The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 black-and-white science fiction film that tells the story of a humanoid alien visitor who comes to Earth to warn its leaders to curtail their conflicts or face devastating consequences. The film stars Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe and Hugh Marlowe, under the direction of Robert Wise. Screenwriter Edmund H. North adapted Harry Bates's short story "Farewell to the Master". The score was composed by Bernard Herrmann and is notable for its use of two theremin electronic instruments.
He is taken to Walter Reed Hospital, where he quickly recovers. While there, Klaatu meets the President's secretary, Mr. Harley, but is unable to convince him to gather the world's leaders. Klaatu suggests the United Nations, but is told it does not represent all countries, and later, that world leaders cannot even agree on a meeting place for such a momentous occasion. When Klaatu suggests he live among ordinary people to get to know them better, Harley rebuffs him and implies that he is a prisoner. Klaatu escapes into the night.
He goes to a boarding house, assuming the alias "Mr. Carpenter", the name on the laundry label of a suit he has taken. Among the residents are Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a government employee, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen is a widow, her husband had been killed in World War II. The next morning, Klaatu listens to a radio commentator and to the boarders' speculation over the breakfast table; one suggests that it may be the work of the Soviets. When Helen's boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe), plans a day-trip getaway for the two of them, Klaatu offers to take care of Bobby.
Bobby takes Klaatu on a tour of the city, including a visit to his father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery, where Klaatu learns with dismay that most of those buried there were killed in wars. The two next visit the Lincoln Memorial and the heavily-guarded spaceship, where Gort stands motionlessly on guard. Klaatu, impressed by the inscription of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is hopeful that Earth may harbor people wise enough to understand his message. When he asks Bobby to name the greatest person in the world today, Bobby mentions a leading American scientist, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who lives nearby.
Bobby takes Klaatu to Barnhardt's home. The professor is absent; Klaatu goes into his study and helps solve an advanced mathematical n-body problem written on a blackboard, before leaving his address with the housekeeper. Later, government agents escort Klaatu to see Barnhardt, who has seen the correction to his work as a calling card which could not have been faked.
Klaatu warns the professor that the peoples of the other planets are concerned for their safety because human beings have developed atomic power. Barnhardt offers Klaatu the opportunity to speak at an upcoming meeting of scientists he is organizing; Klaatu accepts. Barnhardt is stunned when Klaatu declares that, if his message is rejected by Earth's leaders, "Planet Earth will be eliminated". The professor pleads for Klaatu to first provide a minor demonstration of his power as a warning.
Klaatu returns to his spaceship that night to implement the professor's suggestion. Bobby trails him and is amazed to see his new friend enter the ship. When Tom Stephens and Helen Benson return from their evening out, Bobby tells them that Mr. Carpenter is the "spaceman". They do not believe him at first, but when Bobby goes upstairs to bed, Helen notices that his shoes are soaking wet. Their suspicions grow when Tom finds a diamond in Carpenter's room.
The following day, Tom takes the diamond to a jeweler, who claims that he has never seen the like before. Meeting Helen at work, Klaatu insists on speaking to her. While riding in an elevator, it stops. A montage sequence shows that Klaatu has suppressed electric power all over the world, though critical systems such as hospitals and planes in flight have been spared. This brings the entire world to a standstill. During the blackout, Klaatu confirms Helen's suspicions and enlists her aid. She urgently searches for Tom to stop him from telling the authorities, but he tells her that he intends to expose Klaatu and thereby become rich and famous. Helen rushes home to warn Klaatu. They take a taxi to wait at Barnhardt's home until the meeting with the scientists. On the way, Klaatu tells Helen that if anything should happen to him, she must go to Gort and say, "Klaatu barada nikto." They are spotted; when Klaatu tries to flee, he is shot dead.
