KLAATU YOU (49)

By: Anthony Miller
December 1, 2020

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.

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THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL | d. ROBERT WISE | 1951

Klaatu barada nikto. “If anything should happen to me,” Michael Rennie’s urbane alien Klaatu instructs Patricia Neal’s Helen Benson (and we all know what it means whenever a movie character says this), “you must go to Gort. You must say these words…” This is the kill switch for the colossal deep sea diving suit that is Klaatu’s robot sentry Gort before he can destroy Earth. As Klaatu exhorted Helen, “You must remember those words,” movie audiences committed them to memory. This phrase is the preeminent extraterrestrial utterance in film, a science-fiction shibboleth, a Cold War-era mantra that cast an indelible pop cultural spell.

In the parody of “The Waste Land” I wrote in college, Klaatu barada nikto made the perfect replacement for Eliot’s “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” These words, invented by screenwriter Edmund H. North, do not appear in Harry Bates’s “Farewell to the Master” on which The Day The Earth Stood Still was based. “The phrase is a piece of genius,” observes science-fiction scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay. “We can speculate that nikto is a negative command,” Csicsery-Ronay conjectures, “the Indo-galactic version of ‘ixnay on the earth stuff’.” Cinephilic xenolinguists have attempted to parse the phrase’s precise meaning, like that Michael Ventris of Fantastic Films, Tauna Le Marbe.

What if what came from outer space was not yet another planetary menace but an entreaty not to bring our newly developed atomic weapons with us beyond our world? There’s still some menace: “But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.” Having travelled 250 million miles (home planet unnamed), Klaatu wishes to deliver his message to all the world’s nations simultaneously, a concept the White House finds more alien than conversing with an alien.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is replete with different kinds of communication. After the credits convey us to Earth to Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-incorporating score, we see a montage of radio announcers on the spacecraft’s arrival in Washington, D.C. At the Lincoln Memorial, Klaatu admires the Gettysburg Address (“Those are great words.”). He makes contact with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe, with superb professor hair) by correcting and appending a valuable new line to the equations of the celestial mechanics problem on Barnhardt’s blackboard. Of course there is the half-hour worldwide power outage of the film’s title, which gets Earth’s attention.

When as Mr. Carpenter Klaatu tells Helen’s son Bobby that the spaceship runs on atomic energy, Bobby replies, “I thought that was just for bombs.” “No,” says Klaatu. “It’s for a lot of other things too.” To alter a line from Milton: Klaatu wants to justify the ways of atomic-age responsibility to men.

There is no overlooking Klaatu as Jesus — assuming the name “Carpenter,” being resurrected, delivering his Sermon on the Spaceship. After Klaatu, similar cinematic starmen would walk among us, trying our species on for size and sharing their alien gospels. Walter Tevis confessed that after watching the film of his The Man Who Fell to Earth he recognized “some unconscious borrowings” from The Day The Earth Stood Still.

“We will be waiting for your answer,” Klaatu concludes before ascending to the heavens. Earthlings have been standing still ever since.

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KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

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Enthusiasms, Movies, Sci-Fi

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