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The Day the Earth Stood Still

(1951) **** G
92 min. 20th Century Fox. Cast: Billy Gray, Lock Martin, Drew Pearson, Edith Evanson.


Science fiction and fantasy rule 21st Century Hollywood, but back when 20th Century Fox was an accurate moniker, science fiction was regarded largely as the province of B movies. So The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951's breakthrough science-fiction classic was something of a gamble. Even with up-and-coming director Robert Wise at the helm, a politically tinged science-fiction film without a marquee star was far from a sure thing, but thanks to Darryl F. Zanuck's gut, science-fiction not only got the "A" treatment it deserved but also an enduring film property with an unforgettable catch phrase ("Klaatu barada nikto"). Now if only today's filmmakers would remember to incorporate socially conscious themes along with the robots, chases, and explosions, science fiction could regain some artistic ground. And no, remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves doesn't count.

Based on Harry Bates' pulp short story "Farewell to the Master," The Day the Earth Stood Still puts a spin on the classic "first contact" scenario. Unlike the archetypal alien bent on conquest, the urbane humanoid Klaatu (British thespian Michael Rennie, in his first American film) comes in peace. Unfortunately, he's greeted with gunfire when a gift is misinterpreted as a sign of aggression. When the error is sorted out, Klaatu still offers an olive branch of sorts: he implores an American representative to arrange a summit of global leaders in order to make a crucial announcement about the salvation of planet Earth. No can do, he's told. World leaders are too self-protective to allow someone else to determine a meeting place and, worse, too suspicious of each other to gather in one place at all.

So Klaatu goes to ground and walks amongst the people under the guise of "Mr. Carpenter" (screenwriter Edmund H. North invited "Christ figure" interpretations, though Wise maintained ignorance on that point until after the film was released). Klaatu/Carpenter takes a room in a boarding house (run by "Aunt Bee" Frances Bavier); there he meets single mother Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), her son Bobby Benson (Billy Gray) and Helen's stick-in-the-mud boyfriend Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). Accompanied by Billy, Klaatu also ventures out to Arlington National Cemetery (where he explains that where he comes from, "they have cemeteries, but not like this one. You see, they don't have any wars"), the Lincoln Memorial ("That's the kind of man I would like to talk to"), and the home of smartest-man-alive Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe, in his last role before being definitively blacklisted).

/content/films/3280/2.jpgNaturally, the American military can't be trusted in their pursuit of Klaatu, and trouble looms in the undelivered message. The Day the Earth Stood Still may play corny today, but its message about global harmony still resonates, and it's important to remember how sensationally vital it was to an early-'50s audience full of post-Hiroshima neuroses as the Korean and Cold Wars were heating up. The film holds out hope for the United Nations that has yet to be fulfilled, but North's skill at working politics and philosophy into drama make The Day the Earth Stood Still model science-fiction. Plus it has a flying saucer, ray guns, and a giant robot named Gort (Lock Martin). Wise's matter-of-fact skill gives the film a documentary pulse, weirded up brilliantly by Bernard Herrmann's seminal theremin score.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 1.0

Street date: 12/2/2008

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox's fantastic new Blu-ray special edition of The Day the Earth Stood Still launches with a "Sneak Peek" (7:49, HD) of the new remake. Then it's on to a transfer with a glorious black-and-white image that's clean, detailed, and lacking in any digital artifacts. Sound is offered in both a robust and well-adapted DTS-HD Master 5.1 Surround mix and (thankfully) the original Mono soundtrack for purists.

One of the all-time great DVD commentaries, by director Robert Wise & Nicholas Meyer (director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), is preserved here. Two fine filmmakers chat chummily about their craft (and trade Star Trek stories, when relevant), with Meyer interviewing Wise about his filmmaking methodology in terms of coverage, editing, rehearsing with actors, and so on. Both are in good form and share a healthy sense of humor, and Wise retells for posterity some of the key stories about the film's production. Bernard Herrmann fans (and who isn't?) can also thrill to an isolated score track and a separate, wonderfully scholarly and enthusiastic commentary by film & music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg & Nick Redman.

