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Film / The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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"The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure."

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 black-and-white Science Fiction film directed by Robert Wise. The screenplay by Edmund H. North was adapted from the 1940 short story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates.

The Human Alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington, D.C. — in a classic flying saucer — during the Cold War. The paranoid military shoots him, prompting his robot guardian Gort to go on a rampage. Klaatu stops Gort, then informs the President of an important message he brings for all of Earth's leaders... Who can't agree on a meeting place. Klaatu is placed under guard at Walter Reed Hospital, but escapes and, under the name "Mr. Carpenter", goes to live among the people of Earth. He takes a room in a boarding house and befriends the residents, including a widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray).

After meeting with respected scientist Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), Klaatu decides to demonstrate his power by stopping the flow of electricity everywhere in the entire world—except for airplanes in flight and hospital electronics—for exactly half an hour. (This is the event referred to in the title, though nobody calls it such within the story.) The military takes this as a sign of hostile intent. Klaatu and Helen race to the saucer landing site, where a meeting of the world's top scientists has been hastily arranged by Barnhardt, but the military hunts Klaatu down and kills him.

Shortly before they catch up with him, Klaatu gives Helen a message to deliver to Gort in his own language: "Klaatu barada nikto." Gort re-activates upon Klaatu's death and vaporizes the soldiers guarding him, but Helen's message diverts Gort into retrieving Klaatu's body before anyone else is harmed. The robot temporarily revives Klaatu, who warns the people of Earth of Gort's true purpose: he, and other robots like him, were built to enforce peace in the galaxy... And if humans insist upon bringing their warlike ways into space, they will be destroyed. Klaatu leaves Earth with a simple phrase to mull over: "The choice is yours."

There was a 2008 remake, directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. Some of the plot was also copied for Plan 9 from Outer Space.

This film provides examples of:

