DVD/BD - Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe
screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates
directed by Robert Wise
by Bill Chambers Fusing charm and menace to singularly imposing effect, Michael Rennie is Klaatu, a man who falls to Earth bearing important news for humankind only to be silenced almost immediately upon exiting his flying saucer in a case of the U.S. army literally shooting the messenger. His entreaty to the leaders of the free world to put aside their "stupidity" and let him hold a global press conference having fallen on deaf ears, a healed Klaatu breaks out of the military facility in which he's being kept prisoner and embarks on a fish-out-of-water scenario, adopting the name "Mr. Carpenter" and landing in the home of single mother Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her excitable son Bobby (Billy Gray). Old-fashioned American jealousy soon jeopardizes Klaatu's "plan B"--to receive assistance in spreading his gospel from the Einstein-like Prof. Barnhardt (a haunted Sam Jaffe)--when Helen's boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe), feeling threatened by the new border, decides to play detective.
A film that rationalizes the hiring of Robert Wise--best known for his large-scale musicals--to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a glorious, prototypical (if simultaneously atypical) sci-fi artifact of the atomic age preserved by a general eschewing of histrionics. Wise, a protégé of producer Val Lewton, applies Lewton's fondness for shadows and silhouettes to The Day the Earth Stood Still: Cloaking Rennie's face in darkness when he appears in the Benson home, he achieves the seemingly impossible in giving an actor a second entrance in a picture, one that, rather than appearing redundant, invites a re-examination of Klaatu's motives. Indeed, without these ambivalent touches that paint Klaatu as a kind of alien fatale, the picture would risk getting crushed under the weight of its preachiness. And while Klaatu's memo to us trigger-happy Earthlings perhaps couldn't be anything but anti-climactic (it doesn't help that he's already squandered his big speech in casual dialogue with Barnhardt), that does little to tarnish the goodwill Wise and his cast have built up through a preternatural knack for the story and genre.
Available for the first time on DVD as a Studio Classics selection, The Day the Earth Stood Still looks dynamite in this THX-certified fullscreen presentation. Digitally restored from a new fine-grain master, the black-and-white image is as bold and precise--not to mention clean--as Paramount's recent remaster of Sunset Blvd., and a tasteful stereo remix brings out the eerie best in Bernard Herrmann's Theremin-laced score. Side one of this flipper includes a commentary in which Nicholas Meyer deluges Wise with questions; that they've both directed Star Trek pictures is a topic barely broached, as the discussion is for the most part screen-specific. Meyer is fascinated to learn that Wise overlooked The Day the Earth Stood Still's Christian parallels/overtones during production, and a great, if one-sided conversation is had debating the pros and cons of non-linear editing systems. (Wise started out in Hollywood as a cutter on pictures like Citizen Kane.) Why Meyer (who had nothing to do with the picture and is at best a casual fan of it, sometimes flubbing his descriptions of the onscreen action) and not a solo yakker from Wise is never clear, but so be it. A Fox Movietone newsreel from 1951 covering the scope of the political climate surrounding The Day the Earth Stood Still, the film's trailer, and the THX Optimizer finish off the top of the platter.
On side B is the 80-minute Making the Earth Stand Still. Recycled, like the aforementioned yak-track, from a 1995 LaserDisc box set, the doc may lack polish, but, in its complete absence of the overscored, overedited gloss you encounter even with the better DVD featurettes, it's perhaps fresher now than when it was made. Producer Julian Blaustein, Wise, and cast members Neal and Gray are the key interviewees, and though they paint a picture of a shoot with no major setbacks, the window into the studio system (more specifically, into Zanuck's tenure) is priceless, as is a detailed explanation of the film's giant robot Gort, an iconic special effect. (Director Joe Dante (Innerspace) and Day the Earth Stood Still memorabilia collectors provide the surprisingly essential fan perspective.) Splitscreen comparisons between the 1993, 1995, and 2002 restorations (the '93 sample might have been confused with '95's and vice versa), five step-frame galleries (the shooting script's white pages are unfortunately too 'hot' for many monitors to display without burn-in), and trailers for One Million Years B.C. and Journey to the Center of the Earth round out the disc. Originally published: March 7, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The oldest--and only the third black-and-white--title in the Fox catalogue to receive the next-gen treatment, The Day the Earth Stood Still wowed me in its Blu-ray incarnation as much as if not more than the closest thing I have to compare it to, Warner's concurrent BD release of Casablanca. Owing to stock-footage inserts, image-degrading effects techniques, and aesthetic shifts from noir to Movietone realism, the 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is hardly uniform, but on a shot-by-shot basis it gives the impression of fidelity. It's a highly organic-looking transfer only sweetened by grain and the occasional pinhole, and detail is significantly finer than what you'll encounter with the standard-def alternatives. Honouring the film's monaural origins, an attendant DTS-HD 5.1 remix is mainly used to give the stereo version of Bernard Herrmann's score an uncompressed platform and beef up the bass; while there are some surround effects, they're inoffensive and mostly limited to reverb. (The native mono track is also on board in crisp DD 1.0.) Returning from the Studio Classics DVD are the Meyer/Wise commentary, long-form making-of, galleries, trailer, and newsreel, here joined by a fresh batch of supplements including two Blu-ray exclusives: "Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score" and "Gort! Command Interactive Game." The score feature lets you compose music for Klaatu's arrival with a choice of eight notes and a silent pause, though the simulated Theremin sounds more like a Casio keyboard and you can't, unlike with the real instrument, sustain a note. Similarly problematic, "Gort! Command" is slow to respond as you try to vaporize hostile military personnel, but any time you do succeed it's perversely satisfying.
Additionally falling under the sub-heading "The World of the Theremin" are "The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin" (8 mins., 1080p), in which Peter Pringle offers a quick lesson on the instrument and re-tells its origin story (thankfully, he doesn't just rehash the acclaimed documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey), and "The Day the Earth Stood Still Main Title Live Performance" (2 mins., 1080i), in which Pringle plays the film's opening theme right before our eyes. Comparatively less edifying, the next two featurettes--"Decoding Klaatu Barada Nikto: Science Fiction as Metaphor" (16 mins., 1080p) and "A Brief History of Flying Saucers" (34 mins., 1080p)--will be a chore for all but the most unschooled viewers (and what exactly are we to infer from the latter's casual inserts of an "alien" corpse?), but the sad "The Astounding Harry Bates" (11 mins., 1080p) and illuminating "Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still" (15 mins., 1080p) are crucial to posterity in commemorating the picture's little-known source author and screenwriter, respectively. North, later the co-writer of Patton, was a staunch pacifist whose 1982 anti-nukes PSA Back to Oblivion (26 mins., 480i) is preserved on this disc as well. A real curio hosted by Burt Lancaster, who interviews a disfigured Hiroshima survivor now working in the maternity ward of a Los Angeles hospital, it's intoxicating in spite of its sermonizing--much like The Day the Earth Stood Still itself. Capping off the infotainment portion of the extras: Jamieson K. Price reads the Bates short story, "Farewell to the Master," that served as the inspiration for North's rechristened script, while film-music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg, and Nick Redman contribute a passionate and educational but finally repetitive feature-length commentary that seems to cycle through the same four or five talking points ad nauseam. The teaser for The Day the Earth Stood Still and a trailer for the 2008 remake round out the platter; for better or worse, a HiDef, 8-minute "sneak peek" at the '08 version cues up automatically on startup. Originally published: December 22, 2008.