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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

“Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto.”

This movie is referred to as a sci-fi classic, and after watching it recently, I 100% agree. While I love the typical 50s ‘alien invasion’ films, this one is deeper and less bombastic than usual, and has a lot to say to audiences of any generation.

The film doesn’t waste any time getting things rolling. We’re quickly informed from various nations’ points of view that a UFO traveling at 4000 MPH is circling the globe, and it soon touches down near Washington, D.C. This is quite the spectacle, with a military cordon around the saucer and crowds of people gathered around that ring. The scene that follows with Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and the robot Gort (Lock Martin) emerging from the saucer sets the stage for what is to come.

Tensions are high as the two visitors arrive, and even with Gort dealing with many of the weapons brandished against them in a spectacular display of how good 50s special effects can be, Klaatu is wounded and rushed off to the hospital. This is when we discover what he’s here for. It’s a peaceful mission, but one with ominous overtones for the Earth: Earth is too violent to be allowed into the galactic community, and it must change its ways or perish. This message is conveyed both early on and as the film comes to a close, a message we still have not lived up to these 73 years later.

We spend a lot of the movie mostly focused on Klaatu, and his interactions with Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), as he ducks the US government and acts like a normal human being (mostly) for a large chunk of the film. Helen is a war widow, and her current flame Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) isn’t exactly a fan of Klaatu’s, although Helen never expresses any romantic interest in their newest, and most unusual new fellow boarder, he still makes his resentment obvious.

Klaatu is unhappy with the reactions of the various Earth governments to his request to speak to them all about his important mission, and he has to turn to the scientific community, and especially Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). The professor is far more willing to listen to Klaatu, especially after he has seen what the alien has written on his chalkboard at home, and after a frank and rather disturbing conversation, made even more so thanks to how calm Klaatu is about the situation. Together they plan the event that gives this movie its title, in an effort to convince the world how serious things really are.

Make no mistake, that while a lot of the movie feels very mundane, with the focus on Klaatu’s time with Bobby and his assessment of the state of humanity, when the Earth does stand still as we knew was coming from the title, that’s when this film truly earns its ‘techno-horror’ label. And while planes in flight and hospitals are unaffected, as officials mention in discussing the situation where no power works anywhere else in the world, the idea that the entire world has shut down would have been devastating back in 1951, imagine that happening today, where we rely more than ever on our devices. It’s only for half an hour, but the ramifications of such an event are profound.

Throughout most of the film, Gort spends much of its time standing motionless at the saucer. One disparaging reviewer from the time of the film’s original release stated that Gort was unthreatening, and I highly disagree. While the suit isn’t the most impressive looking to be sure, the fact that Gort is so powerful that it can ignore everything around it until it activates, is chilling. When Gort does act, it is decisive and spectacular. The effect of its visor and the beam it emits are quite good for 1951 and adds to that atmosphere. Gort never speaks or utters any sounds other than firing its beam weapon, which is menacing in its own way.

"Gort is programmed to stand around and look menacing like that."

This movie is one of those I have to agree with the common consensus and consider it a ‘must see’ for sci-fi fans of any stripe. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1951; some may argue that it may be more relevant today than it was all those years ago, with tensions as high as they are across the globe right now. I especially appreciate the main cast’s ability to sell the situation so well. Michael Rennie stated that he was told to act with dignity but not superiority as Klaatu, and I would say he did that well. Klaatu comes off as odd to be sure, but not in a goofy way. He’s curious, conscientious, intelligent, and kind in an alien manner. Even when he aids Professor Barnhardt’s attempt to solve the 3-body problem, he does so in a matter-of-fact way, instead of being condescending or smug about it. I’d say that he does feel superior due to how advanced he is compared to us, but not in his attitude, it instead is obvious to us with his actions and advanced knowledge.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is an excellent film that deserves its illustrious reputation. It combines a thought-provoking premise, with ideas that if not timeless, are certainly relevant to almost any time period in our history to date, a solid cast, and some great visuals for a movie of this age. I can’t recommend it enough.

"In the wise words of Bill & Ted: Be excellent to each other."

— I’ve not seen the remake with Keanu Reeves, but from what I’ve heard of it, I don’t want to.

— The phrase; ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto’ has shown up so often in other films and elsewhere that it’s become one of the most recognized phrases from a sci-fi film ever.

— A large part of the main cast had long film and TV careers, some up to the 2000s. Michael Rennie also served in the RAF during WW2, and Billy Gray is still alive as of this writing.

— While not one of the main cast, Frances Bavier who plays the part of Mrs. Barley, one of the residents staying at the same boarding house that Klaatu spends a large part of his time at, is best known as Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show.

— Klaatu states that he traveled 250 million miles to arrive at Earth. This measurement doesn’t really work since the sun is 93 million miles away, and the nearest star other than Sol is Proxima Centauri which is 25.3 trillion miles away!

Four Klaatu Barada Niktos out of four. An absolute classic.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.


  1. Definitely a top of the line classic. Not to mention the very first line of Rocky Horror Picture Show. :)

  2. 'Klaatu barada nikto' even made it into an episode of The Rockford Files.

    Quite simply one of the great SF films of all time and one I never get tired of re-watching. Watching Bobby take Klaatu on a tour of DC is just too much fun.

  3. Good call... I really enjoyed it. And honestly very easy to watch too, despite the warnings about mundane patches. The stuff with Bobby is really enjoyable.
    I watched the 2008 Keanu remake too, first actually, so it had a chance of being enjoyed. I still didn't really like it, lol. The changes, while adding more action sequences, also made the film suddenly feel incomplete to me. And it added an unpleasant bareness to the setting. There's so many more people shown in 1951... I wouldn't recommend it, even to see the cool sight of a runaway truck being consumed by a swarm. But that's not what this page is about.
    "One disparaging reviewer from the time of the film’s original release stated that Gort was unthreatening, and I highly disagree."
    I disagree too, I find the concept of a mostly immobile knight very intimidating. Kinda like the Godzilla interpretation in Shin Godzilla. It walks almost agonizingly slowly but it's completely uninterrupted by all the weapons violently thrown at it and to me that really worked in giving it that uncanny valley feeling though I know some of my peers were just taken out of what looked to them like a giant toy. Oh well.
    I liked Klaatu too, though while he definitely did carry around that unmistakable dignity, some of his half-smirks did make me wonder if there was some light condescension at moments. But maybe it was just wry amusement. I don't remember Keanu's version of him having those little reactions.
    The special effects are good too, even for their time. I particularly loved the sound effects, except maybe the one at the end that involved a revival because it hurt my ears.

    1. Good point on the revival. It went on for a long time too. They should have turned the volume down on that one and made it shorter. That was not not the most pleasant experience.

      I loved the parts with Bobby too, but I grew up with movies like this being on TV as a staple of shows like 'Shock Theater', and as a huge fan of classic Who, I'm more used to less action and a slower pace, so the I mention the mundane part mostly for more modern audiences that don't always enjoy the more leisurely pace of movies like this.

      The half-smirks and knowing smiles were definitely there, but I think it's more of like you state, wry amusement, instead of haughtiness. He never felt like he was literally looking down on us.


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