The quintessential alien visitation tale of its era, The Day the Earth Stood Still was mythically embedded in the minds of the pre-Spielberg generation that first saw it in childhood; viewed now, its influence on subsequent genre variations is as difficult to overstate as its number of ludicrous imitators. If not the first science-fiction film made by a Hollywood studio for adults (a distinction Kubrick always claimed for his 2001), it marked a leap past bug-eyed-monster serial juvenilia and attempted to defuse Cold War paranoia via anti-authoritarian wit and somber reckoning with Atomic Age danger. It’s a thinking kid’s movie, yet its crafty fun stays in balance with its self-consciousness as a prestige message picture.
Iconic from the get-go (the first line of dialogue is “Call headquarters!”), Day begins with a shimmering saucer hovering over the monuments of Washington, landing on the Ellipse to disgorge interstellar ambassador Klaatu (the angular, authoritatively British Michael Rennie). Surrounded by Army units, he is immediately wounded in the arm by a trigger-happy soldier, and his giant robocop companion Gort defensively vaporizes a tank and a couple of rocket launchers. When his efforts to organize a summit of all Earth’s nations are halted by geopolitical stalemates, Klaatu escapes a hospital room to observe Terran habits undercover in a D.C. boarding house, where he gradually confides in sharp but vulnerable war widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her spunky son (Billy Gray). After the alien reaches out to an Einstein-like professor (Sam Jaffe) to aid him in assembling the world’s scientists to hear his warning to the human race and engineers an eerie global demonstration of power, the authorities tighten the dragnet and the visitor must rely on Gort and Helen to save his life and mission. (Neal gets to unleash one damsel-worthy scream before delivering an order to the metallic sentry that’s the movie’s most enduring line.)
Released in the midst of the Korean War and the prime of McCarthy, the film achieved a unique relevance for a “spaceman” movie by unambiguously advocating for peace and grounding its pulp story in social reality. Beside the then-state-of-the-art effects and an indispensable, theremin-laced score by Bernard Herrmann, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Edmund North establish the anxiety and xenophobia of a Soviet-fearing populace as easily transferred to the messianic Klaatu (whose pseudonym is the Christian-tinged “Mr. Carpenter”). A frumpy boarder suspects the space traveler is actually a Red spy; the widow’s fatuous insurance-salesman suitor (Hugh Marlowe) asks, “What do you know about him?” as a preamble to envisioning himself as the richly rewarded captor of “the monster.” And the highly evolved Klaatu’s stern ultimatum isn’t bleeding-heart idealism but falls within the parameters of ’50s statecraft: “Stop fighting or we’ll destroy you” fits Truman-style containment policy without many contortions. Despite the centrality of this severe admonition to the plot, Day’s capacity to entertain is still carried by its stylish visual assurance, Rennie and Neal’s touching faith in each other, and a boy’s pleasure in buying otherworldly gemstones from a “screwball” adult for $2. And Gort remains an awesomely cool robot.