The Day The Earth Stood Still (Two-Disc Special Edition)
(Fox) (2 DVDs)
In stores: Now
The early 50s were a dangerous time, but not everyone saw it that way.
Though “progress” was the name of the game, and many Americans were experiencing unprecedented wealth, it was also a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Americans were getting into a new war in Korea. At the same time, most citizens sincerely thought if they just ducked and covered in their bomb shelters they wouldn’t feel any effects of an atomic bomb. More important, a number of Americans were being persecuted, prosecuted and generally exiled based on just the allegation of having Communist sympathies.
Of course, some citizens of the U.S. of A. saw things a tad more clearly. Two of them were future Oscar-winning scriptwriter Edmund North (Patton) and director Robert Wise (West Side Story, Sound of Music) . They were both associates of the Hollywood 10, and were more than just a tad concerned about their own careers.
That’s when North’s fellow World War II veteran and Fox producer Julian Blaustein stepped into the picture. He was incredibly impressed by a short story by a truly eccentric science fiction writer named Harry Bates. By the time North was finished with it, much of the original story concept had been seriously revised, but what he wrought in its place would become a sci-fi cinematic classic.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of the first true cautionary tales of its day. It took a concept H.G. Wells dominated a few years back, that of using sci-fi symbolism to discuss the evils of the present, for maximum effect. Wise then set everything up in a very straightforward story that resounds even today, nearly 60 years after the film’s release.
For instance, in future interviews North never denied that his lead character’s arrival, the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie), was a metaphor for the Second Coming. It’s as easy to see as the name Klaatu chose when he decided to walk among humanity, “Carpenter.” North didn’t even try to disguise the current state of world events. It’s as plain as the big screen in front of you when Klaatu initially requests a meeting with all Earth’s leaders, and the U.S. Government representative Hardy says that would be more difficult than it sounds. Just the way that trigger-happy soldiers shoot the visiting alien—the second time fatally—was a comment of how North felt could happen if you-know-who came down from the heavens to deliver a warning.
Still, the big message was equally plain. Earth’s denizens were a dangerous breed. They had just started developing space travel and had already slaughtered millions with “crude” atomic bombs. Other sentient races—not planets—couldn’t take the chance of mankind spreading their obvious taste for destruction outside of the Solar System. Mankind had to learn to live peacefully, or Klaatu’s big buddy Gort (Lock Martin) would do something about it. Something absolutely final.
What truly matters about this film though is the message wasn’t the only superlative thing going down with the original version of Earth. The relatively unknown Rennie, this was his first Hollywood film ever, provided a true text book example of what would now be called an understated performance. It makes you understand why, as explained in the extra content, why he got the role over such true box office masters such as Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains. Other cast members included future Oscar winner Patricia Neal, longtime Orson Welles colleague Sam Jaffe and acting veteran France Bavier (best remembered as Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea).
Wise’s direction should also be noted. While he made the film with an incredibly straightforward plot, he then proved he was an editor of Eisenstein proportions by employing masterful montage techniques throughout the movie. Addison Hehr and Lyle Wheeler’s superlative art direction was both simple and elegant. To finish it off, the legendary Bernard Hermann provided one of his greatest and most unforgettable scores ever.
Put this all together, and it’s easy to see why the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still is now considered one of the 250 greatest movies of the 20th Century.
If just having the movie isn’t good enough, this new package released in time to coincide with the inferior remake currently in theaters comes with enough extra content to make it a true must have. Not only does it come with film commentary from Wise and longtime friend, director Nicholas (Star Trek II) Meyer, it includes incredible biographies of North, Bates and Hermann. There’s also a reading of the original Bates short story that’s as fascinating as the movie itself. There’s even sections on the concept of science fiction as metaphor and just what “Klaatu Barada Nikto” just might mean. The kicker is a Fox news reel about the times in which the film was released.
In all, a superlative film such as this deserves a similar package. That’s just what you get in this 2-disc set.
So yes, The Day The Earth Stood Still may have been a product of the very early 1950’s,. At the same time it’s an eternal masterpiece that never can be duplicated.
Newsarama Note: The original version of this review suggested that the US unilaterally invaded Korea. It has since been chnaged.