Movie poster, <i>The Day the Earth Stood Still</i>, 1951 (IMDb)

Movie poster, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 (IMDb)


SEPTEMBER 28, 2018

Scientist of the Day - Klaatu

The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction movie, was released Sep. 28, 1951, with a poster almost no one could resist. Among SF films, it was notable on many levels: the script was intelligently written; three excellent actors played the leads (Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Sam Jaffe); it exhibited some cultural diversity (exceptionally, for a 1950s film); and it had a thoughtful message about the need for Earth to mend its warlike ways, a message we have yet to take seriously.

There are two scientists in the film:  Professor  Barnhardt, played by Jaffe, and Klaatu, played by Rennie (second image).  Klaatu is not presented as a scientist, but rather as a humanoid alien, but we learn of his scientific abilities when he corrects an equation that is written on a blackboard in Professor Barnhardt's office, one that had stumped the good professor for many years (third image).

Klaatu is accompanied by a memorable robot named Gort (first image).  Gort was not the first on-screen robot, being preceded by Maria, the machine-Mensch in Metropolis (1927). Like most early film robots, Gort has a non-speaking role. But he packs a mean laser, before lasers had even been invented, as you can see in a clip from the film (the first person out of the space ship is Klaatu; Gort soon follows). He even has the touch of a miracle-worker, as he brings Klaatu back to life after he is shot a second time.  But Gort suffers in comparison to his cinematic successor, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956), who had lots of moving parts that whirred and clicked, and who spoke a few hundred languages and exhibited a playful personality.  Gort mostly just stands there, raising his visor now and then to zap the gun of some poor soldier who came too close, but coming up short in the charm department.

A memorable line of the film comes when Klaatu fears he might be killed by government forces. He tells Helen (Patricia Neal's character) that to avoid retaliation by Gort, she must say these words to Gort: Klaatu barada nikto .  Klaatu is indeed killed, Helen whispers the magic words, humankind is spared, Gort brings Klaatu back to life, and the two fly off with a final warning to earth to clean up its militant manners or be eliminated.

A remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 2008, with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but since the film was not released on Sep. 28, we thankfully need not mention it further here.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to