The Alien Saviour: Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still

By Kevin McCorry

A Twentieth Century Fox Release in September, 1951.
Directed by Robert Wise.
Produced by Julian Blaustein.
Screenplay by Edmund H. North.
Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, and Lock Martin.
Music by Bernard Herrmann.

Benevolent or hostile? From the earliest B-grade science fiction films in the Cold-War-hysteric 1950s to the explosions-filled 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day, the tendency has been to cast an alien or aliens in the villain's role, with an Earthman as the hero. However, there have been occasional films that attempt an alternative rendering of humans-vs.-extraterrestrials, with aliens portrayed as several levels above the evolving but still primitive Earthman. Aliens in such films have transcended such inferior human urges as lust, vice, or violent territorial acquisition, and have come to Earth on a mission of peace.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first films to portray aliens as omnipotent and benevolent, possessing the power to reduce Earth to a cinder but in their mercy sending a lone emissary to persuade the nations of Earth to stop their warring ways and choose a peaceful path. An alien descends to mid-twentieth century Earth on such a mission, and middle-class America reacts with fear and hostility. The U.S. military hunts the alien and, after witnessing an non-violent but nevertheless drastic, world-encompassing demonstration of his power, becomes less particular about how to apprehend him. He is to be captured dead or alive. In this case, the alien is the sympathetic, heroic figure, and man is the antagonist.

Although The Day the Earth Stood Still, produced in 1951, is classified as a B-movie, with sometimes exaggerated performances, laughable, speeded running of panicky crowds, and the stereotypical saucer-shape of the alien's spacecraft, it has nevertheless "instilled" itself in science fiction film tradition. Recently, a clip from it appeared in the alien-invasion opus, Independence Day. It is often directly referenced in films and television shows, its famous "Klaatu Barada Nikto" line directly quoted when one character ridicules another for claiming to have seen a UFO, as Perry White does to Lois Lane in an episode of Lois and Clark- The New Adventures of Superman. However, it is in its intelligent portrayal of peaceable alien visitation that its intertextual references in earlier and later works have the most power.

Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, a solitary figure from the heavens, who has come to Earth to persuade all its peoples to embrace a truly evolved, peaceable lifestyle. He warns all mankind that unless it channels its aggressive instincts into benign and intellectually profitable pursuits, an awesome power from above will effect final judgement upon the warrior human race. Though Klaatu's message, in its implications, comes across as a daunting and somewhat condescending ultimatum, along the lines of, "behave or be destroyed", Klaatu has nevertheless come to Earth with the selfless aim of redeeming mankind, for its own sake.

In the process, Klaatu is cast like a sacrificial lamb, gunned down but technologically resurrected for a short time to address the international gathering of savants he has arranged to meet outside his spaceship, before reentering the craft and ascending into space. Even when he knows he is being surrounded in a taxi by soldiers and will, in all probability, be mortally shot, his fears are not for himself but for the fate of mankind if the power that sent him learns that humans have shot and killed its emissary. His mission is indeed selfless. These salient parallels with the character and appearances of Jesus Christ constitute the dominant intertextual appeal of the film, while it also seems to ridicule the post-war, anti-Communist, anti-"other" mentality in America. The fearful hunt for Klaatu is quite like that for Communists in the 1950s' U.S.A..

Klaatu is assisted by Gort, a robot with a two-armed, two-legged human physique but no distinguishing features, suggesting that all robots in Klaatu's world are identical in appearance and power. This sense of mechanical conformity may equate the Washington D.C. populace's fear of the technology behind the robot with the fear of the social uniformity espoused by the opposing political ideology of Communism. At the boarding house where Klaatu, using an alias, has taken residence, one of the other tenants, Mrs. Barley, says she believes the alien comes from the other side of the Earth, from the opposing Eastern Bloc, and the newspaper she is reading sports a theatrical-poster-like illustration of invading extraterrestrial destroyers in War of the Worlds tradition and looking exactly like Gort. "Are we long for this world?", the illustration asks. Shown in conjunction with Mrs. Barley's remark, the depiction of uniform robots zapping hapless people seems to liken the apprehension toward Klaatu and his robot helper to the fear of invasion by Communist Russia.

