If we don’t stop killing each other we will be exterminated. That’s the message given by one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. World War II ended with the dropping of a couple of devastating nuclear bombs over two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 129,000 people. Over the next few months, more than another 120,000 people would die due to burns, radiation poisoning and other after effects of the bomb. The bombing ended the war at a high cost. And while it ended the war, it was just the beginning of a new era in warfare. Ever since, along with Russia’s own testing of a nuclear bomb in 1949, the fear of nuclear war has hung over us like a massive mushroom cloud. In the world of science fiction, films like The Incredible Shrinking Man, Godzilla and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to name a few, have used these fears to demonstrate what our future may be. In 1951, came an early entry in the field. It remains to this day one of the best. Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still warns us that if we don’t stop killing each other, we may not have a future. It won’t be just giant genetically modified monsters we’ll have to worry about.
Of course, mass killing of humans by humans is nothing new. It goes as far back as to the Old Testament. However, modern man seems to have developed a knack for killing off so-called undesirables: The Armenians early in the 20th century, The Holocaust, The Killing Fields of Cambodia just to name a few. The list really does go on right up until today in Syria.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a history lesson about human nature. We, the human race are our own worst enemies. It won’t be outside forces, aliens from space that destroy us, but our own fears, our own hate, our own greed and desires. There’s a bit of dialogue in Terminator 2: Judgement Day that sums it up. The young boy, John Connor says, “We’re not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean,” and The Terminator replies, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
When an alien space ship lands in Washington D.C. a human looking “visitor” whose name we learn is Klaatu (Michael Rennie) has come in peace. He’s not here to harm anyone, but he has come as sort of an interstellar ambassador with a warning. Live in peace, or we will destroy you. In this film, the universal threat is not really an invasion from outer space, but mankind’s potential threat to the universe. Earth and it inhabitants are the real monsters with threats of unleashing nuclear weapons. The film’s final warning is that the people of Earth should join the rest of the universe and live in peace. Klaatu’s message is a firm omen of what will come. Don’t bring your violence, your weapons to space. Fight among yourselves if you will, but don’t let your path to violence extend to the galaxy. If it does, you shall be destroyed.
The earthlings react as expected with violence by a nationalistic military ready to fight first and ask questions later. An unnerved soldier shoots the alien. Gort, a giant sized robot emerges from the spaceship and disintegrates the military’s weapons. The wounded alien is taken to Walter Reed hospital while Gort remains in front of the spaceship barring anyone from entering.
At the hospital, Klaatu manages to heal himself using some sort of ointment. He tries to convince a Presidential official that he needs to speak to all world leaders simultaneously. The aid informs Klaatu that even if it could be arranged the world situation makes that request impossible. There’s is too much hostility. When Klaatu suggest they allow him to meet and mix with the human population in order to try and understand their violent behavior, he’s put under heavy guard. Despite the security, Klaatu escapes from the hospital. Not revealing his true identity, he rents a room at a boarding house where one of the other tenants is Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray) who befriends the stranger. Together, they explore Washington D.C. He bring Klaatu to Arlington cemetery with Bobby’s father is buried. Klaatu is shocked that everyone buried there died in a war.
Unable to get political officials to come together and Klaatu’s own insistent not to negotiate with just the United States, he seeks out the scientific community. At first through Bobby, and then through a government agent, Klaatu meets Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) a highly regarded scientist. Klaatu explains that the entire universe has deep concerns about the earth’s behavior and potential now that they have developed a primitive type of atomic bomb. The universe fears the earth will attempt to expand its power far beyond its planet. If Klaatu’s warning of peace is ignored, the earth will be eradicated. Barnhardt agrees to gather scientists from all over the world and meet at the spaceship.
A series of further events including Helen’s boyfriend Tom, whose own self-seeking greed for some sort of glory, goes against Helen’s wishes and informs the military where Klaatu is heading. They hunt him out and shoot him down. Gort manages to revive Klaatu but, as he explains to Helen, it is only temporary. That power rest with the almighty spirit.
Klaatu addresses the crowd outside the spaceship with one final warning. Join the rest of the universes and live in peace. Kill yourselves if you must, but do not extend your useless violence to outer space. If you do… “This Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”
The Day the Earth Stood Still helped steer the science fiction genre away from mostly juvenile fare to more mature themes that audiences would think and talk about long after leaving the theater. With the cold war and the House of Un-American Activities in full force, paranoia was running wild. Many American’s were leaving urban areas fleeing to the suburbs where life would allegedly be better. Away from crime, immigrants, fear of the unknown and a crumbling infrastructure. The film plays into much of these fears. When the spaceship lands both the public and the military’s first reaction is one of fear. Even after the ship lands and Klaatu begins to tell them he has come in peace the military’s first reaction is to shoot first.
An intricate part of the film’s success is Bernard Herrmann’s superb score. With this score Herrmann, one of the first to venture into the world of electronic music, managed to musically match the paranoia, and the nervous edginess director Robert Wise depicted on screen.
Robert Wise was a director who would not be fitted into one genre or style. He managed to create masterpiece s in a wide selection including the musical (West Side Story), horror (The Haunting, film noir (Odds Against Tomorrow) and with this film science fiction.
 Wikipedia – The Day the Earth Stood Still.
This review originally appeared as part of Wonders in the Dark’s Science Fiction Countdown.