From outer space it comes, something in the skies and the world's military are tracking it as it moves with tremendous speed towards the capital city of the United States of America. As it nears the seat of government, it can be witnessed from the ground and people are beginning to panic as it draws closer. It lands in a park near the Washington Monument, a huge disc that glows, and before long the army have surrounded it, waiting for its next move. They wait for hours until suddenly a door opens in the side of the metallic craft, and a figure emerges. What does he want? And how dangerous is he?
Not half as dangerous as we are to him, it turns out, as the first act of humanity to greet this alien visitor is to shoot him when he offers us a gift. All right, we were not to know that's what he was holding, but we could have given him the benefit of the doubt, though in Edmund H. North's literate script this scene neatly encapsulates the whole philosophy of this now-classic science fiction film: mankind cannot be trusted with weaponry. Give a man a weapon and he's sure to use it eventually, and when those armaments include nuclear missiles, we have the Cold War paranoia to reckon with, a fear that has lasted in one form or another to this day.
It was in 1947 that Kenneth Arnold reported his sighting of unidentified flying objects, and from then on the idea that planet Earth could be visited from outer space really took hold in the public imagination. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the fiction of the day, and by the fifties there was a proliferation of science fiction movies that saw the alien presence as either potentially destructive or, more rarely, benign. Funnily enough, The Day the Earth Stood Still takes both stances at once, because although the man from another world, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), has a message of peace, he also has a warning.
The strangely distant Rennie never found a better role, a case of the part fitting him as if it were what he was born to play, but he had excellent support too in Patricia Neal. She plays Helen Benson, a strong personality for a genre which, at the time, did not offer many great female roles. Helen knows all too well the cost of war, having been widowed in the Second World War and left with a young son, Bobby (Billy Gray) to look after, so when Klaatu escapes the authorities and winds up at an unassuming boarding house to get to know the people better, she proves the ideal ambassador for what is decent and moral in humanity.
In fact, there's a definite "power to the people" slant to the theme, with Earth's leaders treated with great suspicion. Another interesting aspect is the film's faith in intellectuals, as the great thinkers of the world are appealed to by Klaatu to make the governments see sense. These eggheads (some of whom must have been responsible for designing the weaponry, but never mind) are led by an Albert Einstein character in Professor Barnhard (Sam Jaffe, also perfectly cast - and about to be blacklisted for the rest of the decade). It is Barnhard who Klaatu puts his faith in - along with his towering, indestructible robot Gort (Lock Martin), who has the ability to wipe us all out if we don't behave. When the alien is brought down, only the real heroine Helen can save us with those famous words, "Klaatu barada nikto!", but the point is we cannot trust ourselves with the rationality needed to cope with such dangerous forces, and in this surprisingly subdued and meditative work, you may get lectured - a lot - but you cannot doubt the sincerity. Magnificent music by Bernard Herrmann, one of the great scores of the fifties.