The Day the Earth Stood Still March 22, 2021
e have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” Such is the first thing we hear on behalf of the martians who decide, at the beginning of 1951’s forward-looking, staggeringly influential alien-invasion thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still, that they’re going to take a trip to Earth. After circling the planet at about 4,000 miles per hour for a little while,
the visitors eventually land their fried-egg-shaped ship on the greenery of the National Mall. They have their ostensible leader, placid Klaatu (Michael Rennie), relay this message to the human crowd that has congregated around their saucer. We learn soon afterward that these aliens are not visiting for the sake of it: they have a deeper message that concerns Earth's well-being. But Klaatu, who is the only alien we see in the movie besides his bulkily suited robot companion Gort (Lock Martin), isn’t willing to share it unless he’s standing in a room full of the globe’s leaders. (Klaatu’s missive won’t be revealed until the very end of the film.) Are these aliens ultimately going to let it be known that the world from which they come wants to destroy our own?
The Day the Earth Stood Still might have been a lot shorter if not for the very-American reactionism that quickly undercuts the saucer’s landing. Right after Klaatu has assured the crowd around his ship that he and his people don’t mean any harm, one of the skittish young soldiers hired for security shoots and injures his guest. After Klaatu is taken to the nearby Walter Reed Hospital, he is held prisoner there by the government. The president’s secretary (Frank Conroy) tells Klaatu that in any case it’s going to be impossible to gather the world’s figureheads like he wants. Little more information is offered.
Given few options to make the most of his visit, this alien figures he’s going to have to do some improvising. He escapes the hospital without a hitch (he knowingly smiles after noticing hospital staffers have locked his door for the first time) and rents a room at a closeby boarding house under an earthly pseudonym. He hopes to not just do some ethnographic work (everything he knows about Earth comes from the radio) but also, as a plan B, find a way to get in touch with the world’s strongest minds as a means to share his message. He befriends a young widower (Patricia O’Neal) and her open-minded son (Billy Gray) in the meantime. (They live down the hall from one another.) The trustful relationships they build work together to form the movie’s emotional core. One of the film’s most charming sequences finds the little boy showing a sweetly clueless Klaatu around the city; the kid later tells his mother that he likes this “screwball” guy who gave him some strange gems in exchange for a couple of human dollars.
In keeping with many of the tentpole sci-fi movies of its era, The Day the Earth Stood Still’s more fantastical elements are held together because of its inspired mirroring of the period’s in-vogue paranoias — in this case Cold War anxiety and McCarthyist panic. The overreactions showed not just by the government but also the public in The Day the Earth Stood Still are subtly faulted for being overblown and steeped in general xenophobia and misguided suspicion — the ease with which an “other” can become a scapegoat on which to pin numerous fears. (Almost immediately after escaping, Klaatu becomes a most-wanted figure to be shot on sight, despite not exactly doing anything wrong aside from wriggling out of a misconceived imprisonment.) “Violent action — that’s the only thing your people seem to understand,” Klaatu observes. The movie is fundamentally a cry for peace — an underscoring of just how much of the world’s (i.e., America’s) ingrained hostility and current brand of franticness is guided by harmful delusion. “I’m impatient with stupidity,” Klaatu puts it bluntly.
Part of me wishes Klaatu’s reason for visiting remained ambiguous as a way to accentuate the film’s sharp social criticisms — have the American paranoias du jour extinguish him before his message can be delivered as a way to reinforce what seems to be its ideological bent. But The Day the Earth Stood Still
concludes over-literally, perhaps to its detriment. (This also isn’t that surprising: a refusal to let too much ideological subversion get the final word is an enduring facet of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking.) Finally we learn that Klaatu’s planet has achieved “peace" because it abides by a fascist-sounding police state. (Always-surveilling robots immediately eliminate any signs of aggression.) The message he has for so long been itching to get out is, spoiler alert, that earthlings can join this model if they so choose or “face obliteration.” (Obliteration of their own making, that is — Klaatu isn't making a threat.)
It’s disappointing — and frankly disorienting, given that most of the movie skews uncommonly progressive — that The Day the Earth Stood Still seemingly recommends upped police presence as the best means of survival. But because Klaatu notes that this system isn’t perfect, and since we earthlings are not being forced to implement it, I like to give the movie’s bewildering messaging some leeway. Maybe the film isn’t trying to say that a police state is unequivocally the best way to find unity and peace; perhaps it's instead aiming to underline that the path America is currently on is unendurable and must be rethought, and that Klaatu's invitation isn't the simple way forward but a general reminder that some rejiggering must be done. (I’m probably being generous because I had until this point pretty holistically loved this stylish and otherwise agreeably introspective movie.) Disheartening final sentiment aside, The Day the Earth Stood Still is nonetheless among its era’s most assuredly made, thoughtful science-fiction movies — and a fascinating marker of what has and hasn’t changed socially since its release. A