Between Dimensions: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Between Dimensions is a continuing column about science-fiction and other unearthly matters written by Curt Dwyer.

Sci fi nerds (including yours truly) live with the knowledge that the more alien an alien gets, the more indistinguishable he/she/it will be from a god. In the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, this plays out badly for Klaatu our planet’s first alien visitor. The humans fearful of his seemingly omniscient abilities, shoot him. Given that Klaatu knows a lot about Earth, I’m surprised he expected anything less.

Seriously though, this gem of a movie from sci fi’s golden age builds from this quantum naiveté to craft a story of honesty, innocence, and hope. It uses its star’s monasterial aura, inspired casting, and quickly paced story to lay out a case for a dramatic change in human behavior. You could call it galactic intervention therapy.

Klaatu arrives on Earth in the early ’50s. As if his flying saucer and Gort his 10 ft tall robot wouldn’t get enough attention, he lands on a ball field in the middle of Washington. There he announces his intention to speak to world leaders on a matter of importance to all humans. The shooting ensues and he soon finds himself in a hospital under guard confronted by an inept politician. Amazingly, he executes a midnight run (today’s 20 somethings could take a lesson here), suitcase in hand, and ends up in a Washington boarding house.

There he meets Helen Benson played by the engagingly crisp Patricia Neal. Klaatu’s roomies put human nature on display confirming his fears about the potential success of his mission. During the rest of his stay, he runs into the usual suspects – politicians, the military, scientists, and the media – mostly with the same results we human’s experience today. So much for a VIP pass for aliens.

Although the action is predictable, the director, Robert Wise, keeps the believability factor high as Klaatu, with Helen’s son Bobby (Billy Gray) in tow, works his way through various encounters to his last hope, a meeting with the world’s scientists. An Army pursuit through Washington ends with Klaatu being shot yet again. But Helen – whom Klaatu has come to trust – heads for Gort with the instruction “Klaatu barada nicto”. As the likely inspiration for the more compelling Klingon wedding song, it’s not a bad line. Then Gort takes matters into his own 12″ hands. With some support from Helen, Klaatu is resurrected to deliver an ominous admonition about the rules of the ‘hood before leaving.

What’s good about this movie? The talent. First is Michael Rennie who plays Klaatu. As a human, he could pass for alien. His persona is gently out there. His tall, lean frame is ethereally animated seemingly without needing joints for locomotion. His superior voice is clear, firm and with a dusting of an accent. His gaze fixes his audience in place. Who needs CGI (or Keanu Reeves for that matter) when a director can work with such raw material?

Right behind Rennie is an engaging cast who keep the action convincing. Patricia Neal bites into her role as a strong-minded woman who knows what’s right for her and her son. Do we see a precursor to Sigourney Weaver here? Probably not but it feels right. Then Sam Jaffe does a fine turn as a default Einstein who comes to accept Klaatu as real and his message as the most important the world may ever hear.

Robert Wise is also what’s good about this movie. His story engages and keeps your interest as it ebbs and flows perfectly with the drama. Although his framing is mostly conventional (there is only one clunky segue when they need to have Klaatu go to the hospital) there are enough jumps to overhead shots and worldwide sequences that the movie is never visually boring. And Wise keeps a sense of humor about it. The scientist questions Klaatu’s modification of some difficult equations by asking how he will know they will now work. Klaatu responds, “Well, they got me from my planet to yours”. Point taken. Klaatu’s formal farewell is embellished with a hand and forearm gesture that sets a standard for small perfect touches that make a movie genuine.

When I realized where this movie was going, my initial response was to recall Rodney King’s plaintiff, “Why can’t we all get along?” But that knee-jerk sarcasm came before I was completely taken by the honesty and innocence of this gem. It’s a simple movie for an arguably simpler time. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a great time out from this too much with us world.

  • I look forward too getting this from netflix (or possibly winning it), and watching it for the first time. It will have to wait until I rewatch Step Brothers and the long awaited commentary though!