A Blu-ray exclusive, The World of the Theremin includes "The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin" (5:40, HD) with musician Peter Pringle giving the history and a demonstration of the theremin, the self-explanatory "The Day the Earth Stood Still Main Title Live Performance by Peter Pringle" (2:17, HD) and Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score, a nifty feature allowing one to piece together a composition and apply it to a 30-second scene from the film.

Another Blu-ray exclusive, Gort Command: Interactive Game allows the viewer to aim Gort's crosshairs, using the remote control, and fire away! Each level ends with a review of your accuracy in targeting.

"The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still" (23:52, HD) is a very fine, brand-new, compact making-of doc, gathering film historian Steven Jay Rubin, Julian Blaustein's widow Florence Blaustein, Julian Blaustein (archival), Robert Wise (archival), The Films of Robert Wise author Richard Keenan, Wise's daughter Pamela Conrad Rosenberg, Wise's widow Millicent Wise, actor Billy Gray, film director Lewis Gilbert, aerospace historian Curtis Peebles, actress Patricia Neal, Auburn University professor Guy V. Beckwith, and author Steven Smith. NOTE: DVD owners may want to hang on to their original disc for its alternate, 81-minute doc "Making the Earth Stand Still."

"Decoding 'Klaatu Barada Nikto': Science Fiction as Metaphor" (16:14, HD) deals with the film's embedded themes, political and religious subtexts, and the meaning of that famous catch phrase. Participants include Keenan, film producer Arnold Orgolini, Peebles, Beckwith, Florence Blaustein, London School of Economics professor Arne Westad, Edmund North's daughter Susie North, Julian Blaustein (archival), author Vivian Sobchack, Rubin, Wise (archival), and Gray.

"A Brief History of Flying Saucers" (34:02, HD) is exactly that, in a fascinating half-hour with George Adamski Foundation director Glenn Steckling, Peebles, author Gregory L. Reece, journalist/author Dr. David Clarke, UFO researcher Dennis Balthaser, Roswell Convention & Civic Center director Dusty Huckabee, International UFO Museum & Research Center executive director Julie Shuster, author Thomas J. Carey, Saucer Smear newsletter editor James W. Moseley, author Major Donald Keyhoe (archival), retired radar engineer Robert Gardenghi, U.S. Air Force Director of Intelligence Major General John Samford (archival), radar systems analyst Glenn Van Blaricum, PhD, author Susan Clancy, PhD, skeptical author & podcaster Brian Dunning, author and Skeptic Magazine publisher Dr. Michael Shermer, and City of Roswell marketing director Renee Roach.

"The Astounding Harry Bates" (11:03, HD) profiles the story's original author and his sad decline into obscurity. Sobchack, Tor Books senior editor David G. Hartwell, writer/researcher Bob Gay, Harry Bates (archival), Locus Magazine publisher/editor Charles N. Brown, author Lawrence Davidson, and radio interviewer Richard Wolinsky participatet.

"Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still" (14:43, HD) tells of the career and personality of the film's screenwriter, with Gilbert, daughters Susie North and Bobbie North, Orgolini, film historian John Cork, and Florence Blaustein.

"Race to Oblivion" (26:52, SD) is a 1982 documentary short written & produced by Edmund H. North, and hosted by Burt Lancaster. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, it raises voices against global self-destruction, as by nuclear proliferation.

"'Farewell to the Master': A Reading by Jamieson K. Price of the Original Harry Bates Short Story" offers an opportunity to hear the complete text of the original short story.

Contemporary to the film, "Fox Movietonews (1951)" (6:21, SD) includes a report on an award bestowed on the film by the New Orleans Science Fiction Convention.

Rounding out the disc are a "Teaser Trailer" (1:04, SD) "Theatrical Trailer" (2:09, SD), "The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 Trailer" (1:47, HD) and Galleries including Interactive Pressbook, Advertising, Behind-the-Scenes, Portrait, Production, Spaceship Construction Blueprints, and the complete Shooting Script. Any self-respecting science-fiction fan or film lover cannot afford to be without this terrific special edition.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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