The Day The Earth Stood Still review by The Grim Ringler

The Day the Earth Stood StillDVD Edition

Somewhere between the nineteen-fifties and the modern era science fiction films lost something, and have yet to get that lost ‘something’ back. Maybe it was that the earlier sci-fi films were made in a time when the world was a much bigger, scarier place, and the outside universe was a nightmare that Man had yet to even venture into. Maybe we are less fearful of alien invaders, of nuclear mishaps, and a vague threat from beyond. Or maybe it’s as simple as no one really gives much of a damn to make really good ones anymore. Sure, there are some, but it’s very rare that one has the impact and resonance that the earlier science fiction films do, which is why The Day the Earth Stood Still is such a marvelous film for any fan of the sci-fi genre.

Set during a time when Americans feared the Red Menace, and when World War II was still very much in the hearts and minds of the American people, The Day the Earth Stood Still captures the fear and paranoia the United States had during that era and that culminated in the McCarthy hearings. During a beautiful day in Washington D.C. a mysterious space craft lands in the middle of a baseball field and from it steps a strange visitor claiming to come in peace. Fearful of an object he has brought as an offering to the American president, the stranger is shot and wounded and his robot companion, a sleek silver thing standing well over eight feet tall, lashes out at its master’s attackers. The stranger halts its protector though before too much damage can be done and goes willingly with the military personnel to a local hospital to get looked at. Upon meeting with a representative of the president, the stranger, Klaatu, reveals that he has a message for all the people of the earth and wishes to speak to the earth’s leaders to convey this message. Sadly though the world’s people are too suspicious of one another to allow such a meeting to happen and Klaatu is faced with the only option of relaying his message to the American president in the hopes that it won’t be used as a further means of polarizing the world community. Knowing he has to try to get his message to the world, and not allow it to be used selfishly by one nation, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and takes up residence at a local boarding house in the hopes of learning more about humans and whether or not his message will even be heard or whether it will fall on deaf ears. What he finds are a mother and son that he begins to bond with and to trust, trust enough eventually, with his secret. But time is growing short for Klaatu for he must relay his message and fulfill his mission as soon as possible, lest something happen to him and the wrath of Gort, his robotic golem, fall upon a helpless earth.

This is sadly the kind of science fiction that is rarely made these days. There are special effects, sure, but the story is what is the focus, as is the message that all things and all peoples are connected in a chain and that if one begins down a path of violence, it affects all other races and peoples. Director Wise knew that if the film wasn’t made correctly it would be a farce, a silly movie about a giant robot and a strange alien running around D.C., but he approached the film seriously, respectfully, and it shows in every scene as fate of Klaatu and indeed the earth is held in the hands of a fearful military that prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. The acting throughout is very well done, save perhaps for the hammy acting of Hugh Marlowe, who is actually raked over the coals pretty well on the commentary track for the film. But it is Michael Rennie’s compassionate Klaatu that gives the film its heart, voice, and soul. And it is his final plea with earth to change its path or face the wrath of a greater universe that fears the violent human race, that serves as a better climax than any gun battle could ever hope to. Also of note is a wonderful score by legend Bernard Hermann which was one of the first uses of the obscure but instantly recognizable Theromond in a sci-fi movie.

Making the film all the more poignant is its message of learning to live peacefully in the nuclear age, a time when Man has created a means to destroy all things in existence with the press of a button. And that the filmmakers had the guts to make this film during the height of the cold war, and during a period in modern American history when we were still coming to grips with our new role as the world’s policeman. Klaatu’s final speech, if overdone, becomes a sermon, or the film equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teachers – Wah, wah, wah – but Rennie delivers on the scene with aces and leaves the people of the earth, and the people watching the film, with some very hard questions they will have to answer.

The image on the DVD is gorgeous and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch this masterfully shot film in all its black and white glory. The sound is very low key save for the score, but then that was part by the director’s mandate of not taking the attention away from the screen, and in part a limitation of that era’s technology. The commentary for the film is interesting and is helped by there being someone to prompt director Wise. The other supplements, namely the documentary and even the photo galleries seem suspiciously as if they were cribbed from a previous laserdisc release and while the doc is very well done, it has an awful intro, and some very sloppy scene transitions. But the doc is very informative and has some very good insights by director Joe Dante.

Overall this is a wonderful disc from Fox of a brilliantly made film. I wish that the documentary were perhaps done a little better, with more interviews with other directors and writers influenced by this seminal film, but heck it’s worth the purchase for the film alone. This is what science fiction can be, if done with intelligence, heart, and skill. I hope that we see more modern films achieve this kind of depth again.


10 out of 10 Jackasses

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