The world is still broken and recovering from yet another "war to end all wars." Global distrust runs rampant, and a "Cold War" deepens. A population both thrilled and frightened by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Into this morass lands film director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
A spaceship lands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. From it emerges Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a being from another planet. He and his robot guardian Gort have come nearly 300 million miles to deliver an urgent message to the people of Earth; he claims they come in peace and goodwill. Klaatu displays an ominous-looking device, and is shot and injured by a nervous soldier. Gort neutralizes and disintegrates all weapons in the vicinity in retaliation. Klaatu recovers, and reveals that the device was to have been a gift to the President to study life on other planets.
While recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Klaatu informs the President's secretary that it is imperative that his message is given to all the world's leaders at once, so that no leader is shown preferential treatment over another. The secretary tells Klaatu that the state of the world, diplomatically and politically, prohibits such an event from taking place. The secretary returns the next day with telegrams from several world leaders, and it's clear they can't even agree on a meeting place.
After escaping from protective custody, Klaatu finds a boarding house where he meets Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby. He befriends them, and he and the boy visit the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Klaatu is impressed with the wisdom of Lincoln's words, but saddened that many of his words seem to go unheeded--especially when he realizes that most of the graves at Arlington belong to people who have died because of war, including Bobby's father.
Klaatu is desperate to give his message to the people of Earth and decides to give the message to the world's leading scientists, with the help of America's leading scientist Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). Together they decide the best way to get the Earth's attention is by stopping all mechanical and electrical devices around the globe for thirty minutes, except critical systems like hospitals and airplanes in flight. At the end of these thirty minutes, when the Earth stood still, the manhunt for Klaatu becomes a desperate frenzy.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is hailed as one of the finest films in the science fiction genre, and it is--but not for its special effects, writing, or acting. Indeed, the special effects are ordinary and the writing and acting are simply competent. There are better examples of all three in other 1950s-era sci-fi films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
What makes The Day the Earth Stood Still special, and worthy of being called a classic, is the message of its story. It is at once an allegory AND a cautionary tale. An allegory that draws heavily from the Christ-redemption story, and a cautionary tale for the people of Earth--all of us, even today--regarding our weapons and our penchant for violence. We earthlings solve all of our problems, disagreements and conflicts by going to war, and our weapons have become a threat to our own planet's survival. We have become, frankly, too big for our britches.
As we explore beyond our own atmosphere, beyond our own solar system, we take our penchant for violence (and our dangerous weapons) into the unknown with us. If there is life "out there," how will they react? Or perhaps we're being watched--and warned--that it's time to put aside our childish ways as we take our first baby-steps into the universe?
As Klaatu warns: "The decision rests with you." (B)