  • 30-Second Blackout: Klaatu has a small demonstration where he deliberately, briefly shuts down all electrical power on the globe for half an hour, leaving exceptions for things like hospitals, planes and other time-sensitive devices and locations, where shutting off the power could result in death. This incident, presumably, is what the title refers to, although it could also refer more broadly to the general sense of stunned shock that accompanies Klaatu's arrival.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the original story, "Farewell to the Master", the robot's name was Gnut, not Gort.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original short story, Gort doesn't attack anyone at all. He tries to resurrect the dead Klaatu, eventually succeeds (after causing some damage and scaring the bejeezus out of some Earthlings), then they both leave.
  • Aliens Steal Cable: Klaatu says that his people have been monitoring Earth's radio signals, and that this is the source of his knowledge of Earth culture and language; however, the common comedic subtrope of aliens being unable to distinguish fiction from reality is avoided.
  • All Nations Are Super Powers: Surprisingly averted. Klaatu landed in Washington, D.C. because he thought that landing in the capital of the world's most powerful country would get the entire world's attention, but he repeatedly insists that his message is for all of humanity, no matter how large or small the country. He brushes off U.S. warnings about the Soviets as internal bickering that doesn't concern him. Moreover, when it is suggested that he could give his message to the whole world by addressing the United Nations, he actually declines once he learns that not every nation or state-group is represented by it (when the film was made, the People's Republic of China was an unrecognized state, and would not be until 1971, when it replaced Taiwan - but then Taiwan wasn't represented). Ultimately, pressed for time he comes up with the impromptu solution of addressing an international conference of scientists, who are generally apolitical.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: If you ignore the deathbot and the closing threat, Klaatu is a decent enough guy. The closing threat is that if humanity doesn't abide by the aliens' rules, the whole world will be destroyed. That's pretty clearly an invasion, even if it is for our own good.
  • Big Blackout: Klaatu demonstrates his power by causing a global blackout for exactly thirty minutes. He thoughtfully makes exceptions for such things as hospitals and airplanes in flight.
  • Broken Aesop: The intended message is Humans Are the Real Monsters because Klaatu is a peaceful ambassador whose home planet fears Earth will expand into outer space due to its advances in space and nuclear technology, makes the Earth stand still to deliver a message of peace, which culminates in Klaatu's accidental death. Except, Klaatu arrives with zero warning, shuts down all power on Earth (except in situations that would cause deaths, like hospitals and planes in flight) all to deliver a message of complete annihilation if they do anything remotely "threatening" to a planet they didn't even know existed solely because Earth has the theoretical capability to attack them, not because of any action Earth intentionally or unintentionally made against them. This could be seen as making Klaatu's planet being extremely hostile and xenophobic, complicating the film's intended message.
  • Covers Always Lie: You know that famous poster with Gort holding a woman and firing lasers from his eyes? Yeah, he's not evil.
  • Crowd Panic:
    • When Klaatu's spaceship first lands at the park, the crowds of people there run away in terror.
    • Sometime later, a crowd of people (and Army personnel) surround the spaceship. When Gort first appears the crowd panics and takes off.
    • When the ship starts to glow and hum before taking off, the scientists show some signs of panic, with screams and overturned chairs, as they scramble to get away. Understandable in this case, since the only launch technology on Earth was rockets, which would have caused considerable damage to the immediate surroundings.
  • Cyber Cyclops: Gort fires his disintegration beam from a single ominous point under his opened visor. In the remake, Gort has a single glowing red eye behind the visor there's a good moment when one of the characters realizes the eye is following him as he walks across the room despite the fact that Gort's side of the window was mirrored.
  • Deus Est Machina: Perhaps Gort. "Nothing he cannot do", raises the dead (all the way in the original script), name sounds like 'God'.
  • Disintegrator Ray: Gort's eye beam is used to disintegrate tanks, artillery pieces and individual weapons. After Klatuu is killed, his programming changes, and he uses it on humans, nearly doing so to Helen, but she manages to tell him the code words to make him stop.
  • Doomsday Device: Whether he counts as a "weapon" or a "character" is hard to say, but Gort might qualify. Never mind the fact that he defeated a whole unit of the U.S. Army by himself; according to Klaatu, he could have destroyed the Earth if he had to.
  • E = MC Hammer: Klaatu visits Professor Barnhardt, but the man is not home. Klaatu makes an addition to a blackboard-covering equation, then leaves his contact information with the scientist's housekeeper. The addition to the equation was apparently intended to convince the professor not to write off his unknown caller as a joke.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Klaatu warns that if humanity continues to be so violent, his society will have to do this.
  • Einstein Hair: Professor Barnhardt, who's clearly a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Einstein.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Klaatu says that the earth will be destroyed if they choose to extend their violence beyond the Earth.
  • Everybody Smokes: Even the doctor who examined Klaatu, who ironically whines about Klaatu chiding him for his lack of medical knowledge.
  • Fake Shemp: Doubles were used for Klaatu and Bobby in long shots of them walking around Washington, DC. In reality, none of the principal cast ever went to Washington, and the scenes with Klaatu and Bobby at the Lincoln Memorial and at Arlington Cemetery were shot in front of background screens using footage shot by the second unit crew in Washington, DC.
  • Fantastically Challenging Patient: When Klaatu is shot by a panicked soldier, a group of doctors perform surgery, and remove the bullet, then Klaatu himself uses a salve to quickly heal the wound.
  • First Contact: Klaatu arrives as an ambassador from outer space.
  • First Contact Team: When they can't do a world leader group meeting with Klaatu, due to everyone's squabbling, they send in the best people from a number of different fields for the big formal meeting with him.
  • Flying Saucer: The classic circular upside-down-plate shape.
