In 1928, a mountaineer (Keanu Reeves) encounters a glowing sphere while on an expedition in the snowy mountains of India. He then finds himself awakening after a sudden loss of consciousness, with the sphere now gone and a scar on his hand. In the present day, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), a Princeton professor, and other scientists are hastily assembled by the government in order to formulate a survival plan when it is feared that a large unknown object with a speed of 3x107m/s is due to impact Manhattan in approximately 78 minutes.

Nothing can be done about it because a vital military satellite has been disabled. The object is a large spherical biological spaceship, which slows down and lands gently in Central Park. A being (taking on the appearance of the man from the opening scene of the film) named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) emerges from the sphere while accompanied by a large robot. Klaatu, a representative of a group of alien races, has come to assess whether humanity can reverse the environmental damage it has inflicted on planet Earth.

In the ensuing confusion, Klaatu is shot, but survives. The large robot activates and proceeds to disrupt all electrical systems in the city of New York, including many of the defense systems that the military has mustered in a perimeter around the spaceship. Before it can do any further damage, Klaatu orders it to shut down. While recovering from his injuries, Klaatu is detained by Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), the United States Secretary of Defense, and is barred from speaking to the United Nations. Klaatu manages to escape with the help of Helen, and he soon finds himself eluding the authorities throughout Newark, New Jersey, and the forested Highlands, with Helen and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith).

Meanwhile, the presence of the sphere has caused a worldwide panic and the military manages to capture the robot after it thwarts their attempts to destroy the sphere using unmanned aerial vehicles and sidewinder missiles. After speaking with another alien who lived with the humans for years, Klaatu decides that humans shall be exterminated to ensure that the planet—with its rare ability to sustain complex life—can survive. The alien however, decides to stay on Earth having seen another side to humanity that he is unable to put into words to explain to Klaatu. He orders smaller spheres previously hidden on Earth to begin taking animal species off the planet, and Jackson, reminded of Noah's Ark, fears that a cataclysm is imminent.

The robot, dubbed "GORT" (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology) by the government, is the subject of experiments within an underground facility in Virginia when it transforms into a swarm of self-replicating insect-like nanites that begin destroying everything in their path back to Manhattan, including an armored battalion of the U.S. Army.

After speaking with Nobel Prize-winning Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) about how his own species went through drastic evolution to survive its sun's demise, Klaatu is convinced by Helen and Jacob that humans can change their ways and are worth saving. The three go toward the sphere in Central Park, where Klaatu warns that even if he manages to stop GORT, there will be a price to the human way of life. The nanobot cloud arrives before they can reach the sphere and they have to hide under a footbridge.

There, it is revealed that Jacob and Helen have been infected by the nanites. She pleads with Klaatu to save Jacob. Klaatu saves both of them by transferring the infection to his own body, then sacrifices himself to stop GORT by walking through the nanites to the sphere and touching it. His actions cause the sphere to emit a massive EM pulse which destroys GORT, saving humanity, but at the price of all of Earth's technology becoming apparently useless and immobile. Klaatu disappears, and the giant sphere leaves Earth.

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