A subversive Sci-Fi movie about a climate of fear. Thank goodness things are different now!
Hollywood has finally dared to remake what is probably the most revered Science Fiction film of the Golden Era. Newly released in a beautifully mastered Blu-ray edition, the original 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still has gripping suspense courtesy of director Robert Wise and a riveting music score by Bernard Herrmann. Neither its excitement nor its pacifist message has diminished in the slightest. But is it still relevant today?
Screenwriter Edmund H. North used the Sci-Fi genre as camouflage for a political statement that would not have been allowed in an ordinary drama. At a time when American filmmakers were being blacklisted for their political beliefs, North's screenplay dared to promote the full pacifist agenda -- internationalist cooperation, anti-militarism and a one-world mentality.
The Day the Earth Stood Still presents a different vision of America than the one found in alarmist newspaper headlines. Caught in the Cold War's pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, America's conflict with the Communist bloc threatens the world with full-scale nuclear war. When the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington D.C., he faces tanks and cannon and is shot down by a nervous soldier. Our governmental envoy dismisses a meeting with all the nations of the world as totally impractical, preferring that Klaatu confab privately with the President.
Meanwhile, the radio, television and newspapers spread scare hysteria about a "creature" loose in the city. A radio pundit recommends that Klaatu be hunted down like a dog. An opinionated matron is certain that Klaatu and his flying saucer are really from Russia. Americans are just plain afraid in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and fear breeds aggression. Victorious in war, enjoying prosperity while most nations struggle, the country nevertheless sees itself as threatened from all sides by invisible enemies. Producer Julian Blaustein's lowly Science Fiction movie might be the most subversive film of the Cold War.
Had The Day the Earth Stood Still been proposed a year later at the full height of the witch hunts, Hollywood reactionaries would probably have kept it from being made. Writers and directors were losing their careers because of previous political associations and unproven slander. 20th Fox's Darryl Zanuck hired Sam Jaffe (Professor Barnhardt) over the objection of his own casting department, as the actor was already on unofficial blacklists.
The film's poetic title should have been the tip-off -- why not something more direct, like "Flying Saucer over the Capitol" or "The Death Ray from Space"? Most movies about outer space were much more conservative. Over at RKO, Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks contributed to the space craze with The Thing from Another World, which promoted the idea that our military guardians should not be answerable to misinformed politicians and politically suspect scientists. The government touted space research as scientific idealism, but almost every movie about space travel voiced the need to put nuclear weapons into orbit as a means of suppressing our enemies. Only a few Sci-Fi movies sympathized with space visitors or criticized human aggression. Virulently anti-militaristic, The Day the Earth Stood Still is the most courageous of the bunch.
The military decides that the fugitive spaceman is a deadly threat and declares Martial Law in the nation's Capitol. "Shoot to Kill" orders are issued for Klaatu, but Soldiers and government agents behave politely and treat Dr. Barnhardt and his fellow scientists with respect. North's script refuses to characterize the rank and file Army as incompetent or malign. The film's only actual fatalities appear to be an innocent pair of soldiers disintegrated by Gort's death ray.
Klaatu initially shows little patience for our rules, but human contact softens his outlook. In addition to Helen Benson, a war widow (Patricia Neal), he meets Professor Barnhard (Jaffe), a famous scientist clearly modeled after Albert Einstein. As were many scientist-intellectuals that disagreed with government policy, Einstein was considered a security risk. By helping Klaatu, both Barnhardt and Helen become Cold War traitors, aiding and abetting a foreigner considered a dangerous terrorist. The professor helps Klaatu prepare a dramatic but harmless demonstration of power to convince the Earth that his Federation of Planets means business. Klaatu is no Mohandas Gandhi, but an intergalactic policeman delivering a grave Ultimatum.
Klaatu also meets Helen's fiancé, salesman Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). The opportunistic Stevens informs on Klaatu in hopes of becoming a wealthy big shot, with his "picture in all the papers." His greed and ambition express an all-too familiar American attitude: "I don't care about the rest of the world!"
It's surprising that the Hollywood censors didn't object to this clear criticism of mainstream American values. They did, however, react to the script on religious grounds, insisting that dialogue be added to credit the power of life and death to "the almighty spirit" instead of science. Klaatu may be an alien, but he's a church-going kind of guy.
So the question is this: fifty-seven years later, does a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still make sense? Klaatu's original mission was to warn humanity to refrain from taking its nuclear weapons into outer space. Will the issue now be something different, like Global Warming?