However, Gort is not hostile. Like Klaatu, he is an agent of reason and modest in appearance. Gort is capable of total destruction, but only to neutralise the belligerent Earthlings if they fail to heed Klaatu's message or mortally prevent Klaatu from delivering it. Gort represents a faultless, monolithic technology, trusted so implicitly that it is given absolute power, a power of life or death, over entire worlds, to preserve or to destroy life on a planetary scale, depending on the response of a world's highest life form to the message of peace. Gort also performs the resurrection of Klaatu, further likening his power to that of God.

Hysteria is the usual human response to any external power not entirely or at all understood, including a growing Communist presence on the other side of the world, or possible visitation from a realm above, either by a friendly alien or indeed by that of Christ or God. What these fears have in common is the projection of the other, potentially darker side of humanity lurking in every man and woman, onto the Communist Bloc on the other side of the world, or onto anything different, contrary to accepted norm, from off the Earth.

Christ and Klaatu are both emissaries from a realm above and beyond, equating the celestial firmament with that of Biblical Heaven, and likening Klaatu's coming to Earth and its cause with that of Christ. The un-Earthly origin of Klaatu and his descent from above by a conveyance beyond current human comprehension, designates him as "alien", quite like Christ would be described if He were to come again to Earth. Aliens are either a menace or an agent of salvation, depending on the sensibility of individuals or nations and what image of "the other" is in the individual or collective mind at a particular time.

Dr. Carl Jung likened space with Heaven, and spacemen with angels, when he psychoanalysed the belief-in-UFOs phenomenon. Jung explained the alternate awe and fear of people in regard to "flying saucers" as an instance of "projection" of the "alien within" the collective human psyche, onto a visitor from another world. The "alien within", the "second self", if freed by the ego from regressive fixations and joined with the lofty, rational "superego", can be a profound force for good. However, if the "second self" is regressively fixated on primitive domination of women or territory, it remains a darker, potentially destructive aspect of the psyche. This duality in the notion of "second self" may be why extraterrestrials are seen alternatively as technological angels sent to help man to transcend primitivism, or technological devils intent upon invasion and destruction. Unfortunately, the human mind vacillates so frequently from one such notion to the other, that collective humanity at any one time is as inclined to regard an alien visitor as demonic as he is to embrace the alien as a technological saviour.

By accessing this dichotomy in the minds of viewers, The Day the Earth Stood Still proposes a very compelling notion. If Jesus Christ Himself were to make a second coming, would He be warmly received by masses and cooperated with by authorities, or would He be feared, hunted, and "crucified" again? Klaatu's reception on Earth is a possible forecast for how Christ's return would be handled by modern or post-modern society. Tabloid journalists would probably liken Him to aliens, or allege that He is one. Young generations would flock around Him, possibly thinking that He is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley, the "king of rock and roll". Elders would label Him a disruptive influence and have Him jailed. The military would hear of His miracles and respond by ordering Him stopped, killed if necessary. This is how mass society on Earth would likely respond to Christ's second coming, and what happens to Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a film produced more than a half-century ago, seems as relevant in the post-modern 2000s as it was in 1951. Man of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is probably as parochial as he was in Christ's day. Humans still seem incapable of humbling themselves unless compelled by force to do so.

A figurative standing still of the Earth is performed by Klaatu, who neutralises electrical flow in every part of the world so that no powered machines can function. This is reminiscent of the Biblical story of Joshua commanding the Sun to stand still. Such fantastic feats may be ultimately what a saviour like Christ would need to do to demonstrate His magnificence. And even then, the reaction of man in general may be fear and unfavourable psychological projection. Of course, some humans would humble themselves, like some scientists do for Klaatu, but if God or some parallel alien power were to show His or its "face" in the sky, modern man, in general, seems more likely to fire nuclear missiles than to listen reverently and reasonably.

