’re not conquering you, or torturing or enslaving you, but you still might die.

These arguments however miss a few important points:

First, humans are still free to wage war amongst ourselves. We have free will, we have the same ignorance, and we’re allowed to make mistakes and still commit atrocities all we like. I, being a severe left-leaning peacenik, think that wars are stupid in general and ignorance should be excised, think that war should just be ended once and for all. But the point is we’re free to do so. We can commit out own violence. It’s when we move into space, something, mind you, that was only just happening in 1951, that we might find ourselves in trouble. The filmmakers, I think, were trying to say that we need to settle our own conflicts once and for all, and focus on more important things, like exploring sciences and space and realizing how vast the universe is. Maybe we’d finally be humbled and learn to grow.

Second, Klaatu does not control the robots. He’s part of a United Planets organization that has built them, and has given them power over matters of aggression. That’s all. Klaatu, nor anyone, is in a position of power here. Gort, in a way, represents the nuclear fears at the time. Here is something unfathomably destructive, that we ourselves created. We have now made an easy way to essentially destroy our own planet. And what if it gets out of hand? Gort is a mindless, destructive thing. It takes no orders. It’s a lot like a walking bomb. The only difference is Gort, with its threat of violence, is devoted ultimately to peace. The Gort with Klaatu, presumably, was allowed to ride with him as an escort of some sort. So Klaatu is not lording over the people, is not being fascist, and is not being threatening when he presents the robot. He, like us, is standing in its shadow. Gort is a masterless tool used to enforce a state of mind. Not a weapon used by someone to control someone else. Gort is, in a way, the ultimate police officer. One without judgment or emotion. One who is not devoted to the people, but only to the law. It’s a bit cold, yes, but devotion to the law is what a police officer should have, right?

And third, and I think it was incredibly savvy of the screenwriter to include this line, Klaatu claims that the system is not perfect. He’s not from an idealized utopia out there in the stars somewhere. He’s more advanced, yes, and looks fantastic for a man of 78, but he’s not reached perfection. All he says is that they have a system, and it works. You’re going to be part of our system too, so I hope you make wise decisions. It’s a little sticky, since it really isn’t an ideal system (the only ideal system would be to have our standards rise, and have all of us become more intelligent), but it leaves me with a kind of hopeful wariness every time I watch the film.

             Give science fiction a chance. A lot of sci-fi these days is devoted to action, but it all comes from a very real, very human place. It all reflects something within us in a very clear way. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a giant of the genre, and one of the best films I have seen. Quaint, serious, funny, and important, it’s a great film.

Published in: on June 16, 2007 at 2:26 am  Leave a Comment  

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