“Klaatu Berada Nikto…”
As a fan of Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, I just had to do that. But Raimi’s masterpiece is not the subject of this article; rather a concerned alien visitor in the classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, now available on 2-disc special edition DVD from Twentieth Century Fox. No doubt the spawn of a marketing machine looking to cash in on the remake starring Keanu Reeves, this release should still be a welcome addition to the shelf of any classic cinema fan.
While the special effects are understandably dated, the film holds up due to a basic understanding of human nature, and a whole lot of heart. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to Earth with a warning for the leaders of the world. Their world will die if they cannot learn to start living together in peace and harmony. Even with the jaw-dropping phenomenon of a UFO landing in Washington and alien visitors speaking freely of “coming in peace” and “meaning no harm,” human beings remain skeptical to the point the leaders of the world refuse a meeting with the alien unless the summit takes place in each of their home countries. Taken aback by the bull-headedness of Earth’s governments, Klaatu escapes from his captors and sets out on a mission to understand the common citizen.
Along the way he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray). Helen is a widow. Her husband died in World War II, and she has since struggled with success to raise a decent, respectful young lad, who immediately takes to this new stranger. Billy quickly pegs Klaatu as a government agent. Helen thinks of him as just a kindly gentleman. Neither suspects the truth because Klaatu walks, talks, and acts, just like an ordinary human being… except that he values peace and understanding, and shows an intelligence that befuddles the minds of all, even the brilliant Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe).
As for the rest of the population, all possess a “shoot-first, no questions please” mentality, as well as a basic distrust of their leaders and neighbors. The motto of the human race appears to be “if you don’t understand something, kill it.” This representation makes The Day the Earth Stood Still as timely as ever, despite its filmmaking limitations. In 92 minutes, director Robert Wise crams more characterization into his morality tale than
(And I’m a Bay fan!)
I only make the comparison because Wise is working with a Bay-sized canvas here. Quick cuts and memorable characterizations pack a lot of story and personality into as short of a time as possible, and it’s all handled gracefully by the legendary director and his expertly cast players.
It’s a good-looking disc. Of course, the 57-year old film looks that way in 1.33:1 full frame and glorious black-and-white, but is that such a bad thing? The blacks are deep, the whites vibrant. It’s a swell dance of shadow and light, and the age marks are kept to a minimum, showing that Fox has really taken a lot of time and care in sifting out the deteriorations.
The enigmatic Bernard Hermann’s (Psycho) musical score ranges from otherworldly to eerie to foreboding. Always a bold effort, the full strength of the soundtrack shows with excellent Dolby 5.1 Surround mixing that does not overpower, nor does it skew to the low end on volume. A fine effort from Fox, this mix is accompanied by English, Spanish, and French monaural tracks.
Robert Wise (who also directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) deliver one of two audio commentaries. The other features film and music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg and Nick Redman. By far, the commentary featuring the two directors is superior. As a director, Meyer is a perfect mediator between Wise and the audience. He knows the right questions to keep Wise talking, and he asks them without hesitation. It’s a fast-moving, informative track, and well worth the listen.
Other features include seven all-new featurettes, a reading of the original Harry Bates short story on which the film is based, Fox Movietone News clips from 1951, trailers, Race to Oblivion documentary short, and a sneak peek of the upcoming remake.
A surprising array of extras and a solid A/V presentation only add to the fun of rediscovering The Day the Earth Stood Still for the solid piece of filmmaking it is. While the message is a little obvious, the story ultimately proves that great science fiction is not based on special effects or overwhelming action set-pieces. Rather, it’s no-tricks storytelling that relies on the development of its characters and the sanctity of its ideas.