  • God Test: As a demonstration that he is a powerful alien, Klaatu cuts electrical power all over the globe with the exception of situations that could cause deaths, like hospitals and airplanes in flight.
  • Hanlon's Razor: For the most part, Klaatu blames human aggression and violence on irresponsibility, not malicious intent. On the other hand, the entire purpose for his visit is to tell us that if we don't get our act together, we'll be wiped out by the galactic community for being a threat regardless.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: At one point Klaatu joins the crowd of gawkers looking at his spacecraft.
  • Hide Your Otherness: Klaatu spends a good chunk of the film hiding from the military by posing as a man named Lieutenant Carpenter who's renting a room in a boardinghouse; he soon becomes trusting enough of the family to let them in on his secret and elicit their help in getting back to his ship and preventing The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Holographic Terminal: The Ur-Example. Being a movie from the 1950's, Klaatu of course does not have access to CGI hologram special effects, but he does wave at his computer to control it from a distance.
  • Human Aliens: Klaatu is identical to a human being. It's been said that the filmmakers cast a British actor virtually unknown in the United States so audiences would have an easier time believing he was an alien than if he was a familiar face.
  • Humanity on Trial: The other intelligent beings in the galaxy are essentially evaluating whether humanity needs to be destroyed.
  • Humans Are Morons: If Klaatu is typical, humans are a long way behind the galaxy at large technologically and scientifically. But the real problem, Klaatu suggests, is that we're so dangerously irresponsible with the technology we have.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Klaatu shows up and tries to give humanity a machine that would allow humans to "study life on other planets." And how do the humans respond? By shooting him. After he recovers, he spends some time observing humanity and eventually decides to show he means business by disabling all electrical technology on the planet (with a few exceptions that could result in death, he leaves alone planes in flight, hospitals, and the like) for a short period of time. Then the humans shoot him again, this time killing him. He gets better, scolds them for being so violent, and essentially says that if humanity keeps this up, the interstellar community will have no choice but to put them down in order to prevent humanity from carrying its warlike ways out into space.
  • I Come in Peace: Klaatu steps out of his ship in the presence of roughly half the U.S. military, who are already a bit jumpy on account of the aforementioned spaceship. He wordlessly thrusts an alien device in their direction (actually trying to offer a gift), and somebody twitches and shoots him.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: One of the doctors treating Klaatu marvels at the medical advancements of his people. A simple salve has healed all evidence of a gunshot wound in under twenty-four hours.
    "I'm going to take this to be tested. And then I don't know if I'm going to get drunk, or quit practicing medicine altogether."
  • Innocent Aliens: Gentle, kindly Klaatu.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Klaatu visits Earth because, now that we're developing space travel technology, we could potentially take our self-destructive tendencies off world and threaten galactic peace. The aliens want us to outgrow our childish ways and will gladly accept us as equals when we do, but until then, if we start trouble, unstoppable alien robots will be waiting to destroy us to protect the civilized worlds.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: The titular Day The Earth Stood Still is caused by Klaatu using something akin to an EMP (but with the ability to control how long it lasts) to stop all electrical devices on Earth from thirty minutes, as a show of what the world is up against.
  • Jerkass: Tom, who rats Klaatu out to the Feds strictly for his own ambition.
  • Killer Robot: Gort apparently could wipe out all of Earth if he wanted.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: Possibly applies to Gort, based on Klaatu's statement.
    Klaatu:...We created a race of robots, and gave them absolute power over us."
    • Klaatu also seems to indicate the Gorts are sentient to a point or at least capable of making decisions, when he says that without him, Gort could destroy the Earth.
  • Messianic Archetype: Klaatu is an All-Loving Hero who comes from the heavens to save humanity, meets resistance from people not prepared to listen to his message, is killed, is resurrected, gives his last message, and returns to the heavens. Also, the alias he adopts while on Earth - Lieutenant Carpenter - is strongly reminiscent of a certain other "lieutenant" (literally: someone who "takes the place" of someone else) with a connection to carpentry.
  • Multi-Track Drifting: When the U.S. Army deploys its tanks, they're in such a hurry that they drift as they hit the road on their way out of the fort. Yes, the road was sprayed with water just for this effect, but still...
  • Newscaster Cameo: H.V. Kaltenborn, Drew Pearson, and other Real Life journalists and broadcasters give news reports of the alien landing.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • The item shot out of Klaatu's hand was a gift for the President that would have advanced science significantly.
    • Wearing a face-concealing — and unnecessary — helmet and extending an unidentified object without a word of explanation is very poor First Contact protocol.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Professor Barnhardt is a clear stand-in for Albert Einstein.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: There might be some subtextual attraction happening between Klaatu and Helen, but the film avoids showing anything overt.
  • Older Than They Look: The doctors who treat Klaatu learn he is actually 75, while he looks 35.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Klaatu says that his people live in peace and are free from aggression and war because of the creation of the Gorts and giving them absolute, irrevocable power over the people.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • Almost. Klaatu refuses to deliver his message until he can deliver it to representatives of each nation in person, all at once. The 'kills' part comes from the threat of global destruction if everyone doesn't listen. He also never communicates this threat to the appropriate people.
    • He also assumes that walking right up to the military with a strange object that pops open unexpectedly couldn't be misconstrued at all.
    • Helen tells Tom not to tell the authorities about Klaatu, but doesn't say why it's such a bad idea — that Klaatu's people will destroy Earth. Tom clearly isn't going to listen to her anyway, but she could have tried.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis:
