THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL laid it out for us from on-high: “Join us in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” This was delivered by Michael Rennie, assuring himself a place in sci-fi cinema history as ‘Klaatu’, emissary from a quarter-billion miles out. Space honchos telling the Earth to cool it with atomic weapons, and along with their grave (yet decidedly suave) messenger they send us ‘Gort’, a seven-foot-seven robot whose lethal silence carries a welcome chill, even after decades of special effects showcases.
The movie’s classic status is in large part sentimental, keyed on the varying effects it wrought upon its audiences, first in 1951, when it was a hit, grossing $5,300,000 (53rd place that year) and then after it migrated to NBCs Saturday Night At The Movies a decade later (‘calling my childhood, come in please’). Sadly, the beware-your-warfare-habit message rings truer than ever. Our answer, naturally enough–a Space Force! Go, Earth!
The marvelous early sequence of the aliens emerging from their craft in the middle of Washington D.C. (uh, now would be a good time in case you’re paying attention up there) displays the combination of Bernard Herrmann’s peerlessly ominous music, then the lifting of Gort’s visor, revealing the flickering disintegration ray behind it: Eerie at its best.
The overall handling was so respectful, smart (thanks to director Robert Wise) and restrained that it (along with the same year’s equally classic terror visit from The Thing) garnered enough audience attention and critical notice to guarantee the 50s flood of really weird thrillers.
While sober and thoughtful, much of it is also pretty talky; as Klaatu gets to know some Earth folk lots of conversation is required to insure the really tense scenes their pull. Nitpicking the pacing is a foolishly human critique, if only when you take into account how many hours of playtime for how many countless kids of Boomeropolis were taken up reciting variations of the phrase “Klaatu birada nikto.”
It only takes 92 minutes to shiver past, with Patricia Neal (excellent), Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe (we know he’s a brilliant scientist because his hair is a a tangle), Billy Gray (a great child actor), Frank Conroy, Frances Bavier, Drew Pearson, and Lock Martin—the seven-foot-seven doorman from Graumans Chinese Theater—as Gort. Buffs can spot Carleton Young, Lawrence Dobson, Edith Evanson, Harry Lauter and Louis Jean Heydt. Unbilled fresh faces Stuart Whitman and Guy Williams are in there somewhere.