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Our reviews of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): 2-Disc Special Edition (published December 15th, 2008), The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) (Blu-Ray) (published April 17th, 2009), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008): 3-Disc Special Edition (published April 7th, 2009) are also available.
From out of space…a warning and an ultimatum!
"I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason."
Facts of the Case
A flying saucer lands on earth. U.S. military men surround the saucer, shoot the human-like alien (Michael Rennie, Soldier of Fortune) that walks out of the ship, and watch Gort (the alien's pet robot) destroy their weapons. The alien is taken to a hospital, where government officials proceed to apologize about that rather unfortunate greeting. The alien recovers quickly, and introduces himself as Klaatu. He desires to speak to a group of all the world leaders. "Well, that can't really be arranged. Why don't you speak to the President first?" Klaatu declines. He's not going to play favorites. He has a message for the entire world, and he wants them all to hear it at the same time. When the government refuses to cooperate, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and spends his days posing as a normal human being. During this time, he befriends a kind woman (Patricia Neal, Cookie's Fortune) and her young son (Billy Gray, Father Know Best). As Klaatu makes friends and learns more about humanity, he searches for a way to get his message to the world. Nothing less than the fate of humanity is at stake.
Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still is an iconic cinematic landmark. Like the best science-fiction films, its themes are still resonant today, even if some of the cultural elements have dated the film a bit. In 1952, the film was given a special Golden Globe for being the "Best Film Promoting International Understanding." The film's desire to achieve that international understanding may seem a bit trite to some modern viewers, but it's important to remember just how brave Wise's film really was at the time. During 1951, with paranoia on the rise between Russia and the United States, making a film suggesting that we put our problems aside and look at the bigger picture was not an easy thing to do. Though The Day the Earth Stood Still mostly involves American characters, it refuses to grant Americans a sense of moral superiority. When a government official attempts to explain the evils of other countries to Klaatu, the alien dismisses such things as "petty squabbles." The film successfully manages to put the vast danger of nuclear warfare into perspective, and strongly suggests that dealing with such an explosive (bad pun intended) problem should outweigh any other concerns.
It's a message that lingers long after the film has concluded, and it's what prevents The Day the Earth Stood Still from being just another sci-fi B-movie. When you look at the film, you have to admit that it's not exactly a technical marvel. The spaceship could have been built by a local theater company, and Gort is a pretty cheesy-looking robot. Even so, the story is told with enough conviction to prevent unintentional laughter at the cheese factor. Actor Michael Rennie offers a reasonably persuasive lead performance that manages to sell the material effectively. Though Rennie perhaps attempts to be a bit too ethereal at times (undoubtedly in an attempt to reflect his alien nature, or perhaps the character's Christ-like aspects? it's no mistake that Klaatu takes on the name "Mr. Carpenter"), he makes a solid impression.
The film also sports one of the most important film scores of the 1950s, written by the immensely influential and gifted Bernard Herrmann. The score is well-remembered for its use of the Theremin, an other-worldly instrument with a very unique sound. The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of two science-fiction films from the early 1950s to memorably employ the instrument. The other was The Thing From Another World (scored by Dimitri Tiomkin), which was something of a right-wing mirror image of this film's left-wing agenda. Though I prefer Herrmann's work, both scores were immensely effective, and had both a positive and negative lasting impact. On one hand, the scores were so memorable that the Theremin quickly became "the sound of sci-fi," and was subsequently used frequently to portray strange, alien aspects of sci-fi flicks. On the other hand, the instrument became so typecast that few films outside the genre could employ it successfully without sending the wrong signal to audience members. Whereas once the Theremin had been used in standard dramatic films (most notably by Miklos Rozsa in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound), it was now confined to a specific area of cinema. Anyway, it's a fascinating score, and Herrmann arguably does even more work in terms of selling the material than most of the actors do.
