I’ve never been a huge fan of science-fiction films, and thus I didn’t really get into “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” but in 1951, a science-fiction thriller hit the silver screen, and to this day I consider it the best film the genre has ever produced. Of course today’s younger generation probably would find it laughable because it doesn’t have the advantage of all the advanced technology available to modern filmmakers and because it was filmed in black and white. Nevertheless, it represents the epitome of filmmaking back then and remains a classic today.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” begins with the tracking of a UFO headed W toward Washington, D.C., traveling at the rate of 4,000 mph, and as soon as the spacecraft sets down on a ball field, the Army dispatches men, tanks, and guns to surround it. And of course a corps of reporters is there as well. The saucer (Yes, it’s a real saucer.) sits idle for more than two hours before reporter Drew Pearson (Yes, it’s the real one.), announces, “Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, I think something is happening.”
Slowly, ever so slowly a ramp slides out from an invisible place in the ship, and then a portal opens to let a figure clad in a space suit emerge. After announcing that he has come visit in peace, he walks down the ramp, reaches into his spacesuit, and pulls out a contraption that causes one of the trigger-happy infantrymen to shoot and wound him.
Suddenly we look back up at the ship to see the ominous presence of a gigantic silver robot whose facial visor rises slowly to emit a deadly ray that immediately reduces everything it touches to rubble. After the robot has demonstrated its massive power by destroying a number of guns and tanks, the spaceman utters a command, and the robot closes its visor.
The wounded spaceman, whose name is Klaatu (Michael Rennie), is taken to the hospital where he is interviewed and proves that he doesn’t need any medical help. He ultimately leaves the hospital and takes room at a boarding house under the name of Mr. Carpenter so that he can maintain his anonymity. (In case you’re wondering, he looks just like us.)
As the story progresses, Klaatu is befriended by Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray), who also live at the boarding house. In order to get his message across to the people of earth, Klaatu wants all the greatest minds on earth to assemble and hear him. To this end, he asks Bobby who the smartest man in the world is. Bobby replies that it probably is professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who just happens to live in the area.
Through an interesting trick, Klaatu manages to set up a meeting with the professor, but when he tells the famous scientist what he wants, the professor has no idea how to get the attention of the greatest minds in the world. At this point Klaatu suggests arranging a demonstration that will range worldwide, and let’s just say that it certainly gets everyone’s attention.
I first saw this film when I was 10 years old, and although I have seen it countless times since then, I never tire of watching it. Of course the special effects cannot come close to matching what we see in films today, but when you consider what they were back then, they were pretty spectacular. Watching that saucer approach Washington, D.C., and land on that baseball field still gives me chills.
Rennie was perfectly cast as Klaatu. He’s tall, lean, handsome, and his resonant voice commands immediate attention. During the story he forms a close friendship with Neal’s character, and she ends up helping him out of several tight spots when she finally learns his real identity. In fact, one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema occurs when Helen must get a message to Gort, the massive robot guarding the spaceship. During this scene Neal utters four of the most memorable words in movie lore: “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikkto.”
Ah yes, Gort! What a magnificent robot he is in his simplicity! No, he doesn’t look like the robots we see in modern science fiction films, but he’s more imposing than any of them. In addition to his size what makes him so frightening is the incredible music that accompanies his actions. The musical score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, and he really outdid himself because the eerie strains of the soundtrack are perfect for a science-fiction film.
Another thing this masterpiece has going for is that four-time Oscar winner Robert Wise (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) directed it, and with him behind the camera, we wouldn’t think of anything less than perfection.
Now whenever a truly great film comes along, it always seems as if a group of morons gets together and tries to remake it. Thus, in 2008 such a group turned out an upgraded version that predictably was a complete and utter debacle. It was so bad in fact that it was laughable. And all I have to do to make that point is tell you who played Klaaru. Yes, it was none other than our old friend Keanu “I-Can’t-Act” Reeves. What a joke! Casting Reeves in that part is tantamount to having Pee-Wee Herman play Superman or George Clooney portray Rocky Balboa.
If somehow you have never seen the original version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” you owe to yourself to check it out on Netflix. And if you have seen it, you know that it’s worth watching again and again. They simply don’t make films like this anymore.