The Day the Earth Stood Still: A Classic Film with Contemporary Relevance

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Directed by Robert Wise, 1951. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

 By Luke McGuire

“The threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure,” says Klaatu, an alien being who has traveled to Earth to deliver an important message to humans about the consequences of their destructive nature. The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise and released in 1951, is often described as a “cult-classic,” which expertly blends social commentary with the sci-fi genre. In the film, the alien Klaatu, who believes that the destructive tendencies of Earthlings will eventually come to harm his completely peaceful civilization, lands his spaceship in Washington, D.C. in the name of an alien society, with the intention of presenting a choice to the people of Earth: live in peace, or be destroyed. However, as soon as he exits his spaceship, he is met with police officers and military personnel who shoot him in the arm out of fear. Throughout the rest of the film, Klaatu, who has studied Earth’s affairs for some time, travels around Washington D.C. under a pseudonym, visiting landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. He learns that all the people buried in Arlington were killed in wars. As the film ends and Klaatu returns to his ship, he delivers a speech to numerous scientists from around the world, in which he explains that his interplanetary civilization has achieved total peace while giving up no freedoms, except for “the freedom to act irresponsibly.” He concludes by saying, “your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer.”

The film is indeed a classic, brimming with the old-fashioned charm of an early sci-fi film, and is completely unburdened by the overwhelming visual effects of modern sci-fi films, which enables it to be more focused on its message. Upon its release, that message was intended for a society in the middle of the Cold War, but the film also imparts a broader moral theme about non-violence. The film doesn’t encourage us to create a utopia like the one Klaatu lives in, but rather to strive for it whenever and wherever we can. It acknowledges that humans have a propensity for destruction; in fact, when Klaatu tells us that we may “face obliteration,” he is referring to self-inflicted obliteration as well. The movie also promotes another message, one of humans being afraid of what they don’t know or understand. When Klaatu exits his spaceship at the beginning of the movie and is shot by the military, it is done out of fear. The film’s message is particularly relevant today. Across the world, senseless and destructive violence is often the result of a fear of others. Whether it is an international issue, such as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, predicated upon one country’s fear of another’s affiliations, or domestic issues in the United States regarding immigration, the police, or countless others, we can still learn something from The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes it a truly classic film.

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