Review of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Welcome to Earth [Smack!], now go home!
About 15 minutes into this movie, that’s what I wanted to see some Earthling say(and do) to the alien Klaatu, who, after only a couple hours on Earth, was throwing his weight around and acting like he owned the place. Of course, “Welcome to Earth!” was the line famously uttered by Will Smith in Independence Day as he’s punching an invading alien in the head, but I guess Earthlings had more spunk and defiance in the 1990’s than in the early 1950’s when this movie was set. Klaatu, at this point, is demanding (among other things) an audience with all the world’s leaders, indifferent, apparently, to whether we could or even wanted to do such a thing. At this point he was talking to some diplomat type, who should have shown some backbone and said something like: “Who the hell crowned you Emperor of the Universe? You come to our planet, unannounced and uninvited, giving no indication whether you were hostile or friendly, pull out a device without telling us what it is, making an already nervous bunch of soldiers even more nervous, one of them shoots it, slightly injuring you in the process, we apologize profusely and take you into one of our hospitals, and then you start telling us what YOU want US to do!” Or he could just skip most of that and say “Welcome to Earth [punch in mouth], now go home!”
At this point Klaatu had merely been pushy, overbearing, and a bit condescending, but things soon got much worse. About halfway through the film he is meeting with a scientist. At first they just talk science stuff, specifically how to solve an equation the professor was working on. But he soon gets to the meat of the matter. They don’t like that we have nuclear weapons and are working on rockets. Their fear is we will soon use them on other planets, never mind no one on Earth has suggested any such thing. So, to defend against this [nonexistent] threat, they have robots that can kill everything on the planet, humans, animals, everything. At which point the scientist is in awe that such technology exists, apparently missing entirely the moral (or, more accurately, utterly immoral) nature of such a proposition. The scientist, like the diplomat, is apparently a wimp and lacks the guts to stand up to this spacegoing threatener of global genocide. What are we to think of a form of “Justice” administered by planet smashing robots who apparently cannot or will not distinguish between guilty and innocent, who will engage in mass murder on a scale unimagined even by a Hitler or Stalin, and all out of fear of a species which, according to Klaatu and his kind, are way behind them in terms of technology? Indeed, if Klaatu really wanted peace with Earth, he could have gone about it the civilized way. Announced in advance via radio communication that he was coming so we would have been prepared, requested permission before landing, and then asked (not demanded) that we sign a peace treaty with them. That’s the civilized method of handling such matters, showing respect for the people he was dealing with, as opposed to the heavy handed approach he used in the movie.
Ironically, although this movie is clearly intended to have a message, the true message may be the opposite of what the filmmakers intended. Namely, that totalitarianism done in the name of “Idealism” may in fact be worse than totalitarianism served straight up. Klaatu is presented as an idealist, a man (or alien) of peace, but in reality his morality is that of a thug, the classic bully’s line of “Do as I say, or I’ll bash your face in!” Give me the aliens of Independence Day over Klaatu and his ilk any time. They, too, threaten to wipe us out, but at least they’re not claiming to do it in the name of “Peace”.
Anyway, so much for that. Putting aside the rather disturbing moral and philosophical issues raised by this movie, how does it rate purely as entertainment? On that scale, pretty good. The story itself is simple and well told, the acting generally solid. Patricia Neal is the only real star in this movie, and it shows, since her acting is on a level well above the rest. The filmmakers seemed to recognize the low level of special effects available at the time, so, for example, they simply have KLaatu played by a human actor with no attempts to make him look “Alien”, not even such gimmicks as Spock style pointy ears. The ship is your basic flying saucer, no attempt is made to explain its propulsion system nor other forms of alien technology. This was the early 1950’s and the science fiction movie genre was in its infancy. Later movies, like the Star Wars, Terminator, Alien, and Matrix series would be far more sophisticated, but then they had earlier movies such as this one to learn from.