    • The ominous scene when Klaatu walks with a bag on the street in front of Helen's boarding house may have inspired the iconic post of The Exorcist.
    • When Helen tells Tom that Klaatu/Mr. Carpenter is not a menace and must be left alone, he gets dead-set on having the alien killed, out of pure jealousy, no matter if other people may die. Decades later, a similar scene happened into a certain Disney film.
    • Klaatu Barada Nikto became a common reference/catchphrase after this film's release. In particular, people often associate the phrase more with Army of Darkness than this film.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Klaatu tells Helen that if he is killed, Gort will destroy the Earth, and to stop him, she must use the code word "Klaatu Barada Nikto". She successfully does so, but exactly what the phrase means (obviously, it's something in Klaatu's language) has never been truly revealed. Robert Wise, related a story he had with Edmund North, the screenplay writer, saying North told him, "Well, it's just something I kind of cooked up. I thought it sounded good." On the other hand, Billy Gray, who played Bobby Benson in the film, said that "barada nikto must mean... save earth". Florence Blaustein, widow of the producer Julian Blaustein, said North had to pass a street called Baroda every day going to work and said, "I think that's how that was born." Film historian Stephan Jay Rubin claimed that in an interview he had with North when he asked the question, "What is the direct translation of Klaatu barada nikto, and Edmund North said to me 'There's hope for earth, if the scientists can be reached'."
  • Scare Chord: The Piano got some really bad abuse during the making of this film.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Distance: Klaatu claims to have arrived from a planet "250 million miles" from Earth. This would place his homeworld somewhere in the Sun's asteroid belt.
    • While this is correct, it's worth noting that this movie came out in 1951, 6 years before Sputnik - the first satellite - was launched. At this point in history, people simply didn't yet know that Venus was impossibly hot and Mars was a barren desert of craters and rocks - so at the time both planets were reasonable places to speculate about having life.
  • Screaming Woman: Helen is a subversion. The dramatic climax of the movie comes when, after a brief panic, she regains her cool head and relays Klaatu's last message to Gort clearly and calmly, ensuring the film's somewhat-bittersweet conclusion. (She does scream and back away into some chairs when Gort approaches her, but she quickly regains her nerve after that.)
  • Shout-Out: Klaatu uses the name Carpenter.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: The film starts off with Klaatu pulling out a strange device, his gift to the president, and getting shot by military personnel.
  • Slave Race: The Reveal makes it clear that in some ways, Klaatu and his people deliberately did this to themselves, by establishing a robot-controlled police state.
  • Space Police: Gort and Klaatu. In a twist, Gort turns out to be the officer, and Klaatu is his assistant. In the short story on which the movie is based, Klaatu is only an artificial construct created to make it possible for Gort to communicate with humans.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Give up war or be destroyed by robots from outer space.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Although Klaatu dies in both the original story, "Farewell to the Master", and in this film, he lasts longer in the film and specifically survives the event that killed him in the original. The story had Klaatu dying immediately after arriving on Earth (he only gets as far as introducing himself and Gnut before he's shot by a fanatic with a gun). In this film, although he is shot while introducing himself, it's not fatal and he quickly recovers, but dies at the end of the film after being shot again during the manhunt. The screenwriter had intended for him to survive the film, too, being revived at the end by his alien technology, but the studio found the idea of technology alone being able to bring someone back from the dead too controversial; in the final film, although Klaatu is revived long enough to deliver a final message, he states explicitly that it's temporary and that true resurrection is "reserved for the Almighty Spirit".
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: Just two easily-incapacitated security guards standing between Klaatu and Gort! TWO! Anyone - including a kid out at night can walk right up to the alien spacecraft in Washington DC!
  • Sword of Damocles: Klaatu claims that this is why his people built Gort and other robots like him; the robots were purposely programmed to destroy any planet, including Klaatu's, if it ever acted aggressively towards other planets, thus preventing their worlds from ever doing so.
  • Technology Erasure Event: Klaatu disables all higher technology on Earth for a day, hence the movie's title, as a demonstration of raw power. While doing this, he takes great care to make sure that people won't actually be killed by this (hospital equipment and airplanes in flight are shown to continue functioning normally).
  • That Was the Reward: At the beginning of the movie, after Klaatu gets out of his saucer, he approaches the U.S. Army soldiers surrounding it. He offers a device that suddenly juts out spines and a soldier panics and shoots the device. Klaatu later explains its true nature.
    Klaatu: It was a gift for your President. With this, he could have studied life on the other planets.
  • Trope Makers: Of the peaceful First Contact, in fiction as in "real life" (UFO skeptics have cited many similarities between this movie and the claimed encounter of George Adamski with the alien Orthon in California in 1952, which started the "genre" of peaceful encounters popular in The '60s and The '70s, before the Alien Abduction replaced them).
  • Two of Your Earth Minutes: When Klaatu is telling the President's representative how long and how far he's traveled to reach Earth.
  • Verbal Weakness: The shutdown code for Gort is Klaatu Barada Nikto.
  • Washington D.C. Invasion: The film starts with a spaceship landing on the National Mall. Not an invasion, but no one told the Army.
  • We Come in Peace Shoot to Kill: Of the "peaceful alien met with hostility" variety. Klaatu is treated with suspicion from the outset, aiming guns and tanks at them, though at first the only actively hostile act is from one nervous soldier. After the Earth Stands Still (a harmless demonstration of power, meant to get Earth to recognize the seriousness of the situation), everyone starts trying to kill him.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Klaatu goes around with a pocketful of cut diamonds which function as small change on his planet; he does have the good sense to ask Bobby about their worth, and obtains some American money from the boy instead of actually trying to use them as currency directly.