“You have faith, Professor Barnhardt?” Klaatu asks the scientist in the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Barnhardt demurs, stating that curiosity is what makes good science, not faith. But sometimes I wonder if the professor or if the alien is correct. Science fiction was young in 1951, and Robert Wise would go on to give us such diverse fare as West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and the first Star Trek movie. Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been my favorite movie that he directed. In 1951 quite a bit could be assumed about America’s religious sensibilities. Yes, diversity had been part of the mix from the very beginning, but the view of America as a “Christian nation,” although not in any way official, was not seriously challenged in those days. This shows through clearly in the movie. Although the opening sequence is intended to be a Klaatu eye-view of descending to earth in his space ship, it is reminiscent of the stock “creation” imagery that would become so familiar to those of us who watched Bible movies. It is a God’s eye-view as well.
Christ-like, Klaatu descends to earth to bring a message of peace, but also an apocalyptic threat, from the powers beyond. He is capable of miracles, such as the eponymous day the earth stood still—the ultimate in non-violent protest because hospitals and airplanes still have power and nobody is harmed. In his human incarnation Klaatu not so subtly takes the name Carpenter, making the corollary clear. In case you missed that, however, he is killed, resurrected and in the end ascends to heaven. Klaatu becomes the prototype of the messianic alien, a figure we would see in guises from ET to Starman. Believers in ancient astronauts or not, the makers of our space movies know that God is an alien.
The Day the Earth Stood Still came early on in the Cold War. The obviousness of distrust in the Soviet Union is placed in the mouths and knowing glances of various characters. Some even suspect that Klaatu is a Russian rather than a spaceman. Sputnik was still six years in the future, but the atomic bomb was already in the past. We had learned to destroy ourselves before we had learned how to escape the only planet we have. Klaatu delivers his final homily not to politicians, but to scientists of all races (and, unspoken, creeds). Seated on folding chairs in the outdoors, as if at a revival meeting, they listen as Klaatu tells them the decision of how to live is up to us, but Gort, a kind of avenging angel, is always overhead. The invocation that can save humanity, however, is given to the female lead Helen Benson. She alone knows the sacred words “Klaatu barada nikto.” Amen.