“Klaatu. Barada. Nikto.”
For more than half a century, few secret handshakes have such a cache in the Nerd Underground (other contenders include “Be seeing you” and the Wilhelm scream). Look closely enough, and you’ll find those three little words everywhere, from ANIMANIACS to ARMY OF DARKNESS to the original RETURN OF THE JEDI action figure line. Surely, I wasn’t the first dorky kid to notice and investigate the roots of that phrase, finally tracking it down to my local VHS rental shop. But where I may have expected a typically corny alien invasion movie (if memory serves, I picked up my first copy of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE that same momentous day!), what I got was one of the most stunningly mature, level-headed films of the classic science fiction era.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL concerns the media firestorm that occurs when a silver flying saucer lands on the Washington Mall. Its inhabitants include a seven-foot-tall silver robot named Gort and a humanoid figure named Klaatu (played by the intensely genteel Michael Rennie), who announces that he comes to Earth with a message of goodwill. Needless to say, he is immediately shot. Realizing he needs to take a more subtle approach, Klaatu escapes the Army hospital, rents a room from a local widow, and seeks out genius physicist (and obvious Einstein analog) Professor Barnhardt. But will his mission succeed before his military captors track him down?
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL has aged much better than most of its contemporaries, largely because of its surprising pacifism and progressive stance against square-jawed ‘50s paranoia. Few sci-fi movies of the era were bold enough to posit the United States government as the trigger happy antagonists, and few take the stance that alien visitors might not necessarily be coming to kill us all. It certainly helps that its extra-terrestrial is one of the most Purely Good protagonists this side of Atticus Finch. As Klaatu, Rennie exudes warmth, charm, and patience for a planet of people who he sees as basically good, but disturbingly volatile (though he does start to lose his temper after getting shot at for the second or third time). Klaatu might have even been too good a hero; the studio reportedly got skittish around the parallels to a certain other Martyred Savior (Klaatu rents his room under the name “Mr. Carpenter”), and forced director Robert Wise to insert some lines about how “only the creator” holds the power of life and death.
But even outside of politics and allegory, DAY stands up as a classic of retro-futurism. Gort and the spaceship are classics of sleek 1950s design, and Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score cemented the eternal link between outer space and the theremin. And then, of course, there’s that line. While discussing its context would almost certainly constitute a spoiler, Patricia Neal’s delivery is one of the most awe-inspiring moments in film history. She doesn’t even blow the third word.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) dir. Robert Wise
Monday, 7/28 at 4:00
Tuesday, 7/29 at 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, 9:00
$10 (free small popcorn on Tuesday if you wear a Brattle t-shirt!)
Part of the ongoing series: Robert Wise Centennial
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138