|Writer/s:||Edmund H. North (screenplay); Harry Bates (story)|
In director Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction film a UFO is reported to be circling the Earth. Then the spacecraft lands in Washington in the United States, completely disrupting a perfectly fine Spring Day. The world erupts in panic and paranoia and fear and hysteria, and all the reactions that occur when faced with the unknown. The newspapers and the radio are abuzz with the news, and all over the world people wait with bated breath to find out who or what will appear from the giant orb-like ‘flying saucer’.
When a being does eventually appear ‘it’ is a humanoid in a shiny silver suit and a matching helmet who calls itself Klaatu (Michael Rennie). It is joined by a magnificent robot named Gort (Lock Martin) whose presence it seems is for the humanoid’s protection (it can shoot lasers out of it’s eye sockets). With its arm raised the creature announces to an amassed crowd that “we have come to visit you in peace and goodwill”. It doesn’t take very long before the military begin shooting at Klaatu and Gort as is stereotypical of the US military as portrayed in every film since film began. This is also probably because science fiction has almost always featured the military as a political presence, and during the 1950’s the world was just as weary of them as they are today.
Klaatu tells the world that he is from a planet 250 million miles away, and that he is here to warn Earth of the dangers of nuclear war and atomic power. He insists upon seeing representatives from all countries but is denied this request because human beings and their ‘petty squabbles’ are more important than the fate of the world. Klaatu then decides that the only other way to insure his message is heard is to first immerse himself among the people of Earth as a man named Carpenter and learn the ways of the very creatures he wishes to save.
Carpenter finds himself renting a room at a boarding house where he befriends a little boy named Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal). Whilst the world is in an uproar as it searches for the missing ‘Man From Mars’, Carpenter spends the day walking around Washington with his new friend Bobby who brings him to Arlington National Cemetery where his father as well as thousands of others that were killed in wars are buried. Before long Bobby wants to go and see the ‘spaceship’ and Carpenter though reluctant goes along with the boy’s enthusiasm and they soon find themselves listening to a crowd congregating near Klaatu’s ship. It soon becomes evident to our alien hero (in his limited time on Earth and among it’s inhabitants) that he will need to locate a very intelligent person to help him convince the world that they are in danger. Bobby tells him about a famous scientist located right there in Washington. At the house of a Professor Barnhardt Klaatu finds an adoring ally in the eccentric older man who convinces him to demonstrate his power with an act of power that the world will not be able to ignore.
Klaatu agrees to this amidst a wave of sensationalist media that is continuing to sweep the world. For an incredible thirty minutes Klaatu causes the world to stop – machinery, motor vehicles, everything that is not life threatening or human grinds to a complete halt and no one can figure out ‘what on Earth’ (see what I did there?) is going on. After 30 minutes however the world starts to work again, and the human race is both baffled and frightened.
In the meanwhile suspicions over Carpenter’s identity have been growing in Tom Stevens, Bobby’s mother’s beau. When he discovers some rather strange looking diamonds in Bobby’s room, he questions the boy and finds out that Carpenter gave him the diamonds and had been using the gems as currency. Tom takes them to a jeweler who insists the minerals are not from this Earth. He argues with Bobby and his mother about Carpenter’s trustworthiness and sells him out to the military.
Bobby who is determined to prove Tom wrong follows Carpenter one night as he leaves the boarding house and he finds that his new friend has led him straight to the spaceship. The scenes of Bobby hiding in the shadows and watching Klaatu enter the ship are some of the most visually beautiful in the entire film. As Klaatu enters the ship it is the viewer’s first glimpse of the sophisticated technology the aliens possess. Back on the outside Bobby feels disappointed that Carpenter never felt the need to share his identity with the boy.
The manhunt for the spaceman continues, Washington has been quarantined, and soon enough Helen and Carpenter are being pursued by the police through the busy streets. He is chased for nothing more than suspicions, and is shot in the middle of the street. Helen’s liberal ideas and open-mindedness have made it easier for Klaatu to reveal his secret and before he was shot he warned her that Gort would destroy the Earth if Klaatu was harmed in anyway. Always having believed in his goodness Helen races to the ship and attempts to stop Gort which only infuriates him more and he locks her inside the ship. Gort then rescues Klaatu’s ‘corpse’ from the police station where he is being held, and returns him to the ship where he is brought back to life with awesome alien technology.
Of course the reason for Klaatu’s visit is to bring the people of Earth together to discuss atomic power and the dangers it has put the planet in. Scientists and the military have arrived at the ship at Barnhardt’s invitation and are awaiting a special address and conference. Klaatu and Gort appear before the crowds and suggest a world of peace by removing the threat of aggression. A controversial notion for the people of Earth. On that note Klaatu admits that creatures like Gort are the keepers of that peace, and anyone who deviates from that is not tolerated. Those that stand before Klaatu, a creature from a planet many millions of miles away, have no answer for him. They simply stare at him as he utters these final words:
“It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But if you threaten to extend your violence this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder”
It is hard to say whether this a threat from Klaatu against the people of Earth and their irresponsible ways, or whether it is a warning that their continual dalliance with nuclear and/or atomic power will be their own demise. Perhaps it is both of these and more as Earth’s treatment of Klaatu was not Earth at it’s most tolerating. In fact the ending deeply questions humanity’s ability for acceptance and global understanding.
The social commentary and the politics in science fiction have always adapted to the times and in 1951 the world was just discovering atomic power. The world was also intolerant, and that is something that has not changed. Klaatu came to Earth with the intention of bringing peace, and instead he was demonized in the media and hunted down as an enemy. I cannot help but be reminded of a particularly great Twilight Zone episode titled To Serve Man. In this episode, which was broadcast on March 2nd 1962 and was the 89th episode of the Rod Serling television show, alien beings arrive on Earth and are known as The Kanamits. These Kanamits claimed their motive for visiting is to share their knowledge of technology and essentially end famine, stop warfare and generate more electric power. Leaving a book in the hands of a government cryptographer, Michael Chambers and his staff, the aliens succeed in ending famine, the energy shortages and the need for war. The people of Earth begin to trust the aliens, and even more so when the book’s title is translated to mean: To Serve Man. The deliciously great plot twist is that just before Michael Chambers is about to board the Kanamit’s ship to visit their planet, the cryptographer’s assistant Patty reveals that the rest of the book is a…. cookbook! The best part is when the fourth wall is broken and Chambers (who is now stuck on the ship) addresses the audience with these words:
“How about you? You still on Earth, or on the ship with me? Really doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later, all of us will be on the menu… all of us”.