Fox // 1951 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // December 15th, 2008
From Out of Space...A Warning and an Ultimatum!
"What are we going to tell the Intergalactic Council of Ministers the first time one of our teenage mothers leaves her baby in a dumpster?...Can't you just sense how eager the rest of the universe is for us to show up?" -- George Carlin
Robert Wise' 1951 movie is considered a classic for a variety of reasons. Not only did it sound a clarion call for world peace (Producer Julian Blaustein wanted to make a case for a strong United Nations), but many people saw a wealth of Christian allegory in the tale (mainly due to Klaatu's alias) -- although director Robert Wise says that he didn't notice any of the parallels until people started pointing them out to him. The movie also boasted one of Bernard Herrmann's best scores -- even though it was also one of his shortest, with only about 30 minutes of music.
The movie had an exceptional DVD release back in 2003; Fox's double dip arrives to coincide with the release of the remake starring Keanu Reeves. Watching the original will put you in a much stronger position to say, "Keanu, what the hell were you thinking!?!"
The world stares in awe as a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. A lone emissary, Klaatu (Michael Rennie, The Devil's Brigade), emerges from the craft. His actions appear friendly, but a trigger-happy soldier fires off a round, injuring the alien. A massive, foreboding robot appears and disintegrates the soldiers' weapons. It is on the verge of wiping out the soldiers when Klaatu, addressing the robot as Gort, orders it to stand down. Klaatu is whisked to Walter Reed Hospital for treatment, but he takes a simple salve to his wounds, which heal within minutes. The president's top advisor arrives to arrange a meeting between Klaatu and the president; Klaatu admits that he has a message, he refuses to discuss his mission with any single government, insisting that his message is for the entire world. The superpowers, predictably, begin a diplomatic squabble over where the various world leaders can meet. The United States attempts to keep Klaatu isolated, but he escapes, assumes the name John Carpenter, and takes a room in a D.C. boarding house. Also in residence are widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, Breakfast at Tiffany's), a secretary at the Department of Commerce, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray, Love and Bullets). When Helen's boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe, Birdman of Alcatraz) suggests a day trip for him and Helen, Klaatu offers to watch Bobby. The two tour D.C. together, visiting, among other places, the grave of Bobby's father at Arlington Cemetery. Klaatu is alarmed to discover that all the bodies in the cemetery are people who have died in wars, and begins to wonder if his mission is in vain. Klaatu contacts Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe, Lost Horizon), a leading American scientist, hoping that Barnhardt can get Klaatu access to the world's scientists. When Barnhardt inquires as to the consequences of Klaatu not delivering his message, Klaatu responds simply: "Planet Earth will be reduced to a cinder." Horrified, Barnhardt suggests that Klaatu provide a minor demonstration to get the world's attention. Klaatu returns to his ship to arrange the demonstration, unaware that Bobby has followed him.
The following day will see that demonstration, as well as the delivery of Klaatu's message -- albeit under slightly different circumstances than anyone could have foreseen. All the while, the enigmatic, indestructible Gort stands a silent vigil outside of Klaatu's spaceship, poised to fulfill a dire purpose...
Rewatching The Day the Earth Stood Still for the umpteenth time, the court was struck by the efficiency with which Robert Wise tells his story. Conspicuously absent are elaborate set pieces or chases, and a fairly simple montage shows the effects of Klaatu's demonstration (hint: The Earth stands still). That efficiency is what makes the movie work; any excess would have made the film's overt didacticism intolerable. When Klaatu arrives, all he knows about Earth is mankind's warlike nature; that's what makes the trip to Arlington so dangerous -- at that point, he may well have simply shrugged his shoulders and unleashed Gort. However, through his friendship with Helen and Bobby, he witnesses the basic decency of individuals -- and that dichotomy, the warlike versus the decent, is the fulcrum upon which the plot pivots.
While the movie can hardly be considered an actor's showcase, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Michael Rennie as Klaatu. And yes, that was a shot at Keanu. At the time, Rennie was unknown in the United States, and was just beginning to make a name for himself on the British stage. His slightly exaggerated facial features make it easy to accept him as an alien (Spencer Tracy was at one point considered for the part). In the commentary, Wise and Nicholas Meyer note that one of Rennie's strengths is his ability to let the audience see him thinking. That's critical for the part, as so much of the plot is driven by Klaatu's reactions to people and events, and it would grow tedious indeed were he have to explain his inner deliberations. Patricia Neal offers a worthy counterpart, assertive and warm at the same time.
Of course, all of you who already own the 2003 release want to know if this edition is worth the upgrade. The 2002 disc featured beautifully restored video and audio; that same transfer is used here. The remastered 2.0 track has been upgraded to 5.1, and while the rear channels don't have much to do, it's about as good a job going from mono to 5.1 as I've heard. Finally, an isolated score track lets you fully appreciate Bernard Herrmann's groundbreaking score.
And Lord, the extras! The commentary track with director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer is retained from the earlier release. It's not so much a commentary as an interview conducted while viewing the movie -- topics range from specific scenes to digital editing techniques (Wise edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as well as several of Val Lewton's RKO films). The making-of featurette is also retained, along with a MovieTone newsreel and several photo galleries. A new commentary track features several film and music historians and helps viewers appreciate the nuances of Herrmann's score (though one can't help but be struck by the irony that the soundtrack can't be heard during the commentary). Frankly, discussing the extras could take all day; the best thing about them collectively is that they cover not just the film, but the film's historical context. Additional featurettes cover screenwriter Edmund North and writer Harry Bates, whose short story "Farewell to the Master" was the basis for the film. There are two cherries on top of this sundae: A reading of "Farewell to the Master," and a live Theremin performance of the title theme. Here is the all-too-rare case where the extras provide both quantity and quality.
Useless trivia: This film was Sam Jaffe's last screen appearance before being blacklisted due to his supposed communist sympathies. He didn't work in Hollywood again until John Huston cast him in 1958's The Barbarian and the Geisha.
OK, so the movie's message isn't particularly subtle and a side effect of the plot's efficiency is some massive plot holes: Once Klaatu reveals himself to Professor Barnhardt, it defies comprehension that the government would let him return to the boarding house, but that's just what they do. In addition, security around Klaatu's ship is about as effective as a CTU perimeter on 24 (seriously, do those ever work?).
While someone will have to answer for the remake, Fox is nonetheless commended for pulling out all the stops for this re-release. Unless you are one of those people who have religious objections to double-dipping in any form, this upgrade is more than worthwhile.
Klaatu barada nikto. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Two Commentaries (one old, one new)
* Isolated Score Track (new)
* The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin (new)
* Main Title Performance by Peter Pringle (new)
* Making of Featurette
* Reading of "Farewell to the Master" (new)
* Fox Movietone Newsreels
* Decoding "Klaatu Brada Nikto" (new)
* Science Fiction as Metaphor (new)
* A Brief History of Flying Saucers (new)
* The Astounding Harry Bates (new)
* Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still (new)
* Race to Oblivion (new)
* Interactive Pressbook and Still Galleries
* Wikipedia: The Day the Earth Stood Still