Robert Wise looks at the Atomic Age and wonders: "What would Jesus do?" Washington is aflutter as a humming, phosphorescent vessel descends from the skies and parks on the Mall grass; masses of onlookers and military forces surround it, Klaatu the silver-wrapped messiah (Michael Rennie) steps out and gets winged by a jumpy infantryman, Gort the robotic bodyguard commences vaporizing. Recovering in the hospital, the interplanetary consul reveals his message: Be peaceful or be destroyed. A global summit is ordered, but the logistics in the middle of the Cold War are awkward. "I traveled 250 million miles," Klaatu protests, as the President's secretary adds a proto-Dr. Strangelove note: "I appreciate that, but..." The spaceman's escape triggers "menace from another world" hysteria, his entrance into suburbia is shot a la Hitchcock's The Lodger and anticipates Spielberg. Patricia Neal is mankind's sane voice, her son (Billy Gray) accompanies the incognito alien (rechristened "Carpenter") on a tour of the capital; "That's the sort of man I'd like to talk to," the alien declares at the Lincoln Memorial before settling for brainiac Sam Jaffe. And miracles? Views of the stalled globe set to Bernard Herrmann's Theremin do the trick. It has its evangelistic and pacifistic sides, but the joke is that the testy visitor has come not to redeem the human race but to smite the pests who are getting too big for their breaches -- benevolent dictatorship is the antidote, policed by a race of metal Golems. The inside of the spaceship is an early sketch for Star Trek, Klaatu's scheme is the template for how the U.S. government prefers to envision its own interventions (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq). Wise's thoughtful tidiness turns the idea of extraterrestrial extermination into a high-minded debate, too noble for sci-fi thrills; if, as an attempt to inject "class" into a critically disdained genre, this is the High Noon of the flying-saucer set, consider Hawks's The Thing its Rio Bravo. Adaptation by Edmund H. North. With Hugh Marlowe, Frances Bavier, and Lock Martin. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce