The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Edmund H. North (based on the story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates)
Stars: Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Prof. Jacob Barnhardt), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley), Lock Martin (Gort), Wheaton Chambers (Mr. Bleeker), Frank Conroy (Mr. Harley)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: U.S.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Blu-Ray
The Day the Earth Stood StillRobert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on the 1940 story “Farewell to the Master” by the prolific but now largely forgotten sci-fi writer and editor Harry Bates, is arguably the quintessential science fiction movie. First, it was unique when it appeared in theaters in 1951, a period when science fiction was extremely popular on the page, but had made only a few dents on the silver screen. Although movies about aliens and flying saucers would become de rigeur by the Eisenhower years of the mid-1950s, at the end of the Truman era they were something of an anomaly. More importantly, though, Wise’s film introduced the mass audience to the idea that science fiction, a genre that had little or no credibility at the time, could be a vehicle for significant social ideas (something serious readers of sci-fi pulp magazines had been well aware of for several decades). Although some of it may seem a bit quaint to today’s viewers, The Day the Earth Stood Still is nevertheless a monumental film, one that paved the way for virtually all other serious science fiction cinema that came in its wake.

The story opens with a flying saucer arriving in Washington, D.C., landing in the middle of that great symbol of Americana--a baseball diamond--after flying past all of the capitol’s most important monuments and buildings. It is immediately surrounded by armed soldiers, and soon the sleek hull of the spacecraft opens and out strides Klaatu, a handsome, articulate humanoid ambassador from an interstellar version of the United Nations. Klaatu was played by Michael Rennie, who was then an unknown theater actor cast specifically for his anonymous good looks and stern, yet approachable demeanor (director Robert Wise felt that a movie star like Spencer Tracy, who was originally considered for the role, would be too distracting). Klaatu states clearly that he has come in peace, but when he reaches inside his silvery tunic for a gift to present to the U.S. President, a trigger-happy soldier jumps to the conclusion that he is reaching for a weapon and shoots him.

Alas, Klaatu is only wounded, and after spending an evening in the hospital, he requests a meeting with all the Earth’s leaders so that he may deliver an important message. Not surprisingly (then or now), it is impossible for the Earth’s various political enemies to agree on anything, much less a place to meet an interstellar visitor, and in frustration Klaatu escapes the hospital and tries to blend in with human society in order to get a firsthand look at what humankind has to offer. He rents a room in an ordinary boarding house and befriends a widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her elementary-aged son, Billy (Bobby Benson). It is through his involvement with these “ordinary” people that Klaatu comes to realize that humankind has potential that its various leaders, bogged down as they are in ideological turmoil and self-centeredness, fail to exhibit.

Unlike most modern science fiction movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not a special effects extravaganza, although when FX is required, it is remarkably effective. The opening sequence depicting the saucer flying through the skies above Washington, D.C., and then landing on the baseball field are quite convincing, even though they hew closely to a 1950s ideal of what an alien arrival might look like (when first spotted, the saucer is a white light in the sky, quite reminiscent of various UFO photographs of the era). It is convenient, of course, that Klaatu looks completely human (it is never suggested that he ever looks anything but), although he arrives with a companion, a 10-foot robot named Gort (Lock Martin) that acts as his protector by disintegrating anything that poses a threat. While Gort’s supposedly impermeable metallic suit is obviously flexible in all the wrong places, the depiction of his destructive capabilities is credible enough. One of the film’s greatest effects, though, is the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, which relies heavily on the strangely evocative, electronic moanings of a Theremin. While the score, having been imitated and parodied thousands of times, now sounds like a sci-fi cliché, it was downright otherworldly in 1951 and strong evidence of Herrmann’s risk-taking genius.

As a piece of Cold War-era Hollywood filmmaking, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a particularly intriguing specimen. Most know that Klaatu’s message, which isn’t delivered until the film’s final moments, involves a warning about nuclear weapons and the dangers they pose, a deliberately unsubtle evocation of the era’s most heated hot-button issue. Yet, what is most interesting is Klaatu’s description of his own society’s solution to violence, which is nothing more than the threat of their own annihilation if they resort to warfare, hence the existence of Gort as one member of a massive police force that can destroy any planet that poses a threat to the rest of the universe. It is a decidedly mixed message, one that has been interpreted in multiple ways, most intriguingly as a reflection of the United States’ might-makes-right approach to global policing. At the same time, though, it can be seen as a thought-provoking contradiction, which posits that violence can be contained only through the threat of even greater violence.

The depiction of humanity in the film is decidedly mixed. While Helen and her all-American inquisitive son are obvious reflections of the best that humankind (or at least Western society) has to offer--that is to say, fundamentally decent and unassuming--there are less admirable representatives on hand, mostly notably Helen’s scheming fiancé, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe), an insurance salesman (natch) who, once he figures out who Klaatu is, can’t wait to turn him over to authorities and reap the benefits. All the military representatives and politicians are likewise questionable, while scientists, personified in the frizzy-haired, Albert Einstein-like physicist Prof. Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) are posited as the best path to Earth’s salvation. At the end of the film, humanity is given a reprieve, but on the condition that it takes Klaatu’s warning seriously and rethink its approach to international relations, a message that has great resonance even if no one seems to pay it much attention ... then or now.

