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The Day the Earth Stood Still
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The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 science fiction film which tells the story of a humanoid spaceman who comes to Earth to convince its leaders to learn how to live in peace.

It stars Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier and Lock Martin. The movie was adapted by Edmund H. North from the story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates, and directed by Robert Wise. The score was written by Bernard Herrmann and is notable for including the first use of a theremin in movie background music.

Warning: Plot details follow.

Synopsis

Klaatu (Rennie) arrives in a flying saucer in Washington, DC, wearing a silver spacesuit and accompanied by a large human-like robot called Gort (Martin). As Klaatu exits the saucer, he is welcomed not by politicians but by soldiers. When he offers a device as a gift to the humans, he is shot when the device opens with a snap and is mistaken for a weapon. Subsequently the robot Gort is activated and makes all weapons evaporate. Klaatu is taken to a hospital, where he quickly recovers. He fails to convince the humans to organize a meeting among world leaders, where he wants to present to them an important message that "all humans" have to hear. The United Nations is cited as a largely defunct and irrelevant organization.

Klaatu escapes from the hospital and decides to meet a typical human family instead, whom he tells that his name is "Carpenter". He befriends Helen Benson (Neal) and her son Bobby (Gray) and manages to organize a meeting with a leading American scientist (Jaffe). He reveals his identity to the scientist and convinces him to organize a meeting among world scientists, who in turn are to carry Klaatu's messages to their leaders. As a demonstration of the seriousness of his message, Klaatu decides to turn off all electric power, all over the world (including combustion engines) -- with some notable exceptions, such as hospitals and planes. This is the situation referred to in the movie's title.

Because of the standstill, which lasts thirty minutes, Klaatu is now perceived as a security threat by the Americans, who decide that he must be taken dead or alive. He is indeed shot before he and Helen can reach the scientists' meeting.

Klaatu barada nikto

Klaatu benevolently warns his earthling friends that Gort has been programmed to defend him and that he will wreak great destruction if anything untoward happens to him. Concerned far less about his own death than about the lives of countless others, he urgently sends Helen Benson to deliver to the robot Gort the words that will cancel the attack: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto". In a dramatic encounter, the huge robot nearly kills Helen before she gets the words out.

After these words are spoken, the robot aborts his attack against Helen, carries her into the flying saucer, retrieves Klaatu's corpse, transports him to the saucer, and revives him from death. Some later works have referenced this phrase. In the movie Army of Darkness, for example, the hero has to speak it to retrieve the Necronomicon (the Book of the Dead); he fails to remember it properly, however ("Klaatu barada .. necktie?"). In Return of the Jedi, three of Jabba the Hutt's many minions are named Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto.

After Klaatu is revived, he steps out of the saucer and speaks to the assembled scientists. Earth, he tells them, can either decide to abandon warfare and join other spacefaring nations -- a peace ensured by a massive deterrent force, the robot race Gort belongs to -- or be destroyed as a threat.

Critical reaction

The Day the Earth Stood Still has been interpreted to contain religious symbolism, especially because of Klaatu's death and subsequent resurrection, and his chosen name "Carpenter". Klaatu does explicitly refer to the "almighty spirit" when asked whether Gort has the power over life and death.

The surprise ending of the short story "Farewell to the master" by Harry Bates (where it is revealed that the robot - originally called Gnut rather than Gort - is the master and the alien man, Klaatu, the servant) was not used in the movie, where this remains an open question. The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In spite of the undeniable cliches of the movie (a race of killer robots, a spaceman in a silver suit and a flying saucer etc.), its message of peace and dark outlook regarding human society separates it from the fray of 1950s science fiction and has made it a classic. Filmed in black & white with minimal, but effective special effects, the movie is a model of brisk, economical storytelling and direction.

Interpretations

Many see value in the films statement of universal moral standing, finding an association with Klaatu as a well-meaning upstart, whose time had not yet come. This interpretation holds that it is the fearful hostility of "the government," not the will of people, that was the sole obstacle to Klaatu's plan. Some speculate that the film and others like it contributed to a popular philosophy that blossomed in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Others find resonance in the themes of the ascribed 'uselessness' of the United Nations and of the assembling of the world's scientists to hear a message of peace. This view tends to see Klaatu as an misinformed or na´ve idealist, unfamiliar with the nuances of world conflict.