It’s not unfair initially to dismiss “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as sci-fi pulp from an era full of it, but the film’s anti-war message given the Cold War context it was released in makes it nothing short of a classic. Its commercial exterior featuring posters with Gort the space robot pales in comparison to the social/diplomatic values it preaches at its core. Sure, it’s not all that suspenseful or riveting for science-fiction, but it represents one of the first pop culture films to reflect important moral values.
Borrowing from the lucrative UFO alien movies before it, TDTESS begins with a flying saucer landing in the Washington mall and producing an alien with a human appearance named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his robot protector Gort, a goofy-looking man in a shiny suit with the ability to disintegrate anything with a beam from his eye. For starters, Klaatu is greeted by military bullets that destroy a gift he intended for the president that would give us the ability to study life on other planets. That’s the example of the strict satirical tone taken by writer Edmund H. North (based on the short story by Harry Bates).
Despite humorous special effects and the cheesy running and screaming you see in pulp alien invasion movies, TDTESS manages to expose many of our flaws including our fear of the unknown and our propensity to resort to violence. It warns of the dangers of nuclear energy and outwardly scorns war. In the beginning years of the Cold War, such a message getting out to the public is an accomplishment that must be lauded.
TDTESS isn’t only good for its messages, though it certainly is what makes the film stand out. Rennie is a terrific Klaatu. He’s intriguing, friendly but also very frank, winning our sympathies but still convincing us of his other-worldly nature. The relationship he develops with the young Bobby Benson (Billy Gray) is the film’s most interesting subplot next to Klaatu helping a scientist out with an equation that will lead to interplanetary travel.
Rarely does a film become a classic solely because of its message, but TDTESS certainly does. It’s so frank, but speaks such an undeniable truth that in the form of cheaply made science- fiction, resonates in a way that straighter films can’t. That’s the beauty of the genre and why TDTESS is its first classic.