The Day the Earth Stood Still Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese
  • Audio commentary by director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer
  • Audio commentary by film and music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg, and Nick Redman
  • Isolated Score Track
  • Exclusive “First Look” at the remake
  • “The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin” featurette
  • The Day The Earth Stood Still Main Title live performance by Peter Pringle
  • Interactive Theremin
  • Gort Command! interactive game
  • “The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still” featurette
  • “Decoding ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto’: Science Fiction as Metaphor” featurette
  • “A Brief History of Flying Saucers” featurette
  • “The Astounding Harry Bates” featurette
  • “Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still” featurette
  • “Race To Oblivion,” documentary short written and produced by Edmund North
  • “Farewell to the Master,” audio reading by Jamieson K. Price of the original Harry Bates short story
  • Interactive Pressbook
  • Fox Movietone News from 1951
  • Original theatrical trailer and teaser trailer
  • Advertising gallery
  • Behind-the-scenes gallery
  • Portrait gallery
  • Production gallery
  • Spaceship construction blueprints
  • Shooting script
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateDecember 2, 2008

    This is one of the oldest movies to be released so far in 1080p high definition, and it made me quite excited to see more. The 1.33:1 black-and-white image is very nicely reproduced with both excellent detail and naturalistic grain structure that gives it a pleasing, filmlike appearance that doesn’t look overly “digitized.” Grayscale looks good throughout, as do the black levels, and while there are a few brief instances of dirt, the image for the most part looks extremely clean, especially for a film nearing 60 years in age. The original monaural soundtrack has been remastered in DTS-HD 5.1 surround (the original monaural soundtrack is also included for purists), and while the limitations of the source material are apparent, I have never heard the film sound so good. Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic Theremin-heavy musical score envelopes you, and they have even managed to create some effective moments of directionality (notice the sound when the spaceship flies across the screen in the opening moments).
    While the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still on Blu-Ray is clearly a calculated marketing ploy to coincide with the theatrical release of the big-budget remake, you can’t fault 20th Century Fox given that they have invested in a number of new supplements to complement those already reproduced from their 2003 “Studio Classics” DVD. So, for example, in addition to the already available audio commentary by director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer (director of several sci-fi movies, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which followed Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture), we also get a new feature commentary by film and music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg, and Nick Redman. Both commentaries are fascinating and full of useful and intriguing information, and they complement each other nicely. The Blu-Ray disc also gives us the new option of listening to Bernard Herrmann’s innovative and influential musical score on an isolated DTS-HD 5.1 surround track.

    The majority of the new supplements, though, are featurettes. There is a whole section that focuses on the film’s use of the Theremin. “The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin” (6 min.) introduces us to the history of this odd electronic instrument. We can also listen to musician and Theremin historian Peter Pringle giving a live performance of the film’s main title music, and then play with the “Interactive Theremin,” which allows you to manipulate a dozen or so notes and create your own score for the film’s landing sequence. “The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still” (23 min.) is a solid retrospective featurette that includes new interviews with various film historians and critics (there are also excerpts from archival interviews with director Robert Wise and producer Julian Blaustein). “Decoding ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto’: Science Fiction as Metaphor” (16 min.) discusses the film’s social and political relevance with a number of notable film historians and scholars, including Vivian Sobchack and Guy Beckwith. To put the film in another context, we have “A Brief History of Flying Saucers” (34 min.), an absolutely fascinating look at America’s obsession with unidentified flying objects, with the majority of the focus being on the Roswell incident in 1947. “The Astounding Harry Bates” (11 min.) gives due credit to the now forgotten author of the original short story on which the film is based, while “Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still” (15 min.) looks at the life and work of the film’s socially conscious screenwriter. North’s 1982 anti-nukes short film Race to Oblivion, which was made as a public service announcement for the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and is hosted by Burt Lancaster, is also included. Other new supplements are an audio recording of voice actor Jamieson K. Price reading Bates’s original short story “Farewell to the Master,” an interactive press book, and a seven-minute preview of the upcoming remake. About the only new supplement that doesn’t hold much interest is Gort Command!, yet another in a long line of lame games made for DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

    Returning from the “Studio Classics” DVD are 6 minutes of Fox Movietone News excerpts from the early 1950s, the original theatrical and teaser trailers, and five stills galleries (advertising, behind-the-scenes, portraits, production, spaceship construction blueprints, and the original shooting script). However, the 70-minute documentary Making the Earth Stand Still is not included, so those who liked that supplement might want to hold on to their old DVDs.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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