Overcoming her fear, Helen does as Klaatu asked. Gort gently carries her into the spaceship, retrieves Klaatu's corpse, and temporarily revives him. Klaatu steps out of the spaceship and addresses the assembled scientists, explaining that humanity's penchant for violence and first steps into space have caused concern among the other spacefaring worlds, who have created a race of robot enforcers like Gort and given them absolute power to deal with any violence. He warns that the people of Earth can either abandon warfare and peacefully join these other nations or be destroyed, adding that "The decision rests with you." He then enters the spaceship and departs.
* Not credited on-screen.
The relationship between Klaatu and Gnut is much different from that between Klaatu and Gort. In the surprise ending, when Gnut prepares to leave, Sutherland insists that it tell its master that Klaatu's killing was accidental. Gnut responds, "You misunderstand. I am the master."
Speculations upon which elements were added by the screenwriter to make Klaatu's character Christlike, or occurrences included in the story which are comparable to the Bible story of Christ:
In a DVD commentary track, interviewed by fellow director Nicholas Meyer, director Robert Wise stated that he wanted the film to appear as realistic and believable as possible, in order to drive home the work's core message against armed conflict in the real world. Also mentioned in the DVD's documentary interview was the original title for the movie, "The Day the World Stops".
Wise's background in directing horror (his solo directorial debut had come with producer Val Lewton some five years before) lent itself to a "haunted house" feel to the movie's spookier scenes, with a stark use of deep shadow, often patterned to resemble the bars of a cage (his hospital room, the wallpaper and balustrade of the boarding house, the elevator). This effect was heightened by the use of the eerie sounding theremin based sound track. High angle shots are often used to create a feeling of vulnerability or isolation; here, they are presumably used to augment Klaatu's separation from the people of Earth, whose warlike ways are alien to him. Low angle shots are believed to give the subject an aura of potency; it can be inferred that shooting Klaatu in low shot was intended to highlight the unlimited power he represents. Theories of cinematography such as the effect of camera angles were, at the time of the making of this film, an art not a science.
Producer Julian Blaustein set out to make a film that illustrated the fear and suspicion that characterized the early Cold War and Atomic Age. He reviewed over 200 science fiction short stories and novels in search of a storyline that could be used, as the genre was well suited for a metaphorical discussion of such grave issues. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck green-lighted the project, and Blaustein contracted Edmund North to draft a screenplay based on elements from the Bates story.
Although the film contains its share of dramatic special effects scenes, such as the destruction of military hardware by the robot Gort, special effects were also used more subtly. For example, the aerial shots of crowd scenes surrounding Klaatu's spaceship were achieved with a combination of optical printing or matte work (to include the Washington D.C. skyline) and a "held take" approach, where the same film is run through the camera for multiple exposures of the same crowd standing in different locations on the studio backlot in order to give the appearance of a much larger crowd.
Other examples of special effects work include rear projection or "traveling matte" work in the scenes depicting Bobby and Klaatu's tour of the Arlington National Cemetery and Lincoln Memorial, and the taxi chase sequence at the film's climax when Helen and Klaatu are chased by the military. According to the DVD commentary, Wise carefully prepared his shooting list from storyboards so that his second unit would return with "background plate" footage with appropriate action (an MP calling on a radio, an increasing number of military vehicles) for each rapid cut in the complex finished sequence.
Many shots of the now defunct Peoples Drug Store in downtown Washington D.C. are seen in this film.
The soundtrack was composed in August 1951 and was Bernard Herrmann's first soundtrack after he moved to Hollywood. Herrmann chose unusual instrumentation the film including violin, cello, and bass (all three electric), two theremin electronic instruments (played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure), two Hammond organs, a large studio electric organ, three vibraphones, two glockenspiels, two pianos, two harps and three trumpets, three trombones, four tubas. Unusual overdubbing and tape-reversal techniques were used, as well. 20th Century Fox later re-used the Herrmann title theme in the original pilot episode for Irwin Allen's 1965 TV series Lost In Space.