Klaatu receives little help from the government and military. And frustrated at the lack of success he has by going through official channels, Klaatu opts to quit his officious hosts and wander into the civilian milieu of Washington D.C.. The name he gives to himself, though quite incidentally from the Earth clothes which he has appropriated, is Carpenter. No first name. Only Carpenter. An allusion to Christ's vocation before He became a rabbi.

Klaatu's only immediate allies are Professor Barnhardt, a humble scientist, Bobby Benson, a fanciful boy, and Bobby's widowed, open-minded mother, who has experienced a personal loss that tested her faith and perhaps humbled her to accept the existence of a world beyond, munificently governed by a higher power or powers. She is inclined to believe in Klaatu's noble intentions, while her suitor, Tom Stephens, wants credit for reporting the spaceman to the authorities. Men are coded in this film as militant, self-aggrandising, or obtuse, while set-in-their-ways, older women, like Mrs. Barley, are similarly narrow-minded. But a younger woman like Mrs. Benson, who has been humbled at an early age by tragic loss, is prepared to accept that the strange visitor whom she and her son have befriended is benevolent. Though frustrated by the intransigent attitudes of government men, Klaatu recognises in Abraham Lincoln's address, which he and young Bobby read on a visit to the Arlington Cemetery, the capacity of men to rise above their primitive instincts. He wisely places his trust in these apparently open-minded individuals, quite like Christ did in his chosen followers.

Symbolic of the immaculate nature of Christ, Klaatu's people appear to be far in advance of Earthman in impulse-control and rejection of vice. In one of the more amusingly pithy moments in the film, Klaatu is hospitalised after being fired upon for the first time and flesh-wounded. Two doctors are discussing the similar anatomies but different life expectancies of Earthman and the alien visitor. One of the physicians explains this by stating that the medicine on Klaatu's world is more advanced than man's- and ironically says so while putting a cigarette in his mouth. The vice of cigarette-smoking is an apropos testimony to human weakness and irrationality. Men and women know that cigarettes are carcinogenic, yet continue to smoke them, market them, and addict successive generations to them. Wilful ignorance of health risks is an apt allegory for man's general weakness, his tendency to let bodily appetite, greed, or fear compel him to rash and violent action. This is another contrast between Klaatu and his human hosts.

Klaatu's mission of peace, the redemptive implications of it, his self-sacrifice in service to his Earthly kith, are all meaningful, intertextual notions that other filmmakers have used, whether consciously or not, to weave profound themes or messages into their tales of aliens far in advance of Earthman. An antecedent to the selfless omnipotence of Klaatu was Superman, created by Canadian Joe Shuster in the 1930s. Like Klaatu, Superman is a solitary alien sent to Earth on a mission to peaceably assist humanity. He assumes a human alias like Klaatu does, to protect himself so that he can perform his task without obstructions. In more recent renditions of Superman, the Man of Steel is rather angelic in his flight ability and dependably good use of superpowers that are sensationally but acceptably compared with those of Christ. "That man's a miracle," says one of the men whom Superman has impressed with his awesome deeds.

Of course, Superman is not an angel in a physical sense. He has a body. Therefore, he has faults. He has a weakness for the opposite sex, and he is vulnerable to meteoric fragments of his home planet, which, when descending to Earth and coming into close contact with him, weaken him, as though his ego-power were being subverted by contact with physical remnants of his planetary "mother".

Krypton in the 1978-87 Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve, is depicted as a snow-white community in the heavens, a sanctum of technology, a civilisation which, in its apparent grace, is far in advance of Earth's, yet doomed by the impending explosion of the planet and its sun. The allusions to Heaven, or to a realm closer to Heaven than is Earth, are manifested in the white garments worn by the Kryptonians and in the lofty character of Krypton's most eminent scientist, Jor-El, played by Marlon Brando. Jor-El transcends the complacency of his people, who refuse to heed his warnings of a stellar explosion. A man of his word, Jor-El abides by his promise to his arbitrary peers on the planetary council, not to leave Krypton; so, Jor-El sacrifices his own life to send his only son to Earth on his behalf.

