Sunday, March 16, 2008


“Go to him and say,
‘Klaatu barada nikto.’
Or we are all fucked.”

We were watching one of my favorite Old Movies yesterday afternoon between tornado warnings: The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie. It’s one of the great films in the Science Fiction canon, despite there being plenty of errors in the Science. There are also some wonderful anachronisms, such as scenes of doctors smoking in a hospital, that are laughable today – but these only add to the film’s charm.

The plot of the film is straightforward. Alien visitor Klaatu arrives on Earth on a mission to persuade its denizens to live peaceably or face destruction. Shortly after arriving, as he holds out a threatening-looking device that turns out to be a gift intended for our President, he is shot in the hand by a young soldier with an itchy trigger finger. This display of bad manners causes Gort the Scary Robot to reveal himself and to demonstrate some Badass Disintegrating Powers. But Klaatu tells Gort to calm down, thereby ensuring that the film is more than a ten minute short subject with a really downbeat ending.

Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital for treatment...and, not incidentally, confinement. After he fails to get the world’s governments to agree on a single meeting place where he can deliver his Important Message, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and secretes himself amongst the general population, the better to understand the Average Human Being. While panicked officialdom searches for the Man from Space, Klaatu, adopting the guise of one “Mr. Carpenter” (a semi-gratuitous Jesus reference), falls in among the residents of a boarding house, where he befriends a young widow and her son.

Klaatu arranges to meet Professor Barnhardt, the leading savant of the day, and convinces him to arrange a meeting of the World’s Leading Scientists so that he can reveal his Important Message to them. To demonstrate his powers (and thus to emphasize the importance of his Important Message), he arranges to “neutralize” the world’s electricity for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, the widow’s boyfriend has figured out that Mr. Carpenter is really the Man from Space, and he sics the authorities on him. Klaatu, knowing he is in Big Trouble, gives his widow friend a message to deliver to Gort the Scary Robot that will keep him from getting pissed off and destroying the Earth if anything happens to him.

The widow is put to the test when Klaatu is shot to death on the streets of Washington. She runs to Gort and delivers the message – “Klaatu barada nikto” - that calms him down. He retrieves Klaatu’s corpse and reanimates it just in time for the meeting of the World’s Leading Klaatu gets to deliver his Important Message after all before flying off into the sunset.

“Klaatu barada nikto” is one of the Iconic Movie Quotes of the Science Fiction canon. It’s hard to forget the image of Patricia Neal, scared completely shitless, as she delivers this message to Gort. She’s hunkered down amidst a sea of folding chairs in the classic Female in Distress pose. And we know she’d really be pissing her pants if she had seen Gort disintegrate those two soldiers moments before she arrived.

But all I can think about is those three little words, and how the Fate of the Earth depended on them being delivered to Gort. Correctly and intelligibly. What were the chances?

F’rinstance, what if Patricia Neal’s character had had a cold?

“Gort! Klaatu barada dikto! (sniff)”


Or what if Klaatu’s people spoke a complex language in which subtle variations of tone conveyed huge differences in meaning - like Mandarin Chinese here on Earth? Speaking the Three Words with the incorrect tone might change the meaning from “Klaatu is dead, but don’t get all pissed off ’n’ shit” to “Hoo, hoo, hoo, there’s a doodie on your shoe!” With predictable, and unpleasant, results.

I don’t know about you, but if I were faced with that sort of situation, I might just choke completely.


“Gort! Homina, homina, homina...”



This, by the way, is why watching movies with me is so...entertaining.

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