The Planet’s Lost Opportunity in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

*spoiler alert

The story of Klaatu, the alien from another world was first told in the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and was remade with the same title in 2008. The movies are a cautionary tale and the first one in particular is an excellent one and nicely observed from a screenplay by Edmund H. North (1911-90). North also worked on the disaster pic Meteor (1979). This screenplay was based on a short story by science fiction author Harry Bates (1900-81) entitled Farewell to the Master which was written in the early 1940s.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) poster
Stranger from Venus (1954) poster
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) poster

Before the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves (1964-), Jennifer Connolly (1970-) and Jaden Smith (1998) or, should I say, shortly after the original 1951 version starring Michael Rennie (1909-71 heart attack or aortic aneurysm) and Patricia Neal (1926-2010 lung cancer) was made… There was a kind of rip-off in the form of a quota quickie made in England in 1954 entitled Stranger from Venus which also starred Patricia Neal and German actor Helmut Dantine (1918-82 heart attack).  Stranger from Venus has often been summarily dismissed but really carries several philosophical moments amid the 70-odd minute script just as the two Stood Still movies also contain memorable slices of peachy wisdom. Just a note that this movie was titled Immediate Disaster in the United States because of plagiarism fears.

What is special about these movies? Do we wonder still why Mars is a red dead planet and is Earth heading the way of a possibly Martian civilisation…

Both the early movies begin in the early 1950s atomic age abuzz with UFO sightings. It’s just the one in the original Stood Still movie is real and carries Michael Rennie as Klaatu, whose poise and diction and stature makes one wonder if he started out in RADA performing Shakespeare. Klaatu in the original story was “god-like” and was very tall.

Edmund H. North collects an Oscar for Patton (1970)
North also worked on the flop movie Meteor (1979)
A colour photo from the 1951 movie with Gort (left) and Klaatu

“Whatever it is, it’s something real,” says one cast member in the movie.

Well say no more, as a beautiful flying saucer lands near the Washington monument. It’s a great effect probably helped by the fact the movie is in black and white. There is hysteria as the army surrounds the saucer and Klaatu emerges carrying what looks like a weapon but what is really only a peace offering … and is shot. Fortunately, or not, Klaatu has a sidekick robot named Gort who quickly melts tanks and offending guns with a ray from his visor.

“We come to you in peace and with goodwill,” are the spaceman’s words which echo amid the gunshots.

Directed by Robert Wise (1914-2005 heart failure), who many may know made The Sound of Music (1965), he also made the classic sci-fi The Andromeda Strain (1971) as well as the first Star Trek movie in 1979.

Poor Klaatu doesn’t know what he is up against when he tells the authorities once he has been taken to the hospital and recovered: “I want to meet with all the representatives of your planet…. The future of your planet is at stake.” Of course, they scoff.

Director Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Gort uses his destructive capabilities
Billy Gray and Patricia Neal

Klaatu is due for further humiliation on planet Earth as he is taken by Patricia Neal’s son, who he meets at the boarding house where he is hiding having escaped the hospital, and they go to see the smartest man in Washington, played by Gunga Din (1939) himself Sam Jaffe (1891-1984 cancer). Klaatu easily solves a question of celestial mechanics and tells Jaffe his mission of Earth is of great importance.

Klaatu tells him that atomic energy is a threat to the peace and security of other planets. He also says that if Earth doesn’t get its act together “your planet will have to be eliminated.”

In the minds of science fiction buffs this movie is most memorable for the code word ‘Klaatu barada nikto’ which is used to defuse the monster robot Gort who is also suffering humiliation by being encased in some steel strength polymer or plastic while Klaatu is away from the flying saucer. The singer Bryan Ferry used it in one of his songs entitled Rescue Me, while a variation of these words are used in the final film in the Evil Dead trilogy Army of Darkness (1993).

The Bryan Ferry song Rescue Me
The saucer has landed in the centre of Washington
Rennie is striking as Klaatu in voice and figure
He has the whole world in his hands… a dead red planet!

