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Klaatu Barada Nikto: A History

Kris King Kris King
November 17th, 2008 9:49am EST
The Day the Earth Stood StillThe fall of 1951 gave world a number of things: the first oral contraceptive, the first episode of "I Love Lucy" and Bobby Thomson hit the "shot heard round the world" winning the National League pennant for the New York Giants. These are things that resonate with a countless amount of people, but mean nothing to the legions of the world's nerds. To science fiction geeks, September 1951 gave the world one thing: Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In the film, the inhabitants of Earth face a dire choice. Throw down their weapons and live in peace, or have the entire planet destroyed by an army of deadly robots. Fortunately, the harbinger of this ultimatum comes in the form of Klaatu, a curiously friendly and level headed alien ambassador. Unfortunately, Klaatu also drags along a seven-foot-tall death robot with kill vision.

The Day the Earth Stood StillWise's tightly produced sci-fi drama tapped into the 1950s zeitgeist of a looming nuclear apocalypse and it quickly became one of the most memorable sci-fi films of the 1950s. The stern, cold image of Klaatu's robot companion Gort redefined the way Hollywood portrayed robots, and the movie's most famous line of "Klaatu Barada Nikto" acts as a kind of rally cry for sci-fi fans around the world. At the climax of the film, a fatally wounded Klaatu (of course we shoot the alien promising world peace) orders a sympathetic earth woman, played by Patricia Neal, to use the words to stop Gort from tearing the planet a new one. The phrase works and the day is saved; at least until Klaatu comes back to life and tells the people of Earth to chill out or he's going to kill everyone.

The film's impact on popular culture as a whole spreads beyond the walls of the science fiction convention. References to The Day the Earth Stood Still appear so often in popular culture that it seems one can't talk about aliens without mentioning something about Klaatu or Gort. In "The X-Files" Special Agent Fox Mulder has the phrase pinned to his wall alongside his iconic "I Want to Believe" poster. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another movie renowned for a memorable alien greeting, a banner with "Klaatu Barada Nikto" scrawled on it looms in the background. Even the deeply canonical Star Wars universe pays tribute to the phrase by having two alien races named for it, the Nikto and Klatoonians (Return of the Jedi features a Nikto named Klaatu, and a Klatoonian named Barada).

The phrase's induction into the pop-culture lexicon became so thorough that it even found its way into politics. After the Weekly World News playfully accused a number of U.S. Senators, including former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, of being undercover aliens, the senator's office released a statement to the Associated Press stating simply: "We've only got one thing to say: Klattu Barado [sic] Nikto."


"Army of Darkness" in 5 Seconds:




It's generally believed that, in the film, the phrase acts as a sort of off switch for Gort or as a command for it to save the dying Klaatu. Still, it lacks meaning in any context outside of stopping big robots from melting the planet. So why the fuss? In his two-volume tome Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction of the Fifties (a book that features a picture of Klaatu on its cover), sci-fi super expert Bill Warren attributes the popularity of the phrase to Robert Wise and writer Edmund North's use of excitement in an otherwise dull movie. He writes: "... this sequence is still one of the most exciting and, for newcomers, most frightening scenes in any SF film. The phrase's renown comes partly from the effect of the scenes, and partly from the fact that one advertising campaign for the film featured that phrase."


"Klaatu Barada Nikto":




In mid-2008, when early script reviews of the upcoming The Day the Earth Stood Still remake claimed that the film omitted both a recognizable version of Gort and the original's famous line, the internet had kittens. The news sent thousands reeling into a frenzy of nerd rage. Already wary of a production that cast Keanu Reeves as Klaatu and added the environmental angle of "go green or go dead" to the film, fans put their foot down at the prospect of a version of The Day the Earth Stood Still without laser robots and shoutable lines. Thankfully, Reeves shared the fans' sentiment and persuaded the brass to include the line in the finished product.


The Day The Earth Stood Still Remake Trailer:




In an interview with Sci-Fi Magazine, Reeves comments in his typically prolific manner: "[it's] something that wasn't in the script, and I said, 'You've got to have that.'" The new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still complete with Gort and its famous command hits theaters Dec. 12.

From Donald Duck to The Monkees, the phrase "Klaatu Barada Nikto" invaded our hearts and stayed there. It's a phrase that represents an entire movement in popular culture, and symbolizes our fascination with what's out there. The three words may not mean anything, but we get the idea.

Kris King
Story by Kris King

Starpulse contributing writer