Why Did The Earth Stand Still?

I caught a rerun of the original (and still the best) version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950s black and white science fiction classic where the special effects are basic and things don’t have to be blown up to make a very good film. I suppose the thing that bugs me most about this version is the overt Christianity – there are many references suggesting that Klaatu is a Christ-figure, which jars with me – and that there is no explanation for the title. Why did the Earth stand still? In surprise at the arrival of beings from another world – or is it a description of the result of Klaatu’s “experiment”?

About half way through the film, Klaatu agrees with Professor Barnhardt that he would get the world’s attention in such a way that nobody could either fail to take notice or get hurt. He does this by shutting down all electrics and mechanics – interestingly, early cars and motorcycles don’t move, even though they are much more mechanical than they are today – except for planes in flight and power to hospitals. This EMP lasts for precisely half an hour, during which Klaatu explains to Helen, a fellow tenant at the boarding house he is staying in, who he is and why he is on Earth. Although he can interfere with man’s impact on the Earth, he can’t affect it’s movement in the universe. So the Earth, strictly speaking, still moves.

I’ve not see the remake, starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but I expect it is glitzier and with better special effects. I’m told it’s not as good as the original, and that significant changes were made to the screenplay, giving it a more topical appeal. Hopefully they will also have lost the religious elements as well. I’m not sure a society as advanced as Klaatu’s would still believe in myths and legends.

Many science fiction fans have spent ages trying to decipher the key phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, which Helen has to say to Gort when Klaatu is shot by the National Guard. The best suggestion is that it is a deactivation code, preventing Gort from going on a killing spree. Yet so far as I can tell, nobody has considered the meaning behind the title. Why is it called “The Day the Earth Stood Still” when it clearly didn’t? Perhaps we’ll never know.

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