Gort is a doomsday symbol and a boy’s best friend to Klaatu just as Klaatu is to the young Billy Gray (1938-) whom he escorts for a visit to his father’s grave at Arlington cemetery as well as to the movies while also giving him the currency of diamonds. It is at Arlington where Klaatu wonders at all who have died in wars and tells the boy: “Where I come from there is no war” and the boy says that’s “a good idea”.

“He’s a menace to the whole country and it’s our duty to turn him in,” says Neal’s boyfriend played by Hugh Marlowe (1911-82 heart attack) who discovers who Klaatu really is at the boarding house. This leads to Klaatu being shot for the second time… and as we know the third time’s charm if he really isn’t dead this time. Earthlings want mincemeat of Klaatu.

The question is: Should Earth be eliminated, or just left to eliminate itself?

Once again, we get to the words Klaatu barada nikto and they are the saving grace of the planet once Klaatu is killed and it also shows the monstrous robot can be tender and a distant neighbour of a planet can be forgiving up to a point.

“There’s no doubt, he’s dead all right,” the soldiers say of Klaatu before like Christ he is arisen by alien technology when he is taken back to Gort at the saucer. Do we only live once? Is that the human condition? Or could we live twice? With technology to aid us? Klaatu says the new life he has been given is not guaranteed just as peace on the planet has hardly been peaceful since 1951 when this movie was made. Quite the opposite.

Was Jesus Christ an alien?
Taken from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

If you want to go into the resurrection of Christ in the Bible and you’ve got to ask yourself, was Christ an alien, or a zombie, or simply stolen from his crypt and seen around the Middle East in the form of impersonators. Certainly, after his murder the world found no peace but only consolation.

KLaatu is not a clone, he is an alien, an advanced human being who can live to be 130 years old. He admits he has been given life by “the almighty spirit” as well as alien medicine. In the original story there are hints that Klaatu can be cloned.

In the final speech of the movie outside his saucer with Gort overseeing ominously, Klaatu speaks of a universe growing smaller every day and in such a place the thought of aggression can no longer be tolerated. It is robots like Gort who patrol the galaxies… like some form of intergalactic policemen.

Klaatu: “Some of us live in peace or … face obliteration.”

The actual standing still of the movie happens about two thirds of the way through with electricity all around the world ceasing… all power… except for planes in flight and hospitals. From how I’ve described the movie, it may sound a bit preachy about war, about man’s aggression and about reckless use of fire-arms in communities. As a result, it is a film which is close to my heart and it’s great how they split the personality of Klaatu into himself the pacifist and Gort who is the aggressor and eliminator with no personality at all. Aliens have created perhaps something more monstrous as a way to keep the peace in the universe. As for Rennie he creates an instant cult role for himself and he would play another replicant or cyborg in the cheap movie Cyborg 2087 (1966).

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) trailer
Sam Jaffe and Michael Rennie try to sort out the Earth’s problems
From left: Gort, Patricia Neal and a newly resurrected Klaatu
An ageing Rennie starred in Cyborg 2087 (1966)

In the end the world faces an uncertain future and a very uncertain one at that as they are left to mill around as if they are being preached to unsuccessfully – they don’t seem to get it – before the Christ-like figures simply takes off without so much as an address to send a post card as the saucer zooms off into outer space once more.

Stranger from Venus (1954) is an interesting rip-off which I dared to watch more than once rather that dismiss immediately because of its reputation. The film starts up with talk of “lights in the sky” which “at this time we have no positive explanation”.

This time the setting is rural England and I guess Patricia Neal was used to cash in on her role in the original movie. Of the other actors of note are Helmut Dantine who specialised in playing Nazis as well as an appearance in Casablanca (1942) and probably Nigel Green (1924-72 overdose) who had a great career as a character actor in the 1960s.