Jor-El is as close to a divine figure as any in science fiction or fantasy. In later scenes in Superman, long after his physical death, he appears, as though resurrected, first via a recorded message to young Superman, then in the clouds of Earth, to command his son not to interfere with human history. A similar message is present in Christ's teaching that, "Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God." Man must make his own decisions, assume his own responsibility, and be judged accordingly. Both Klaatu and Superman are sent, like Christ, to advise and assist man in finding the wisdom to fully renounce primitivism, but, as Klaatu says to the delegates at the gathering outside of his spaceship, "The decision rests with you."

The alien as "angelic" or at a higher level of nobility than Earthman, has become a recurring theme in science fiction, likening space with Heaven, both being realms above Earth, and persons coming from there as being superior to man on Earth and selflessly concerned for Earth's welfare. At a Fortress of Solitude situated at the top of the world, young Superman listens to the recorded message from Jor-El, which says in reference to man: "They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They just lack the wisdom to see the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." This is an eloquent intertextual reference to Christ's mission, and Klaatu's too.

The alien as a redeemer, a self-sacrificing agent for human survival and positive evolution, and able to resurrect himself after "dying" in service to his human kith, is also portrayed in the British television series, Doctor Who, the title character of which is a Time Lord ("Lord" being a salient allusion to divinity, or near divinity), a race of superior beings who have, with few exceptions, transcended violence and are morally committed to protect the sanctity of time and all developing races. Like Klaatu, Doctor Who is an Edwardian gentleman not of Earth but concerned for the welfare of its collective humanity. Whether or not the makers of Doctor Who decided to pattern the personality of their hero after that of Klaatu, both Doctor Who and Klaatu are of an omnipotent, Christ-like race of admirable nobility and purity.

Klaatu never condescends to physical gratification. Though there is an affinity between himself and Mrs. Benson, no sexual liaison occurs between them, and the two are in an elevator, talking, for thirty minutes. Doctor Who has many female travelling companions, but never is any "hanky-panky" shown or implied to occur in his time-space capsule. And in the Superman films, Superman cannot marry Lois Lane and retain his super-powers. If he chooses to marry Miss Lane, he must relinquish his super-nature forever and become an ordinary man. What this theme of asexual alien purity suggests is that an orgasm, for an alien of higher development and clearly lofty character, is a condescension to an inferior, primitive state, and, therefore, that sexuality is something man must transcend, along with all his other primitive impulses, to be on level with superior aliens.

The role of Doctor Who has changed actors several times in the series' 30-year history, and for the initial changeover from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton in 1966, the series' producers proposed that Time Lords can transcend death. Hartnell, after having saved planet Earth and the lives of its inhabitants yet again, collapses. His old, frail body is finally exhausted, and he "dies", his outward persona and appearance gone, but his essence and memories are resurrected when he regenerates into a new body, a new Doctor Who, played by Troughton. The character of Doctor Who has the ability to regenerate at times of death and is therefore able to sacrifice himself for the human race.

Like Superman, Doctor Who is forbidden to directly interfere with human history as it is already recorded, yet helps to repel the attacks of aliens who would interfere with man's natural development. He cautions his human friends on the dangers of materialism and parochial attitudes. And in perhaps his best instance of self-sacrifice, Doctor number 4, played by Tom Baker, falls from a radio telescope to his "death" after forestalling the spread of an entropy field (entropy being symbolic of decay and corruption, perhaps) and foiling his enemy, the Master, who wanted to rule the universe using the entropy field to blackmail worlds into doing his bidding. In defeating the evil plans of the Master (who is a renegade Time Lord, like Lucifer was a rebellious angel), the noble Doctor falls, "dies", and regenerates into his fifth incarnation, played by Peter Davison.

The Star Trek television and movie series chose for its alien, Mr. Spock, to have a similarly transcendent soul. In Star Trek II- The Wrath of Khan, Spock enters an engineering cubicle in which he is lethally bombarded by radiation. Spock selflessly spares the Starship Enterprise from extinction by re-energising its engines to permit escape from a colossal explosion, but he dies. His body is placed in a torpedo tube and fired into the atmosphere of a nascent planet, from which Spock acquires the life-energy to be resurrected. This was, admittedly, a crassly commercial contrivance, to keep fans in suspense until the next Star Trek film was released, in which Spock lives again to rejoin Captain Kirk in protecting the Milky Way galaxy from Klingon aggression. However, use of the plot device of death-and-resurrection for a self-sacrificing alien does intertextually reference Klaatu's transcendence of death, and that of Christ.

