Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Movshovitz: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” still speaks to us, if we’re willing to listen

The classic 1951 movie reminds that even in the face of human-caused extinction, the people of the world are still failing to cooperate for the common good

"The Day the Earth Stood Still." Copyright 1951 by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Gort, KLAATU BARRATA NICTO”

A loose translation of this famous line spoken near the end of the brilliant 1951 movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (forget the splashy, nowhere 2008 version with Keanu Reeves) would go something like “Gort, Klaatu says don’t incinerate the Earth — yet.” 

To go backwards in the story, Gort is the very large robot made of unknown materials, that stands guard outside a flying saucer that has landed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in easy sight of the Capitol, the White House and the militant obelisk that is the Washington monument, which here looks impotent.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is one of the most telling American movies of the Cold War, one of the best of the spate of space invader films of the 1950s, and a picture that speaks to the present condition of humanity perhaps more clearly than it did when it came out.

Howie Movshovitz. (Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado Denver)

One sunny day in our nation’s capital, with only a few minutes’ warning on radar screens around the globe, a shiny disk — a flying saucer — lands on the Mall. Soldiers and police are there in a flash of motorcycles, tanks and jeeps, along with a crowd of curious and fearful citizens. 

A tallish, thin human-like being — he identifies himself as Klaatu — wearing a helmet that covers his face, emerges from the ship. In English with a gentle British accent (the actor is Englishman Michael Rennie), Klaatu says he’s come in friendship. When he takes a small object from his shirt, a nervous young soldier shoots Klaatu in the arm and breaks the object, which Klaatu says was a useful scientific device that was supposed to be a present for the president.

As soon as the soldier shoots, Gort’s visor opens, and a beam vaporizes the assorted rifles and artillery weapons assembled by the Army. What Klaatu wants is to speak to all of the nations of the world about peace, and Earth is off to a bad start.

Klaatu and Gort have traveled millions of miles to Washington to explain that other planets have been watching Earth for a long time, mostly amused by Earthling stupidity and violence. Klaatu’s federation of planets doesn’t give a hoot if Earth blows itself up, but they’ve noticed that countries on Earth now have nuclear weapons and rockets, which could pose a danger to those planets. 

Klaatu tells an emissary from the American president that if Earth threatens those planets, they will reduce Earth to a cinder. Gort is one of a number of robots with this awesome power and they are programmed to destroy anyone who becomes violent — which is how Klaatu’s group of planets police themselves and maintain peace.

Klaatu asks the president’s representative to assemble all the leaders of Earth so they can hear the message. But he soon shows Klaatu a sheaf of cables that say things like “We’re busy;” “We can only meet in Moscow;” “We can only meet in Washington.” And so on.

Sound familiar? 

The Army takes control. They deliver Klaatu to Walter Reed Hospital, where he heals himself with some salve and escapes. He wants to go among the people of Washington to see what they are like, and he finds mostly fearful folks, suspicious, easy to accept rumors and naïve about most everything. So he manages to visit Dr. Barnhart, America’s and the world’s greatest scientist, played by Sam Jaffe, who looks a lot like Albert Einstein.

The upshot of the meeting — you gotta watch the film to see this work — is that Klaatu demonstrates the power of Gort and Klaatu’s planetary federation, by making the Earth “stand still.”

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a modest production. Lead players Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal were well-known actors, but not first-rank stars. The film runs a tight 92 minutes, in black and white, which was typical for the time — color was reserved mostly for westerns and musicals with bigger budgets.  

Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, gave the picture a modestly condescending, short review that appeared in the paper just above Crowther’s review of “Mr. Peek-a-Boo,” a French fantasy about a man who walks through walls. Like most other film critics and audiences in 1951, Crowther did not realize that some years later, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” would be seen as a basic expression of the Cold War — in hindsight, the space invader movies of the time were about the Commies coming to get us. 

But the power and insight of this quiet science-fiction film from 1951 has only grown with time. Written by Henry H. North from a short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, and directed by Robert Wise — in his modest days before he exploded into extravaganzas like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” — “The Day the Earth Stood Still” sees right into why we human beings seem incapable of saving ourselves.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

If Gort, under Klaatu’s command, has the stuff to shut down all electricity on Earth — while letting airplanes land, etc., and making sure no one is hurt — they can surely incinerate our planet.

Yet in spite of dire threats, the Earthlings fuss about recklessly in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” World leaders cop out, so Professor Barnhart persuades Klaatu to speak to a gathering of scientists from around the world. They assemble in front of Gort and the spaceship, only to have the whole business wrecked by the military, which insists on treating Klaatu — in spite of all evidence — as an enemy to be destroyed.  

The genius of the film is that it’s not much about visitors from other planets, but it’s a lot about actual human beings in the world. In 2021, faced with Earthling-caused extinction, the people of the world are also failing to cooperate for the common good. 

The UN conference in Glasgow last month was a discordant melange of politicos, environmentalists, oil and gas representatives and others, all with their own parochial interests and all unable, or unwilling, to face the dire threat we are creating for our own survival. Some trumpeted the agreement to admit that fossil fuels contribute to climate change. 

Whoopie. That’s like agreeing that sometimes — sometimes — matches can cause fires.

On the pandemic front, we still wrangle over the obvious — that masks and vaccinations can actually slow the spread of COVID-19 and help humanity get back to “normal,” which as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” sees it, is maybe not such a bargain.

For a film teacher and critic, and other human beings, it’s important to realize that not all movies are throwaway items, that like all good art, some motion pictures actually speak to us, like this unpretentious movie from 70 years ago. 


Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is film critic at KUNC.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.