A tense drama about first contact with aliens, The Day the Earth Stood Still follows an alien messenger who is sent to Earth with a warning for the human race. Upon landing, he is accidentally shot by a nervous soldier and then whisked away to a secure facility where he is interrogated by bureaucrats. He soon realizes that the only way to get his message to the people of Earth—and not be hidden away by its governments—is to go out among the people.
The newspapers and radio, ablaze with headlines about the escaped alien invader, stoke an atmosphere of fear. While the military try to break into his spaceship and disable the guardian robot that remains 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. Its hubcap-shaped flying saucer became the standard for countless films to come—including Forbidden Planet. And you can’t overlook look his all-powerful robot companion, Gort, as well as the famous alien phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” which show up as homages and parodies even today.
In 1947, just a few years before this film was made, a number of UFO sightings were in the news. 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 give this film a documentary feel, so he convinced a number of famous newscasters of the day 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 on the front, one had a seam on the back, and the actor would wear whichever one hid the seam from the camera’s view.
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 there was a poorly received 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves.