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Blu-ray Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) is a science fiction classic and in The Odyssey File, which featured correspondence between Arthur C. Clarke and 2010 director Peter Hyams, Clarke dubbed it the seventh greatest film of all time in 1983, one place ahead of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke co-wrote.

A spaceship lands in a park in Washington D.C. An alien, Klaatu, walks out, claiming to come in peace and goodwill. As he approaches with a device in his hand, a nervous soldier shoots him. This causes the robot Gort to emerge and destroy all weapons nearby with its laser beam. Klaatu is taken into custody and held at a military hospital, Gort goes into standby mode, and the military attempt to get into the spaceship.

Klaatu wishes to speak to the leaders of the world, but is told that can’t happen. Wanting to learn more about Earthlings, Klaatu escapes to live among them and takes up at a boarding house where he meets Helen and her young son Bobby. When Helen and her boyfriend Tom go away for the afternoon, Klaatu, who has taken the name Mr. Carpenter, offers to baby-sit. Bobby takes Klaatu on a tour around the city, including the Lincoln Memorial. Klaatu wonders who will be receptive to his message, and after talking with Bobby without explaining his purpose, he learns of the scientist Professor Barnhardt. After proving his bona fides to Barnhardt, Klaatu talks about the dangers of atomic power. The professor says that a show of power is required to get the world’s attention. Klaatu provides one, unaware that Bobby followed him to his spaceship. Bobby tells his mother and Tom, who don’t know what to make of his story.

Unfortunately, Klaatu’s demonstration has unintended consequences. The Americans now fear him and a desperate manhunt begins. Tom informs the authorities about Klaatu, who reveals himself to Helen. He tells her that if anything happens, she must tell Gort what has become a memorable line of movie dialogue, “Klaatu barada nikto.” Naturally, something happens to Klaatu, sending Helen rushing to find the re-animated Gort, but will it be too late to save mankind?

What’s most impressive about TDTESS is its simplicity. The science fiction elements don’t overwhelm the story. It comes across as a straightforward tale due to Robert Wise’s economical directing, which creates an aura so real and natural the film could almost pass as a documentary. This is due in part to the limited budget provided by Fox. A major highlight is composer Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score, which featured a theremin.

There are some obvious parallels to Christ mythology. Klaatu comes to offer a message of peace; he takes the name Carpenter, which was Jesus’ profession; and others that are spoilers. In Melvin E. Matthews’ Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today's News: 1950s Science Fiction Films and 9/11, screenwriter Edmund North is quoted about his changing  the story: “It was my private little joke. I never discussed this angle with [producer Julian] Blaustein or Wise because I didn't want it expressed. I had originally hoped that the Christ comparison would be subliminal.”

With the remake/reimagining hitting theaters, 20th Century Fox have decided to re-release the 1951 original, a classic science fiction film. This 2008 edition finds the special features augmented with new material and the film debuting on Blu-ray.

The video is presented full frame 1.33:1. The black-and-white picture looks superb, so thank goodness the studio didn’t colorize it. There’s a lot of great texture detail, from clothing to the streets at nighttime. However, the effect shots are more obvious, including the wires that hold up Helen as Gort carries her. One scene showing workers standing around had some slight distortion, causing the bottom corner to look out of focus, but that could have been the from the original film itself as opposed to the high-definition transfer because the material looks like stock footage.

The audio is good, but it doesn’t have a lot to do. Other than the score, the surround doesn’t offer much, which is a good thing according to Wise on the commentary track, as he sees no need to distract the audience from the screen in front of them. When Klaatu’s ship first appears in the sky, the sound tracks across the front speakers as it travels across the frame. It also creates some good bass when it lands. The original mono track is included.

Special features that have transferred from the 2002 DVD release include a commentary track with Wise interviewed by director Nicholas Meyer, a Fox Movietone News reel, the theatrical trailer, and promotional galleries.

There are plenty of new special features. An all-new commentary track by film and music historians opens by providing more focus on Hermann and his work before examining the film and its participants. The “Isolated Score Track” is just that, but it would be great if there was a way to jump to it rather than suffering through silence. Even more music-focused features with “The Mysterious Melodious Theremin,” explaining the instrument’s origins, and “Main Title Live Performance by Peter Pringle” is impressive to watch the theremin in use.

A number of new features also look at the film’s creation and creators. “The Making of TDTESS” is a 24-minute featurette that interviews cast, crew members, and historians. It’s less than a third of the 80-minute documentary that was a 2002 DVD extra. The writers get a better spotlight than usual with the following: “The Astounding Harry Bates” wrote the original story. It can be heard on “Farewell to the Master: A Reading by Jamieson K. Price of the Original Harry Bates Short Story,” 97 minutes that bring to mind a radio drama. The screenwriter gets his 15 minutes of fame with “Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still.” Nuclear proliferation was an important topic to North, so also included is “Race to Oblivion,” an interesting 1982 P.S.A. about nuclear disarmament hosted by Burt Lancaster, who speaks to a woman who survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

And that’s not all. There's “Decoding ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto:’ Science Fiction as Metaphor,” which looks at the film in the context of its time. “A Brief History of Flying Saucers” is a serious look at the subject of U.F.O.s. There’s audio from Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 incident at Mt. Ranier; discussion of Roswell, New Mexico; and some alleged footage. It is interesting to hear how some believe the contactees have spoiled the notion, but the feature’s inclusion is questionable as it really doesn’t fit with the film.

The Blu-ray exclusives couldn’t be more different. “Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score” is a great feature where you get to select eight one-second notes and one rest to create 30 seconds of music to accompany Gort’s first appearance. “Gort Command! Interactive Game” is a complete waste of time where you look out of Gort’s visor, moving around to shoot people and vaporize them.

Don’t stand still. Get The Day The Earth Stood Still into your video library. Serious fans of the film will at the very least want to rent this to see the new features.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS