Archive for the ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ Tag

Film Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still   Leave a comment

Made in 1951 and loosely based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, this is one of the classic SF movies of all time. I was lucky enough to pick up the special edition on DVD (released by 20th Century Fox) for less than £3 in a charity shop, and this is my review.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first. The bad news is that the cover of this DVD is not as good as it could have been. It shows a close up of Gort looming over a picture of Earth, while he unleashes his “death ray”. It’s not a terrible cover, but it’s a bit too ordinary for a classic film like this. Personally, I generally prefer to see reproductions of the original poster art on the covers of classic film DVDs. Another thing about the cover is, it doesn’t make it clear that this is the special edition DVD, which is strange from a marketing point of view.

That’s the bad news, the good news is that this is an excellent DVD presentation of one of the all time classic SF films. First of all because this edition has been digitally remastered – in fact I’ve never seen this film looking so good, and that’s including one time I saw it on the big screen. It also has a decent set of extras, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

If you’re reading this review, the chances are that you’re already familiar with this classic, but on the offchance that you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll avoid giving away the ending. It’s a simple tale, simply told, and all the better for it. The film opens with the unexpected arrival of an alien spacecraft in Washington DC. The army is scrambled and troops surround the spacecraft. The pilot, a humanoid called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges but is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier. This action triggers a violent but controlled retaliation by Klaatu’s robot companion Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is taken to a military hospital and explains to a representative of the State Department that he is on a diplomatic mission, but will only deliver his message to a meeting of representatives of all the Earth’s governments. When the State Department representative tries to explain the difficulty of organising such a meeting, Klaatu begins to realise that he needs to know more about how our culture works in order to carry out his mission. So he escapes and takes lodgings in a boarding house under the alias of “Mr Carpenter”. Here he meets a war widow called Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray). The friendship he strikes up with Helen and Bobby helps to show Klaatu that there’s more to our culture than violence and aggression. However, Klaatu still has his mission to complete and a message to deliver – and in the meantime, Washington is in a state of alert, the security forces are hunting him and the general public are in a state of near paranoia. Can Klaatu complete his mission, despite the risks? And what will Gort do to the world if he fails?

People sometimes talk about this film as if Klaatu is some kind of Christ-like hippy do-gooder, here to spread the gospel of peace. This is missing the point. On a personal level, Klaatu is good person, but the mission he is on is pure realpolitik – or even gunboat diplomacy – his job is to protect the interests of his own people as they see it. He has a message to deliver – a warning and an ultimatum, to quote the film’s publicity. If the message is ignored, steps will be taken.

Most of the acting in this film is excellent, especially the core trio of Klaatu, Helen and Bobby, but also most of the supporting cast do a good job. The camera work also can’t be faulted, with very good use of light and shadows (reminiscent of German expressionist cinema) adding to the sense of threat. The special effects mostly stand up well even today, the only exception I can think of being one scene in which Gort carries Helen off and you can clearly see wires supporting her weight. That’s only one scene, though. The rest is practically flawless. The film also has an excellent score, with good use made of the theramin. I must sound like I’ve got shares in this film, but really it’s hard to find anything to fault. Some films are just as close to perfect as humanly possible, and this is one of them.

This DVD comes with a great set of extras. There’s the theatrical trailer and a Movietone news reel from the time (which includes a short segment in which The Day the Earth Stood Still is given an award at an SF convention, as well as a beauty contest and more serious reportage of the Cold War). Watching both the trailer and the newsreel before watching the film helps you to get a feel for the time in which this film was made. There’s also a short segment comparing this restoration with previous editions of the film, which is alright but not particularly interesting to me. The jewel of the crown of this DVD is what is described on the cover as a “Feature Length Commentary”. What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that this commentary consists of the director of this film (Robert Wise) being interviewed by Nicholas Meyer (who directed “The Day After” and “Star Trek 2”). This commentary is worth the price of the DVD on its own, as Mr Wise has very clear memories of making the film (which seems to have been a very happy and harmonious production) and also gives his thoughts on film making in general. It’s hard to see how they could have improved on this edition.

If you like science fiction and you like intelligent thrillers, this DVD is well recommended. Buy it. Don’t think about it, just buy it. You won’t regret it.

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