Whenever aliens from outer space visit our planet, there are three possibilities. The first is that the aliens are good, but we want to kill them because we just don’t understand them, as in It Came from Outer Space (1953). The second is that the aliens are evil and we have to defend ourselves, as in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). All alien invasion plots were one or the other for a long time. Eventually, a third possibility emerged in which the aliens are good and we get along with them just fine, as in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a strange combination of the first two. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is an alien from an unspecified planet in our solar system. He has come to destroy every creature on this planet, if we don’t do what he says. That’s every creature, mind you, not just man, but animals too. So, he is evil, and we need to destroy him, right? Wrong! Like a Necker cube, at various times the movie flips, and it is Klaatu who is good while we are in the wrong. Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) says that the spaceman may not be a menace at all, and that he is just afraid. The movie approves of her sentiment. Her fiancé, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe), believes that the spaceman is a menace, but the movie wants us to regard him as narrow-minded and prejudiced. As a result, we get this incongruous depiction of an alien who is kind and lovable and good, but who will wipe out our entire planet if we don’t obey him.
What he insists upon, it turns out, is that we not extend out violent ways into space, thereby threatening his civilization and that of other planets. Because the movie is set contemporaneously, the year is 1951, and it will be several years before the Soviets even manage to launch Sputnik. So we are not about to extend our violence any time soon. But never mind that. Klaatu says he is losing patience and may have to level New York to get everyone’s attention. That sounds pretty evil, but then the Necker cube flips, and he is seen having a warm conversation with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who does not seem to be the least appalled by Klaatu’s threats to kill everybody.
Barnhardt, you see, is a scientist. In a right-wing movie, it is the military and the police that are good, while the scientists are dangerous, because they want to communicate with the aliens or study them, as in The Thing from Another World (1951). But this is a left-wing movie, where scientists are good and politicians are bad or at least pigheaded and narrow-minded. Barnhardt agrees to get scientists from all over the world to listen to Klaatu (apparently it takes a scientist to understand Klaatu’s threat to destroy all life on this planet).
Earlier in the movie, when the Necker cube flips and Klaatu is basically a good alien, he decides to find out what earthlings are like. He seems impressed by the goodness of humans; he is deeply moved by the words of Lincoln; and he is fond of Helen and Bobby (Billy Gray), her son. But then the Necker cube flips back, and he is once again threatening us with destruction, as if we were the scourge of the universe, and that includes Helen and Bobby.
Barnhardt suggests that instead of leveling New York, Klaatu should demonstrate his power without hurting anyone. Klaatu does this by neutralizing electricity all over the world, causing the electricity to go off, not only in buildings but also in engines, excepting only airplanes and hospitals. During the blackout, Klaatu and Helen are trapped on an elevator. By the time the power comes back on, he has confided in her and now she trusts him. “He’s not a menace,” she says to Tom. But Tom thinks Klaatu is a menace, which he clearly is. So, to keep us from siding with Tom, he is revealed to be an unpleasant character. In other words, it wouldn’t do for Tom to merely want to save all life on this planet from total destruction, which the audience might think a worthy motive. Instead, he lets Helen know that telling the army where they can find Klaatu will allow him to write his own ticket, be the biggest man in the country, get his picture in all the papers, and be a hero. We should have suspected something like this when we found out he was a life insurance salesman. Needless to say, that engagement is off.
Finally, Klaatu delivers his message, saying that Gort is one of a race of robots who patrol the planets. If any planet steps out of line, it is incinerated. And they are like a doomsday machine, which cannot be turned off. Then Klaatu and Gort fly away.
As I said, this is a left-wing movie. Conservatives have always been suspicious of the United Nations, fearing a loss of sovereignty, accusing liberals of wanting our nation to submit to some supranational government in charge of a new world order. This takes that idea to the next level. Now there is a kind of United Planets, and it is Earth that has lost its sovereignty. The attitude of this movie is that this is a good thing.
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