When you think of 1950’s sci-fi, the usual tropes tend to drift in from the upper atmosphere and touch down to the warbling sound of a musical saw. Rubbery aliens, swooning starlets, patronising males leads and heavy handed cold war metaphors are all unavoidable staples in both the upper echelons of science fiction royalty and the dirt-cheap schlock fests that sold out theatres back in the day, but every now and then you’d get a film that completely turned the genre on its head while still adhering to those loveable cliches that punctuated so many of its ilk.
Cue Robert Wise, the director who went on to craft such effortless classics as Run Silent, Run Deep, The Haunting and West Side Story who gave us surely one of the most intriguing Sci-fi ventures of that decade, a movie that inverted a lot of fears at the time in order to give us a thought provoking Christ analogy that figuratively truly did make the Earth stand still.
Washington DC is in a state of panic after a fast moving, unidentified flying object enters its airspace and sets down within a stones throw of the Washington Monument. While newscaster blurt the news to a terrified populous, live and as it happens, troops hurtle in from across the Potomac to surround the thing with rifles and tanks in the chance that something serious goes down.
They don’t have to wait long as the front of the flying saucer opens up to reveal its pilot, a masked guy named Klaatu, who strides out to greet the quivering earthlings while holding a weird piece of tech. Needless to say, the space dude gets shot by a sweatily overzealous soldier which sets off Gort, Klaatu’s hulking, disintegration-happy robot protector who starts throwing its weight around. Subdued by the safe word “Klaatu, barada, nikto”, Gort halts his rampage and Klaatu is taken in to have his wound tended to and it’s here he hints at his reason for coming to our planet. Simply put, he has a vital message to deliver to every nation on the planet, but the very suspicious nature of global politics means that that’s not going to happen any time soon, so after healing unnervingly fast, Klaatu realises he needs to try another tactic to complete his mission. Escaping from military supervision and assuming the name “Carpenter”, Klaatu moves into a boarding house to observe humans in a more intimate capacity and ends up bonding with engaged widow Helen Benson and her predictably precocious son, Bobby.
Choosing to deliver his message to open-minded scientists, instead of suspicious world leaders, Klaatu and Bobby aim to enlist the more level headed ear of Professor Barnhardt and warn the planet that their screwing around with atomic energy could lead to dire consequences. However, he’s still being hunted by a panicked government – and if anything happens to him, Gort is programmed to kick loose with his all-destroying eye beams.
While its probably unfair to 50’s cinema in general, I’m constantly dumbfounded at how forward thinking The Day The Earth Still truly is, especially for a genre that usually reveled in the cold war paranoia of the time. While most of its peers made magnificent use of parading their various cosmic threats as either thinly veiled communist surrogates or histrionic-fueled Frankenstein-esque warnings about dicking around with science, Wise’s fable does something quite remarkable and turns the figure of suspicion back on us. Klaatu, for all his ill-advised theatrics (landing in the nations capital and striding out towards armed soldiers in a mask while pulling a weird gizmo out of his tunic probably isn’t the best form of greeting – especially when you already know that humans are as aggressive as a mistreated pitbull), isn’t a threat, but a timely warning for a species gleefully spiralling toward being an intergalactic menace and most of the drama comes from the fact that we seem dead set on hurtling toward the worst case scenario out of a smug sense of superiority.
Wise presents us with numerous exchanges, where a bemused Klaatu observes us at our most dissmissanle, be it a pompous resident of the boarding house declaring that she doesn’t think the space man is from space at all, or helen’s fiancee readily admitting that he selfishly wants to give Klaatu up to the authorities merely in order to be a “big man”, but the script smartly dodges and pretentions of being overly preachy by containing a wry sense of humour about its damning accusations. Watch a pair of doctors scoff at the notion of Klaatu’s race having a life expectancy of 130 while sharing out a pack of cigarettes, or soldiers content to turn a blow torch on the space ship despite the fact that a deactivated Gort is right there.
The performances are of a high standard and while the relationship between Klaatu and little Bobby hasn’t aged particularly well (his mother is quite happy to leave him in the care of a man she’s literally known for less than a day), it’s benefited by Michael Rennie’s measured tones as he tries to understand the human condition better in order to get his warning through our collective, thick, skulls and get us to knock our destructive shit off. A nod also has to go to the icon Gort, despite the fact that the years haven’t been all that kind. Thankfully, visible, rubbery creases in his impervious metal skin and a shuffling gait that suggests the man inside the suit can’t see a damn thing, can’t diffuse the fact that when Klaatu’s muscle is ready to throw down, he’s still quite the formidable heavy, even if Bruce Campbell fucked up his shut down code in Army Of Darkness.
However, despite all this – not to mention some epic shots of a UFO landing that are still apes to this very day – surely the most fascinating thing about The Day The Earth Stood Still is its glaring Christ analogy that, to us, seems as obvious as having our lead wander around with a nametag that reads “Hi, I’m Jesus!”. Not only does Klaatu descend from the heavens with a message to save us, he adopts a human guise to know us better whose surname is “Carpenter” and his initials are “J.C.”. Further more (spoiler warning) he’s struck down by fearful soldiers and even resurrected to give us a final rebuke before going back to where he came from as we ponder the moral quandary mankind is now in.
With modern eyes, it’s a subtle as getting a short back and sides from a weed whacker, but it truly adds a fascinating and heartfelt angle that most sci-fi movies wouldn’t think of and has subsequently landed it on best ever science fiction lists ever since.
Some may decry the movie as dated, but that’s missing the point – sure, Klaatu gives out so many obvious clues that he’s the space man that the oblivious people around him seem dimmer than a blown lightbulb, but it’s the message is what’s important as it holds us as the true antagonists – not some squishy, ray gun waving assailant from Mars.
Klaatu, Bravo, Nikto.