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself. He relinquishes his body and becomes transcendental to spiritually guide Luke Skywalker in combating the forces of evil personified by Darth Vader. In both of these mainstream films, and in Doctor Who, self-sacrifice and resurrection are employed by mystically-inclined filmmakers and accepted by mass audiences. And they owe a substantial debt to the writer, Edmund H. North, of The Day the Earth Stood Still, who pioneered the idea of an advanced, Christ-like alien who is prepared to die for the cause of preserving mankind from evil or from destruction, and is in the process resurrected, for a short or extended time in body, or for an eternity in soul.

All of these benevolent aliens belong to a race with a morality and transcendence of human impulses that enables then to genuinely, selflessly care for and guide others of lesser development. Each is prepared to sacrifice himself for this principle and can resurrect himself in some way. Jor-El does this via his recorded messages and then through his son, Superman, to whom he imparts the total wisdom of the Kryptonian race. Each of these characters recognises human potential but also perceives man's need for guidance to reconcile differences and utilise technology for constructive purposes. Klaatu's message is most grim in its consequences for man if man's violence, escalating in tandem with technology, extends into space. Man will be obliterated along with his precious Earth if he does not mend his ways. Perhaps coming at the time that it did, after the atrocities of World War II and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, such a message in this 1951 film was very apt, the only message that man at that time, or even in the 1990s, would heed. The Day the Earth Stood Still does seem to end on an optimistic note. Klaatu's audience is quiet and apparently convinced by his blunt but effective speech. They view his ascension into space with knowledge that his words must have a basis in fact, that there is order in the heavens, and that man ought to learn to revere the powers above and respect his fellow man.

In conclusion, The Day the Earth Stood Still was and is a highly influential science fiction film. Its motifs of awesome alien power, Cold War paranoia "projected" onto alien visitors, monolithic technology, and the "flying saucer" have often been used for impertinent statements about creatures from space, friendly or hostile. Meanwhile, its message and Christian symbolism render it an intertextually exquisite work that is referenced, intentionally or otherwise, in such diverse opuses as a comic-strip super-hero adapted to film, a long-running British television series, and two American icons, Star Trek and Star Wars, all of which use its notion of an angelically noble alien on a mission of peace. Klaatu's message, grim in its implications if unheeded, is comparable to that of Christ's in its desired effect, to convince mankind to mature, to recognise the merits in political ideologies on both "sides" of any conflict, assimilate the best aspects of both, compromise, work together, and in time overcome the supposed human need for vice and physical gratification. Klaatu's existence is a positive sign that somewhere, such a nearly divine level of evolution exists and is possible for man. Perhaps governance from above, either by Ten Commandments or by a daunting message from an alien like Klaatu, is what man needs to compel him to find the wisdom to truly and righteously proceed to the next level in his development.


Doctor Who- More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS. British Broadcasting Corporation Enterprises/Twentieth Century Fox Video, 1993.

Jung, Carl G., Henderson, Joseph L., et al.. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday and Company, New York, 1964.

Levin, Martin. "Why we so desperately want to believe in angels and aliens". The Toronto Globe and Mail. July 6, 1996.

The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox, 1951.

Superman. Warner Brothers, 1978.

Superman II. Warner Brothers, 1980.

Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. Routledge, London, 1988.

All images (c) Twentieth Century Fox
Textual content (c) Kevin McCorry, with all rights reserved
This article, the observations, the interpretations, and the ideas therein are the intellectual property of the author unless otherwise noted and may not be reproduced and then altered in any way without the express written consent of the author, and any scholarly quoting, paraphrasing, or other repetition of them MUST be accompanied by full stated credit to the author, with failure to do so possibly exposing an individual or group to litigation and possible civil or criminal penalty

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