A tense drama about first contact with aliens, The Day the Earth Stood Still follows an alien messenger sent to Earth with a warning for the human race. Upon landing, he is shot by a nervous soldier as soon as he steps off his space ship. Whisked away to a secure facility and surrounded by bureaucrats, he soon realizes that he needs to get his message to the people of Earth – not its governments – and the only way to do that is to go out among the people.
The newspapers and radio, ablaze with headlines about the escaped alien invader, stoke an atmosphere of fear. And while the military try to melt through his robot companion and the spaceship that remain where he landed, the alien visitor is on the run and exposed to human paranoia first-hand. But he befriends a young boy whose unclouded, forthright view of the world suggests that there is more than fear and rage in the human heart – and maybe a future for the human race. There is a genuine soul to the characters of the film, which shines through the 1950s attitudes and visual effects and keeps it relevant today.
One of the first UFO films, The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, and even its hubcap-shaped flying saucer became the standard for countless films to come – including Forbidden Planet. And you can’t overlook look the all-powerful robot companion, Gort, which, along with the famous phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” are still constantly mentioned in the world of science fiction.
In 1947, just a few years before this film was made, a number of UFO sightings were in the news. So, to make the film more compelling, Robert Wise (who directed many classics, including: The Andromeda Strain, The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) wanted this film to feel as real as possible and gave it a documentary feel – even convincing a number of famous real life newscasters to play themselves reporting on the UFO sightings.
The saucer itself was supposed to be made of a metal with no seams, where panels would open out of nowhere and then seal up again as if they never existed – like a living, metallic tissue. To achieve this effect, the seams around the doors were filled with putty, then, when a panel opened, the putty would pull apart and it would appear that an opening had just appeared from nowhere.
The film also needed an unusually tall actor to play the robot, Gort, and a 7-foot 7-inch tall doorman working at Grauman’s Chinese Theater was cast for the role. There were two costumes for Gort; one costume had a seam where the actor got into it from the front and one had a seam on the back, and he would wear the one that hid the seam from the camera.
Academy-Award winning composer Bernard Herrmann (who scored many films for Alfred Hitchcock) forever associated UFOs with the wavering high-pitched tones of the electronic theremin with his unique soundtrack. Theremins are notoriously difficult to play and so, of course, he recorded two of them, live, for the score – and constantly scolded the performers about mistakes during the recording session.
The film was successful upon its release, and rose in popularity when it started to appear on television – it has since become a beloved classic. It ranks near the top of countless best film lists, including Arthur C. Clarke’s list of Best Science Fiction Films, and it has been selected as historically significant by the National Film Registry. Author Ray Bradbury was commissioned by Fox Studios to write a sequel, although it was never made into a film, and in 2008 the film was remade starring Keanu Reeves.