The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/29/12
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe

One of the most important science fiction films ever made, with a timeless warning that the human race is well on its way to self destruction. At the dawn of the Atomic Age, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC. A humanoid being from another world steps out of the ship with words of peace and offers a gesture of friendship and good will, only to be shot by a frightened soldier with an itchy trigger finger. This simple act sets the tone for the entire film. Fortunately, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) quickly recovers and desperately tries to bring together the world's leaders in order to discuss a matter of grave importance, but the governments of the world are too wrapped up in fear, politics, and petty squabbling to cooperate. As a last resort, he escapes from government custody and attempts to address the international scientific community instead. Along the way, he finds a room for rent and meets a young widowed woman (pretty Patricia Neal) and her son. The boy's youthful innocence makes it easy for Klaatu to bond with him and learn about our culture, but the army is closing in on him fast. What the army doesn't know is if they harm Klaatu or put him in danger, a menacing 8-foot tall robot named Gort will come after them and neutralize the threat, and possibly destroy the entire planet in the process. Fortunately, Earth is spared, but left with a solemn warning to end our aggressive tendencies, or be reduced to ash.

While the visual effects aren't especially impressive and haven't aged well, the acting is excellent and the message is timeless. The characters are also surprisingly timeless and easy to identify with, as they have the same problems and conflicts that people have today. The film came out shortly after World War II, when the threat and promise of nuclear energy was a major concern, relations with Russia started falling apart as the Cold War heated up, and the menace of Communism was lurking around every corner. In this volatile social and political environment, paranoia runs rampant and people react to anything strange and unusual with fear and hostility. The prevailing attitude is that the visiting spaceman is a bitter enemy and must be hunted down and destroyed. Klaatu takes all of this fear and prejudice in stride and tries desperately to counter ignorance with logic, but no one listens. Individuals like Dr. Barnhardt, Helen, and Bobby offer friendship and assistance, proving that not all humans are bad, while Helen's boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe) shows another side of human ugliness when he jeopardizes Klaatu's mission in an attempt to become rich and famous.

I was particularly fond of how the film handles all of its characters and situations in a sensitive and sympathetic way, showing us the ugliness of human nature without actually vilifying anyone. Social and political tensions are acknowledged with judgment, and Klaatu manages to serve as an instrument for bringing out both the good and bad in people. His farewell speech is intense and a bit intimidating, but starts to become overly preachy towards the end. Still, the message is loud and clear, and just as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.