When Klaatu '08 lands, will he be welcomed or attacked? Will anybody listen to him? What role will the media play? Will political pundits stampede the citizenry into blind fear, as in the 1951 movie?
Sixty years ago only intellectuals and French critics analyzed movies in search of secondary political content. Today, practically every movie and TV show is assumed to have a political agenda. Spielberg's War of the Worlds has been described as a metaphor for the Iraq occupation, and the TV show "24" endorses the use of torture against insidious foreign enemies. Whatever the politics of the new The Day the Earth Stood Still are, they'll be the first thing mentioned in reviews. Will the new movie celebrate brute force, as do so many post- 9/11 thrillers? Or will it shift blame to the Army by presenting soldiers as faceless villains? The original show is often identified as a Christ allegory, an angle that was also not acknowledged in 1951. Will the Keanu Reeves Klaatu be a blatant Jesus figure, or an angel with a fiery sword? Let's hope that this new remake is worthy of its vintage predecessor, and goes in its own, original direction.
Fox's new release of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is the first 50's Sci-Fi classic to be presented in Blu-ray. The restored, remastered B&W film looks and sounds immaculate. The movie's clean lines and simple compositions only improve with the added detail. We can see tiny human figures running away from Klaatu's space ship as it lands on the D.C. Mall, and the imperfections in both the ship and the rubber Gort costume are much more in evidence. Watch Gort's arms and legs carefully and you'll see that more than one shot reveals the large laces on the side meant to face away from the camera.
Snappy second unit photography in Washington, D.C. lends the proceedings a strong feeling of realism. Klaatu lands in broad daylight (he's on a mission of peace, after all) but most of the film's later scenes take place at night, under eerie lighting that complements Bernard Herrmann's sensational music score. The remixed soundtrack is sharper and more defined than I've ever heard it before; in the lossless Blu-ray audio format Gort's ray blasts are a marvel of audio construction, with sound effects nested inside sound effects. In addition to Spanish and French tracks, an isolated score track is included. Much of the film unspools with a documentary-like directness; Herrmann's cues are used almost exclusively in scenes involving alien activity.
Some worthy extras from the previous Studio Classics DVD are not present. Older copies are worth saving for interviews with Robert Wise and contributions by the likes of Bob Burns, Robert Skotak and Joe Dante. The older commentary by Robert Wise and writer-director Nicholas Meyer has been retained, accompanied by a music-centric new commentary with Nick Redman and three music historians. The Trailer Park and Cloverland companies contribute a number of all-new featurettes, several of which are quite educational. The Making of ... is an acceptable overview piece featuring input from Steven Jay Rubin, one of the first writers to research the creation of classic 1950s Sci-Fi films. Decoding "Klaatu Barada Nikto": Science Fiction as Metaphor interprets the film's famous quote. Fat galleries of stills and artwork are included along with an interactive press book.
The Astounding Harry Bates and Edmund North, the Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still are respectful tributes to the film's authors. Jamieson K. Price recites Bates' original short story Farewell to the Master. The best new extra is A Brief History of Flying Saucers, an excellent analysis of the flying saucer craze as examined by cultists, debunkers and the commercial opportunists of Roswell, New Mexico. It offers several famous bits of saucer footage, most of which look terribly phony. The piece concludes by stating Carl Jung's theory that the saucer craze is a form of social hysteria, a search for a new God to replace the old.
The fun continues with three items based on the use of the electronic Theremin in the film's soundtrack. Musician Peter Pringle gives us a rundown on the unusual musical instrument, and then plays the opening theme from the film. Exclusive to Blu-ray is an interactive Create Your Own Score feature that allows one to sequence Theremin notes and then see them played atop a movie scene. A shooting gallery game called Gort Command! is also a Blu-ray exclusive.
On the more serious side is a montage of newsreel clips from the early 'Fifties, showing the media suspicion and contempt for our Communist foes. Contrasting that is Edmund North's 1982 film Race to Oblivion, made for an anti-nuke coalition of doctors. It features doctors and scientists proclaiming the unsurvivabilty of a nuclear war. Activist actor Burt Lancaster interviews a scarred Los Angeles nurse who was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing. Back in the early 1950s, political advocacy films of this kind were considered traitorous propaganda.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day The Earth Stood Still Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent +
Supplements: See above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2008
Republished by arrangement with Film.com
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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