The inane trailer for the unrelated The Cosmic Man (1959)
Latin poster for Stranger from Venus (1954)
Patricia Neal and Helmut Dantine in Stranger from Venus (1954)

The film was directed by American Burt Balaban (1922-65) who was the cousin of American actor and director Bob Balaban (1945-). It is hardly of the nature of David Lean or Robert Wise either in terms of its quality or production.

Dantine is the alien who is at first anonymous and filmed from behind when he stumbles into a sparsely populated country hotel or pub one evening. However, we know he’s an alien as he orders a beer and doesn’t like it.

“I have no name. I have never paid taxes,” he says when he is pressed for details about who he is. Then his sanity is brought into question. It is then that the doctor who is a bit high after a few drinks takes his pulse.

“There are only two possibilities; I am drunk or you are dead.,” says the doctor.

But then the cat is left out of the bag when he says: “I have come from another planet… A planet you call Venus.”

Of course, you can’t have such people walking around the countryside as they might be dangerous and so the people in the pub call the Ministry of War. There could also be an invasion at any moment. However, there’s no spaceship as it appears Dantine has been dropped off.

Warning from Space (1960s) trailer
Humphrey Bogart and Helmut Dantine in Casablanca (1942)
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead (1949)
To quote Socrates: “I realise that I know nothing”.

But once again we have a kind of Christ-like character as Dantine is able to heal Patricia Neal’s injuries once she had been almost killed in a car wreck. Meanwhile the landlords old war limp is also healed… The possibilities are endless but rather beginning a life on Earth “restoring health and well-being” Dantine starts gardening instead.

“I realise that I know nothing,” is quoted in the Latin from Socrates (470-399BC hemlock) as the doctor sits with Neal and Dantine in the garden and the doctor can’t comprehend the atmosphere on Venus. Dantine can also speak every tongue on the planet Earth and apart from having no fingerprints, this alien with no name would otherwise be entirely normal.

And guess what? He can read minds. And it is this fact which helps his planet live in total peace.

“We transfer thought, we achieve complete honesty that way. No-one is ever misunderstood…. For many years we’ve been watching you… You’d be amazed and amused by your behaviour.” And he then tells how “problems of war and survival are very important to us.”

Dantine is humiliated in Stranger from Venus (1954)
Alternate title poster
A kind of impossible romance briefly flowers….

So the script has its bright moments amid the dreary black and white print. It is then that Dantine makes the mistake Klaatu made and that is to ask for the world leaders to come and sit down together. Dantine probably heard them think in his mind: Is he mad?

The doctor then says the best line in the movie and that is: “I like him… he makes you feel like a moron but I like him.” Or “the funny thing with politics” says a politician “is they think they know things better than those doing the job… Doc: “They probably do!”

Of course, it’s military brass that turn up to Dantine’s proposal when he describes Earth as “a delinquent planet” and that the limits of their emotional and intellectual powers are outweighed by its technology and this means nuclear weapons and power.

With the possibility of a flying saucer coming to pick up Dantine, as the meeting draws to a close, he storms out after he says: “You are not ready for it.” Since he really can read the minds of others, he can tell what the military men have in store for any new technology from outer space landing locally and are already planning to steal this technology. So Dantine threatens to kill those who plan to erase Venus’s “peaceful intentions” as they “retaliate immediately” … Will it happen or not? Will Dantine be murdered and be another martyr for planet Earth to ponder the question of why can’t it get its act together?

Forthcoming attraction
Kenau Reeves as Klaatu arrives on Earth
The computer generated Gort

As for the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) we have Keanu Reeves as Klaatu who comes to Earth in an impressively staged landing of a special effects created space craft. He too is injured and taken this time to a secret US military base.

“It seems we got off to a bad start,” says a spokesman for the President played by Kathy Bates. She has decided to heavily sedate Klaatu after he questions the fact that Bates claims that the Earth belongs to her and the United States and is humanity’s planet.

