By Jeric Llanes
Gort, Klaatu barada nikto. Huge fans of Sci-Fi cinema and its history will recognize this alien phrase as a memorable line from one of the genre’s classic films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The words were famously delivered by the late English actor, Michael Rennie, who stars in the film as Klaatu, an alien who voyages to the Earth to warn humans about their destructive lifestyle in hopes of saving the entire planet from their impending doom.
Of course, by today’s standards I think it’s fair to say that the special effects of this film are a bit underwhelming. Though it does have some neat moments (particularly when we see bits demonstrating the alien technology), I’m sure by now most would expect our alien lead to have an intricate design that brings our wildest imaginations of extraterrestrials to life. However, Klaatu the alien acts and looks like a normal guy, void of any make-up prosthetics or a rubber suit. He’s practically human. And from a visual standpoint this can be quite lacking in spectacle.
But does this film still have enough to entertain? Absolutely! This might not be a lights and laser show, but the film makes up for it by telling a very dramatic story. The plot is straightforward and wastes little time in introducing us to Klaatu and his dramatic need. He has a message to deliver, but there’s tension between the Earth’s world leaders that stall the alien from getting the word out. Surely Klaatu is the main protagonist of this story, but the film also spends a great deal of focus on the humans’ reaction to an alien intrusion on Earth. This is innately a human story, a historical screenshot of society and culture during the Cold War.
The filmmakers used this setting as a way to string out the tension of the film. They create a world full of paranoia, rooted by government fabrications and scare tactics that push their national agendas. There’s a great sense of danger throughout the film, caused mostly by the capabilities of Klaatu’s eight-foot tall robot, Gort. The robot is simplistic in design and doesn’t have much screen time as his alien master, but in its brief moments Gort adds an element of horror to this classic. Gort’s menacing power blends perfectly in the Cold War setting, as it is both a symbol of Earth’s greatest fears and a foreshadowing of what’s to come if the nuclear arms race were to continue. (And it also helps that Gort’s scenes are accompanied by an eerie musical score!)
Now, I know that I’ve just given a very bleak description about some of the film’s core themes, but there are some bright spots! The fear and paranoia of the world forces Klaatu to hide and take refuge in an unsuspecting boarding home, and it is here where the alien interacts with an adorable and curious young boy named Bobby. Naturally, Bobby is caught up in the fantastical hoopla of the alien’s arrival, and his fascination is humorously ironic considering that he’s spending time with the very person he’s clamouring about. The relationship is rather genuine and heartwarming as well, considering that Bobby lacks a father figure by the time the alien arrives. Klaatu, on the other hand, wants to preach to a world that is too busy in its squabbles to listen. The dynamic between the two is organic and is in line with their characters, and their light-hearted scenes together served as a refreshing break from the other serious tones and themes of the film.
Overall, I thought the film had a nice balance between its scientific spectacle and dramatic storytelling. The film is mostly simplistic, and never delves too far off in the space and technology aspect to the point of confusion. The film has an abundance of substance, and just the right amount of flash to keep audiences interested in this classic Sci-Fi film!
Where to Watch this Film: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is currently available for stream on Netflix and can be rented/purchased on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, and iTunes.