“Klaatu barada nikto” may well be the most famous phrase from any sci-fi movie ever (though it may share that crown with, “No, Luke… I am your father”). But there are a few reasons why its source, the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, is considered one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.
The purpose of Klaatu’s visit to Earth isn’t conquest or hostility. Instead, his message is both benign and harrowing: He comes in peace, but to bring a warning against human aggression in the wake of the development of atomic power on Earth. According to Klaatu, if humans extend their violent tendencies into the reaches of space, other planets will have no choice but to react with deadly force. Issuing an ultimatum on behalf of what may be the entire known universe, Klaatu is both messenger and harbinger. This warning is the basis of the plot, but the story also acts as a moral fable, an antiwar message befitting the post-World War II world paradigm surrounding the film’s release.
Klaatu’s time with Helen and Bobby on Earth only heartens him to broadcast his message. He finds that every life on the planet is precious, and that the common man is not to be held responsible for the actions of a few. This is a conclusion he may never have come to had he been able to address the Chiefs of State as he desired. By observing the common man, Klaatu can appeal to the incorruptible heart rather than the minds that created the situation in the first place.
Spirituality is a fitting, if unexpected, facet of the film’s plotline. Klaatu more or less acts as the salvation of the human race—without Klaatu’s message, humans may never satiate their appetite for destruction and, as a result, will be destroyed themselves. The comparison to the Christ figure is more than subliminal. The clothing Klaatu steals after escaping his federal holding cell belongs to one Mr. Carpenter, a clear parallel to the carpenter trade of Jesus Christ. Klaatu also mentions that, even with his own advanced healing technology, an “almighty spirit” still patrols the boundary between life and death.
The phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” used by Helen to direct Gort has gained significant attention on its own. Its popularity extends into other films (like Army of Darkness) and media (the Spider-Man 2 video game sees villain Mysterio chanting the phrase).
Michael Booth of the Denver Post commented, “The Day the Earth Stood Still may at first look like goofy, outdated science fiction, but its timeless warnings about violence, nuclear confrontation and the difficulties of policing the planet have made it an enduring cultural classic.”
For its message urging international peace, the film won the “Best Film Promoting International Understanding” Golden Globe Award in 1951. The Day the Earth Stood Still is as entertaining as ‘50s science fiction can be, and it features an overriding moral tale to boot.