“Call him an escaped convict,” says Bates when Klaatu escapes. Here was go…

It’s the same thing again as the humans can’t seem to comprehend with what they are dealing with. Weapons and bullets are the bane of Earth’s existence along with individuals who are seen as alien because they either look or behave a little bit differently and yet if they are close to being a human being and claim to be alien then they are either lunatics with Christ-like fixations or hat horrible word ‘different’…. Or ‘whatever’

“Why are you running? You should stay and fight?,” says the child Jaden Smith to Klaatu. The boy has had a soldier for a father who lies dead in a local graveyard and it is the irony of man, and even boy, who has the tension of war and fighting inside themselves. It is alien of Klaatu to always pick the flight mechanism and instead he flees and lets Gort do all the fighting. Was it writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910 pneumonia) who said if man was filled with water in his veins instead of blood, we would not have wars?

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) trailer
Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith in the 2008 version
Kathy Bates thinks she controls the planet in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

But the most telling dialogue in this effects laden movie comes from the mouth of aging actor James Hong (1929-) who is a fellow alien who links up with Klaatu  and says he has been living among the humans for 70 years but cannot bring himself to leave since he has grown attached to the planet Earth.

“I’m afraid they are not a reasonable race. I know them well,” says Hong. “It would be futile to attempt to change them as they are destructive and won’t change. The tragedy is they know what is going to become of them.”

This is perhaps the paramount wisdom of man’s knowing death awaits himself or herself and that even the planet, no matter how long we pro-long civilisation on Earth, will perish as the sun collapses into a red quasar like countless other dead stars in the galaxy. It seems man is here for a good time and even if that means doing bad things in the name of a good time, he cannot build a peaceful civilization except in small pockets.

Hong says he loves human beings and still feels lucky to live on Earth.

The incredibly cheap and maybe just as awful The Day the Earth Stopped (2008) came out the same year as the remake
James Hong and John Carpenter have a laugh on the set of Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Possibly the best joke in the movie, and the previous two movies are devoid of humour as well, comes from the casting of comedian John Cleese who is more or less playing it straight as one of the leading scientists on the planet who has won a Nobel Prize and doesn’t laugh once. It’s probably ironic that comedians don’t win Nobel Prizes.

“So, we’re not so different after all,” says Cleese about Klaatu his love of the composer Bach. Klaatu retorts: “I wish that were true” as he still believes in the destruction of Earth.

“You treat the world like you treat each other,” said Klaatu, without bitterness, but with an actor like Reeves who is wooden at best, who needs it..

“It’s only on the brink that people find the will to change,” says Cleese. “Only at the precipice to we endure.”

Cleese may speak of the individual as well as the collective population in terms of such crises as World War One and Two and to a lesser degree carbon emissions and global warming but meanwhile the planet is stuck with world poverty, hunger and disease. The truth being the world failed on this level and so there is no doubt, that just like in the previous two movies, selfishness or self-interest will once again take over along with that word known as ‘greed’. When Klaatu leaves he will be conveniently forgotten until the day of the aforementioned cataclysm.

Man has filled cemeteries with his follies
Rennie like so many talents smoked himself to death
The film earned a Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding”… Here both characters look like Oscar but the movie would go without.

This latter-day version of The Day the Earth Stood Still tripled its $80m budget at the box office. Screenwriter David Scarpa said of the changing of the Cold War nuclear theme to one concerned with the environment was because of “specifics of (how) we now have the capability to destroy ourselves have changed.”

“We scratched the last speech since it would have been too preachy,” said Scarpa who wrote dozens of drafts of the script. And it comes through in the end as the film is more diverting than the original, although Rennie is the superior Klaatu in the original. I admit to dismissing the remake since I was annoyed by young Smith’s character and wanted to throttle him but since admire the whole package. All three are worthy of cult lover’s attention.

However, it is Rennie’s voice from the original in the final so-called preachy speech which rings in my ears about the possibility of the Earth being in line for elimination before turning his back on it forever… We get the idea it won’t be long… and yet far too long for us to bother worrying about!

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