"The Day The Earth Stood Still"

1951
DirectorRobert Wise
ScreenplayEdmond H. North
CinematographyLeo Tover
EditingWilliam Reynolds
MusicBernard Herrmann

Klaatu (Mr. Carpenter)Michael Rennie
Helen BensonPatricia Neal
Bobby BensonBilly Gray
Dr. BarnhardtSam Jaffe
Tom StevensHugh Marlowe

One of the best Science Fiction films of the fifties "The Day The Earth Stood Still" is intelligently directed by Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, West Side Story) from a screenplay by Edmund H. North (based on the story by Harry Bates). The film is one of the first to treat aliens as saviors from the stars who disapprove of Earth's use of the atomic bomb. The alien planetary federation sends Klaatu, (Michael Rennie) and his robot, Gort, to warn the earth to stop their destructive aggression or face total obliteration.

Klaatu and Gort land in Washington DC in an imposing flying saucer (it cost over $100,000 to make) where they are greeted with gunfire by the military industrial complex.

Wise successfully balances Christian allegory and the subplot of Klaatu's attempt to discover what humans are really like. It is during his quest to discover what humans are really like, by taking a room at a boarding house, that he encounters the widowed Mrs. Benson (Patricia Neal), and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray). Neal is excellent in this film turning in a restrained performance that is highly unusual for movies of this time. Gray also turns in an outstanding performance as the street savvy son (he is so much better than Brandon de Wilde in "Shane"). When Mrs. Benson's erstwhile boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe) wants to spend some quality time with her he encourages her to send Bobby off with Klaatu (who is using the name Carpenter in order to evade capture) takes him on a walking tour Washington. They eventually encounter Professor Barnhardt, (Sam Jaffe in a marvelous performance as the Einstein of his day) who will ultimately assist Klaatu in assembling a representative group of earthlings. Of course, none of this happens before Neal has an opportunity to save the earth by uttering the immortal phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto".

The film also features fine performances from Frances Bavier (better known to contemporary audiences as Aunt Bea on Mayberry RFD) and Lock Martin. Also notable is Bernard Herrmann's otherworldly musical score that beautifully creates the appropriate level of tension and fear. By using a relatively new electronic instrument, the Thermion (created by Eugene Thermion) Herrmann sets the standard for the musical scores of Science Fiction films of the future.

The Cold War period and the UFO hysteria that surround this films release also added to the films effectiveness. Americans were more than a little anxious about the atomic bomb and the possibilities of a potential third world war. Anyone not familiar with this period should check out the documentary "The Atomic Café'" which provides a delightful look at the cold war hysteria that surrounded the period (my particular favorite is the "duck and cover" sequence. When coupled with the films overriding premise, a fundamental faith in the goodness of humanity, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" presents a refreshingly optimistic view of first contact.