I wish I could tell you The Day the Earth Stood Still looks nothing short of astonishing in hi-def, but that isn't really true. Oh, to be sure, it looks good. The Blu-ray release obviously looks better than any standard-def release, but the usual problems that afflict a film this old are still present. An inconsistent stream of scratches and flecks can be seen, as well as an acceptably minimal level of grain. There were a few moments when I wondered whether the DNR level was a bit high, as the actors very occasionally have that "plastic" look. Even so, I think the balance of natural grain and DNR is fairly acceptable. Blacks are moderately deep, and the black-and-white image is sharp and well-balanced. Facial detail is surprisingly strong for a film of this age, though background detail is a bit obscured. It's a decent transfer, and the audio here is even better. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is a vast improvement over the original mono track, with all of the sound design elements being distributed in a very satisfactory manner. Occasionally a surround sound remix on an older film like this will sound a bit awkward, but that isn't the case here. Also, the iconic Bernard Herrmann score has never sounded better, getting a very rich and immersive boost from the audio here. Of course, the original track is also available for the purists out there.
Plenty of new supplements have been created for the latest Blu-ray and DVD releases, though the Blu-ray disc gets a couple of exclusives. First up is a very unusual feature that permits viewers to create their own Theremin score. I had fun playing with this, but was deflated when my wife walked in the room and asked, "What sort of terrible music is that?" In my defense, the Theremin notes provided sound very synthetic and you don't have the option of using any flats or sharps. Ahem. Even so, I'm certainly no Bernard Herrmann. Musicians, use this feature at your own peril. This game is accompanied by two brief videos. "The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin" is a brief bit of history on the instrument, and we also get a 2-minute performance of the main title from Peter Pringle. The other hi-def exclusive is an interactive "Gort Command!" game. Basically, you kill people with your remote control. It's not very good, really.
Okay, moving on. Two audio commentaries are included, one of which is an older track with Robert Wise and director Nicolas Meyer. It's a solid effort, if a bit less remarkable than one might hope from these two. I really loved the new commentary from John Morgan, William Stromberg, Nick Redman, and Steven Smith. These guys are all very intelligent men with a passion for film music, and they primarily focus on Herrmann's score. It's a rather fine track, and is good enough to make this release a must-buy for fans of Herrmann. An isolated score track should seal the deal in that department.
There are numerous brand-new featurettes here, but first I should express one concern. The previous DVD release contained an 80-minute making-of documentary, and that is nowhere to be found here. Obviously, some of the info is duplicated in these featurettes, but you may want to hang on to that DVD if you're upgrading. That being said, the new stuff is quite good. First up is "The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still" (23 minutes), a quick but engaging piece on the film's creation. "Decoding Klaatu Barada Nikto: Science Fiction as Metaphor" (16 minutes) is a discussion of the film's political themes, and "A Brief History of Flying Saucers" (34 minutes) offers up the usual stories of people who have seen odd things in outer space. "The Astounding Harry Bates" (11 minutes) is a brief bio of the writer of the original story, and we also get some readings from the story in "Farewell to the Master." "Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still" is a similar tribute to the film's screenwriter, and "Race to Oblivion" is a brief documentary short directed by North. The disc also includes a 7-minute sneak peek at the disappointing remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves. Finally, we get a 1951 Fox Movietonews, a trailer, some still galleries, and an interactive pressbook. Despite the missing documentary, Fox has truly done a fine job with this release in the supplemental department.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It can be persuasively argued that the film's ideas are perhaps even more powerful than the actual film. Though The Day the Earth Stood Still has an important place in cinematic history due to its thought-provoking themes and groundbreaking elements, it's a bit stilted at times. Several of the supporting characters are somewhat flat, and lack much complexity. This is a simple and straightforward story, and unfortunately that simplicity extends a bit too much to the characterization at times. Though the movie is only ninety minutes long, I would venture that a good ten minutes of material could have been snipped without losing much.
Bearing in mind that the original DVD release contains the feature-length documentary that can't be found anywhere else, I do think that this Blu-ray release is worth an upgrade. The film should be a part of any collection, the hi-def transfer is respectable, and the supplements are terrific.
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