Klaatu barada nikto

Written By: Ken Hulsey

A perfect example of what can be achieved when Science Fiction cinema is approached in a serious and mature manor is the 1951 classic "The Day The Earth Stood Still". Made in the early 50s, before the atomic monster boom and sensationalised alien invasion films became the staples of the genre, "TDTESS" is arguably the best Science Fiction movie ever produced.

The films producer, Julian Blaustein, milled over some 200 short stories and novels before he discovered Harry Bates', "Farewell to the Master." He felt the story would make a perfect platform for a film that could address "Cold War" fears and provide a strong social commentary. Edmund H. North was hired one to adapt the story into a screenplay.

When director Robert Wise was brought on board, he the producer Blaustein, became wrapped up in a struggle with the executives at 20th Century Fox, who felt the film would be a perfect vehicle for actor Spencer Tracy. The production team was aiming for realism and they believed that the films title character, Klaatu, had to be someone "foreign" to American film goers. Wise went as far as to say that, "if the spaceship opens up and out walks Spencer Tracy, the film will be ruined." Eventually the studio caved, and established British actor Michael Rennie was cast as the alien visitor, Klaatu. Rennie, though a major actor in the UK, was virtually unknown in the US, thus the production was blessed with both a talented actor and someone who could be "alien" enough to give the character the sense of mystery that it required.

Rennie was not the only casting problem that Wise and Blaustein would have to go to bat over. Sam Jaffe was cast as Professor Jacob Barnhardt, even though he was blacklisted by the movie industry for being a suspected communist.

The part of the giant robot, Gort, was played by 7'-7" actor Lock Martin, who had an absolutely miserable time during filming. Despite Martin's enormous size, he, like most people of extreme height, was not very strong. One scene required the alien robot to lift and carry Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). Martin simply couldn't lift the actress and carry her, so Neal was placed on a rolling table that was off screen. In another scene late in the film, Gort walks out of the spaceship and stands behind Klaatu for several minutes. The weight of the costume was too much for Martin to stand for any long period of time, and if you look closely, it is very evident that the actor is fighting to stay erect for the entire take. To get around this, the production team used a statue for any scene that required the robot to remain stationary for any length of time.


Now, even more than fifty years after it's release, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" delivers a powerful message of peace and tolerance. The "cold war" may be over, but we still live in a very violent and narrow-minded world. It is no surprise that Fox would choose the film for a modern makeover. Many of the same issues that were prevalent in 1951 still exist, and yet there are totally new ones that plague mankind. Will the new "The Day The Earth Stood Still" have the same social impact as the original? Possibly, if the film is taken seriously. Sci Fi cinema has been a mixed bag of high-end effects and sub-standard plots over the decades. "The Day The Earth Stood Still" stands as one of the exceptions to the rule. It is a very well thought out film with exceptional acting. To say that the modern version will have huge shoes to fill is an understatement.

Plot:

A flying saucer lands on the Ellipse in President's Park, Washington, D.C. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges and declares he has come on a mission of goodwill. However, when he opens a small, menacing-looking device, he is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier who mistakes it for a weapon. In response, a large robot called Gort steps out of the ship and disintegrates all weapons present without harming the soldiers. Klaatu orders him to stop and explains the "weapon" was a gift to the President that could have been used to study life on other planets. Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital, where he recovers. The doctors analyze Klaatu, learning he is 78 years old and that his people's average lifespan is 130. The military attempt to enter Klaatu's ship, but find it impregnable, while Gort remains motionless.

Klaatu meets the President's secretary, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), and reveals he has a message he wants the whole world to hear. Unfortunately, Harley notes the divided 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 has him locked inside his room. Klaatu escapes to a boarding house, assuming the alias "Mr. Carpenter", the name on the laundry label of a suit he has taken. Among the boarding house residents are Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a secretary at the Department of Commerce, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen is a widow; her husband was killed in World War II. The next morning, Klaatu listens to a paranoid radio commentator as well as the boarders' speculation over the breakfast table; one (Frances Bavier) suggests that it might 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 people 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 at the spaceship; 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 the next evening to implement the professor's suggestion, unaware Bobby watched him enter the ship. He tells Helen and Tom what he has seen when they return from an evening out – Helen notices her son's shoes are soaking wet, while Tom finds a diamond – the currency of Klaatu's people – in Carpenter's room. Tom takes the diamond to three separate jewelers the following day, who all note they have never seen anything like it. When Bobby tells him what he saw, Klaatu meets Helen at work to clarify his intent. While riding in an elevator, it stops. A montage sequence shows that Klaatu has suppressed electric power all over the world – with the exception of critical systems such as hospitals and planes in flight. After the blackout, the authorities step up their manhunt for Klaatu, quarantining the city so no one can enter or leave.

Klaatu manages to enlists Helen's aid, but Tom tells the authorities of the alien's location. Helen and Klaatu take a taxi to wait at Barnhardt's home until the conference. Klaatu tells Helen that if anything should happen to him, she must go to Gort and say, "Klaatu barada nikto." When they are spotted, Klaatu tries to flee but is shot dead. Gort awakens, killing two guards before Helen gives Klaatu's message to him. 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 space faring 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.


Reception:

The film was moderately successful when released, grossing $1.85 million. Variety praised the film's documentary style, and the Los Angeles Times praised its seriousness, though it also found "certain subversive elements". The Daily Worker's reviewer was unimpressed and felt it was not inspirational enough. The film earned more plaudits overseas: the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave the filmmakers a special Golden Globe Award for "promoting international understanding". The French magazine Cahiers du cinéma were also impressed, with Pierre Kast calling it "almost literally stunning" and praising its "moral relativism".

Note: Actress Patricia Neal (Helen Benson) thought the film's most famous phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto", was the silliest thing she had ever heard. It was all that she could do to get the line out. Immediately after "cut" was yelled, she would burst out into laughter.



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