A flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges and declares he has come on a mission of goodwill. However, when he opens a small device with a snap, he is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier who mistakes it for a weapon. In response, a large robot called Gort steps out of the ship and melts all weapons present without harming the soldiers. Klaatu orders him to stop and explains the “weapon” was a gift to the President and could have been used to study life on other planets.
He is taken to Walter Reed Hospital, where he quickly recovers. While there, Klaatu meets the President’s secretary, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), but is unable to convince him to gather the world’s leaders. Klaatu suggests the United Nations, but is told it does not represent all countries, and later, that world leaders cannot even agree on a meeting place for such a momentous occasion. When Klaatu suggests he live among ordinary people to get to know them better, Harley rebuffs him and implies that he is a prisoner. Klaatu escapes into the night.
He goes to a boarding house, assuming the alias “Mr. Carpenter”, the name on the laundry label of a suit he has taken. Among the residents are Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), a government employee, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen is a widow; her husband had been killed in World War II. The next morning, Klaatu listens to a radio commentator and to the boarders’ speculation over the breakfast table; one (Frances Bavier) suggests that it might be the work of the Soviets. When Helen’s boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe), plans a day-trip getaway for the two of them, Klaatu offers to take care of Bobby.
Bobby takes Klaatu on a tour of the city, including a visit to his father’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, where Klaatu learns with dismay that most of those buried there were killed in wars. The two next visit the Lincoln Memorial and the heavily-guarded spaceship, where Gort stands motionlessly on guard. Klaatu, impressed by the inscription of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is hopeful that Earth may harbor people wise enough to understand his message. When he asks Bobby to name the greatest person in the world today, Bobby mentions a leading American scientist, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who lives nearby.
Bobby takes Klaatu to Barnhardt’s home. The professor is absent; Klaatu goes into his study and helps solve an advanced mathematical n-body problem written on a blackboard, before leaving his address with the housekeeper. Later, government agents escort Klaatu to see Barnhardt, who has seen the correction to his work as a calling card which could not have been faked.
Klaatu warns the professor that the peoples of the other planets are concerned for their safety because human beings have developed atomic power. Barnhardt offers Klaatu the opportunity to speak at an upcoming meeting of scientists he is organizing; Klaatu accepts. Barnhardt is stunned when Klaatu declares that, if his message is rejected by Earth’s leaders, “Planet Earth will be eliminated”. The professor pleads for Klaatu to first provide a minor demonstration of his power as a warning.
Klaatu returns to his spaceship that night to implement the professor’s suggestion. Bobby trails him and is amazed to see his new friend enter the ship. When Tom Stephens and Helen Benson return from their evening out, Bobby tells them that Mr. Carpenter is the “spaceman”. They do not believe him at first, but when Bobby goes upstairs to bed, Helen notices that his shoes are soaking wet. Their suspicions grow when Tom finds a diamond in Carpenter’s room.
The following day, Tom takes the diamond to a jeweler, who claims that he has never seen the like before. Meeting Helen at work, Klaatu insists on speaking to her. While riding in an elevator, it stops. A montage sequence shows that Klaatu has suppressed electric power all over the world, though critical systems such as hospitals and planes in flight have been spared. This brings the entire world to a standstill. During the blackout, Klaatu confirms Helen’s suspicions and enlists her aid. She urgently searches for Tom to stop him from telling the authorities, but he tells her that he intends to expose Klaatu and thereby become rich and famous. Helen rushes home to warn Klaatu. They take a taxi to wait at Barnhardt’s home until the meeting with the scientists. On the way, Klaatu tells Helen that if anything should happen to him, she must go to Gort and say, “Klaatu barada nikto.” They are spotted; when Klaatu tries to flee, he is shot dead.
Overcoming her fear, Helen does as Klaatu asked. Gort gently carries her into the spaceship, retrieves Klaatu’s corpse, and temporarily revives him. Klaatu steps out of the spaceship and addresses the assembled scientists, explaining that humanity’s penchant for violence and first steps into space have caused concern among the other spacefaring worlds, who have created a race of robot enforcers like Gort and given them absolute power to deal with any violence. He warns that the people of Earth can either abandon warfare and peacefully join these other nations or be destroyed, adding that “The decision rests with you.” He then enters the spaceship and departs.
This movie shows what sci-fi really is supposed to be. During the time this film came out, the giant robot, Gort, would have scared the living daylight out of anyone. These days, not so much, but he’s still intimidating.
Klatu/Carpenter is a bit of rigid character, in fact at times he seem more robotic than Gort, but that seems to be the thing to do when to comes to aliens.
As with most films of this era, there is the shoot first, ask questions later Army…actually, that’s not much different from today, and the boyfriend who thinks he’s right no matter what the cost.
I was first introduced to this film by my dad. At the time, I didn’t care too much for it, but as time has passed, I love it.
This may or may not be a film for everyone, but the theme is one that needs to be learned by all. I highly recommend it.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars