Most diehard cinefiles will recognize the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” It is a little puzzling when you think about it. It is a line of gibberish from the campy 1950s science fiction “B” film called The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). I cannot tell you why it is so memorable, but my parents both remember it and neither were alive in 1951. As just mentioned, it was one of those movies that Hollywood cranked out seemingly on a daily basis at one time. If you think it is bad now for the cineplex industry with all the closings, imagine if COVID-19 had struck back then? This was an age before widespread television ownership or broadcasting, and going to your the local theater to catch a flick was routine for millions of Americans. The point I am trying to make here is that with so many films being made and watched at that time, why this one should stick out is beyond me. Still, there are some interesting themes at play, so let us take a closer look.
You would think with a title like The Day the Earth Stood Still that its events would take place in a single twenty-four hour period. Regardless, one day an unidentified flying object (UFO) comes to our planet and parks itself near the White House in our nation’s capital. Given the unexpected nature of this occurrence, it is understandable that the armed forces are mobilized and they arrive practically as the alien ship lands. From its smooth exterior, a doorway splits open and the first to emerge is the robotic sentinel Gort (Lock Martin). It deals with several of the infantrymen’s firearms by disintegrating them with blasts from its normally concealed eye. Now that the earthlings know these visitors mean business, the next to emerge is Klaatu (Michael Rennie). He is bedecked in some kind of space suit and he holds a device that he explains will help the people of Earth know what life is like on other planets . . . only to have it promptly shot from his hand by a trigger happy soldier, the same bullet striking Klaatu’s torso. Because he had given the murder robot the stand down order, it does not immediately begin destroying everyone and everything in sight. Instead, the army takes Klaatu to Walter Reed Hospital where they discover he is human in appearance and speaks English. He also comes with a dire warning: the Earth needs to shape up or it will be annihilated. As Klaatu explains to the president’s secretary Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), the Earth has been observed from beyond the stars and it is feared by these extraterrestrial civilizations that we will continue our warlike ways when we begin exploring the stars in earnest. As such, Klaatu says that he needs to speak with all foreign leaders. Though it is not mentioned by name, Mr. Harley essentially says that the Cold War makes this impossible. This leads to Klaatu opting for plan B. He nicks a set of clothing, and using his alien powers manages to walk out of the hospital and into civilian life. Going by the name on the suit jacket he wears, he finds a room to rent in a nearby boarding house. It is there that he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby. The next day while Helen is at work, Bobby takes Klaatu around Washington DC. Klaatu’s main goal in their wanderings is to find Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), a well known scientist working on space stuff. When he is not in his office, Klaatu leaves a calling card of sorts by completing a mathematical equation scrawled all over the professor’s chalkboard. They meet up later that evening and Klaatu reveals what is about to befall Earth, and urges the professor to call together the greatest minds in the world in order to convince them to change their ways. Back at the boarding house, the various occupants begin to become suspicious of Klaatu, partly because it is being broadcast that there is a fugitive on the loose. The one who becomes most leery of Klaatu is Helen’s would-be fiancé Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). When he begins casting doubt on Klaatu’s identity, Klaatu decides to let Helen in on his secret and convinces her to help him. Tom does not take too kindly to the attention Helen gives Klaatu, and decides to turn the alien over to the authorities. Klaatu is arrested, and shot once more in the process, right before he was to meet with the gathered scientists. However, Gort busts him out of jail and they return to the ship. As Klaatu is about to leave, he delivers a message to all those gathered about security, law and order, and a world free from aggression. As the film closes, the idea is that it had an impact and hopefully saves humanity.
If you are wondering where that strange phrase is used in The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is a sort of a voice command for Gort. Whenever it gets its circuits in a wad sensing a violent threat, Klaatu (and Helen later on) speaks these words and it relaxes. Indeed, that is sort of what Klaatu is trying to get the whole world to do: chill the heck out! That is not a bad message to have in a film that comes out as the Cold War was heating up with the Korean War and the proliferation of nuclear armaments. The United States and the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, engaged in a protracted struggle for global ideological hegemony. They were the two so-called “superpowers,” and each tried to influence other countries to follow their respective lines of thinking. You see this played out in films like this one, where the alien often represents a foreign terror that was not too difficult to associate with the Red Menace. What makes The Day the Earth Stood Still fascinating is that the earthlings that Klaatu interacts with the most become sympathetic to his cause, which is really one of peace. Most examples of its ilk would see such an invasion as a cause for war, and the resulting conflict would highlight American ingenuity in triumphing over all threats to its security. And while the message of law and order is in keeping with the perception that communism represented lawlessness, there is an extra layer to the film. It is brief, but at one point Klaatu makes a reference to God, saying that our lives are not in our hands but rather that of the “Almighty Spirit.” What a great thing to remember this Easter season. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reinforces this idea when he asks God that He be spared the coming trial. Yet, as with the notion that our lives are not our own, Jesus follows up His plea by reminding us that it is God’s will that comes first. We are all merely instruments in our Creator’s hands, and it is worth mentioning that the alias Klaatu goes by while walking amongst the people of Earth is Carpenter. I will stop short of comparing him to Jesus, but Klaatu’s tidings of peace are in keeping with what God wants for all of us.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a perfectly adequate film, though I can imagine younger members of the family being bored by it. Still, it is a piece of classic Hollywood science fiction that, if nothing else, will help you to answer a trivia question whenever “Klaatu barada nikto” comes up in such settings. It also starts with some great sci-fi music, which is fun.