The Day the Earth Stood Still:
Back to Review Index
Back to Quick Reviews
Review by Mark Bourne
"In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets.... Even people who would never have thought that a religious problem could be a serious matter that concerned them personally are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions."
C. G. Jung, in Flying Saucers, 1958
"Michael Rennie was ill
The day the earth stood still
But he told us where we stand."
The opening lines from
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
It's been more than fifty years since the spaceman Klaatu emerged from the flying saucer that landed in Washington D.C. and said "We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill." Half a century after a twitchy Army sharpshooter gave the alien emissary a slug of lead in the shoulder, and in response the implacable giant robot Gort applied his pencil-thin eye-beam to the guns and tanks, disintegrating them. Five decades since Klaatu "neutralized" with benign selectivity the entire world's electrical power for thirty minutes. Two generations since he told us to clean up our act or else. "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder."
If he were to come back now representing the community of worlds, checking on how we've heeded his message, how would he react?
To put it bluntly, we'd be toast. Today we watch The Day the Earth Stood Still and what strikes us most about it perhaps more than the simple and polished screenplay by Edmund H. North (Patton), or Robert Wise's quietly thoughtful directing, or the splendid yet sparingly used special effects, or Bernard Herrmann's pathbreaking Theremin concerto musical score is how little the world has fundamentally changed since 1951. All the international "petty squabbling" and "strange, unreasoning attitudes" that Klaatu found so distasteful have proved damn hard to grow out of.
The first "A" production of science fiction themes from a major Hollywood studio, The Day the Earth Stood Still is justifiably regarded as a classic. Its more frenetic enthusiasts perhaps over-gush a bit about it, but there's no question that it occupies a primary hue on the genre film color wheel, opposite Forbidden Planet's pulp magazine pleasures and Invasion of the Body Snatchers's Cold War paranoia allegory. Years before either of those model specimens, this Atomic Age morality play gave the movies we think of as "Fifties science fiction" a sober, legitimizing kickstart. As one of the few science fiction movies that aspires to be more than juvenile junk food, The Day the Earth Stood Still arrived right in between Things to Come fifteen years before and 2001: A Space Odyssey seventeen years later.
For a sometimes rickety black-and-white message movie with a flying saucer and a "Man from Mars" and a giant silver robot named Gort, The Day the Earth Stood Still maintains a warmth and sense of wonder that later movies with vaster budgets can't touch. And how many kids have been happily creeped out for life by the utterly seamless spaceship splitting open so Gort can loom out accompanied by Herrmann's ominous score? For the over-ten set, The Day the Earth Stood Still presents a theme of steadfast currency and relevance even as its Eisenhower era trappings fade to the nostalgia of old newsreels and Father Knows Best. It's gray at the temples, and it whistles past gaps in plot logic for convenience's sake, but it has aged better than most of its contemporaries. Big credit for that goes to the film's de-emphasis of its gosh-wow spaceship and robot and rayguns in favor of grounded realism (including real-life newscasters), sophisticated filmcraft, and a compassionate "alien" protagonist who personifies the best that humans aspire to be. You can start the drama after Klaatu's spaceship has landed, after he is shot and then escapes from Walter Reed hospital notice his amused smile when the military guard locks his door from the outside and for scene after scene not be entirely sure that you're watching a "sci-fi" movie at all.
Klaatu (Michael Rennie), on the lam and dressed as an ordinary human named "Mr. Carpenter," rents a room in an ordinary Washington D.C. home. There he befriends Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Grey). Helen and Bobby take to the kindly stranger, and Bobby eagerly shows this nice gentleman the sites of our nation's capital. "He must have been a great man," Mr. Carpenter says of Abe Lincoln at the Memorial. Mr. Carpenter has never heard of Lincoln, or of military cemeteries such as Arlington, where Bobby visits his father's grave. Here, one exchange sums up the entire movie's message and tone: When Bobby's attempt to explain his father's death confounds Klaatu, the alien says that he comes from a place where "they don't have any wars." Bobby replies, "Gee! That's a good idea." Somehow, and maybe this shows the genius of Robert Wise, that scene doesn't come across as pretentious or grating.
Contrasting the presumed politics-free rationalism of Science with the bull-in-a-china-shop Military became a trope in science fiction films, and The Day the Earth Stood Still raised it to at least the height of Gort's death-ray visor. In this film with its atypically hopeful message of a peaceful future, the scientist is the representative of order and reason. (As opposed to Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World, released the same year, which took the more Neocon tack.) Mr. Carpenter seeks help from "the smartest man in the world," Prof. Barnhardt, played with wild-haired, Einsteinian verve by Sam Jaffe. (Jaffe almost didn't get into the movie at all he'd been blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, victimized by the same paranoia this movie is so much about.) Having failed to convince the planet's political leaders to overcome their bickering and meet with him, the spaceman asks the professor to assemble Earth's greatest scientists there in D.C. to be the select audience for the most important speech in human history.
At the same time, Washington D.C. is locked down and Army patrols comb the streets searching for the dangerous invader. In one of the less credible moments, Helen's self-serving boyfriend (Hugh Marlowe) phones the Army to tip them off to Klaatu's whereabouts, and immediately the entire ground force is mobilized for this single call from a stranger. The chase is on, and the film takes several striking turns after Klaatu is shot in the street, this time fatally. However, even death is forestalled when the terrified Helen gives Gort the most famous command in movie history: "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!"
How to make a 1950s science fiction movie
When The Day the Earth Stood Still premiered, World War II was only six years behind us. We were still eighteen years away from landing on the moon. Even Sputnik was six years in the future. But the Atomic Age had arrived with a bang (two of them, in fact) and in a flash Everything Changed. Here's a movie that held up a mirror to some newly validated fears such as our anxieties about weapons of mass destruction (the kind that actually existed), and about the part of ourselves that could let mob psychology and fear-based reactionism get seriously, globally out of control in ways that The Good War only hinted at.
By 1951, reports of UFOs headlined in all the papers. Beginning in '52, George Adamski and other "contactees" would gain a goony celebrity by writing about encounters with wise, benevolent Space Brothers who, attracted by our atomic bombs, came to Earth in saucers delivering messages of warning and salvation. How much of those quasi-religious accounts were shaped by The Day the Earth Stood Still's potent imagery and screenplay?
And there was a Cold War on. When Klaatu blends in among Earth humans as "Mr. Carpenter," the media-fueled hysteria over a strange, destructive menace hiding among us only vindicates the visitor's assessment of our society's emotional maturity. While mingling in the crowd surrounding the enigmatic spaceship near the White House, a roving radio reporter looking for man-on-the-street comments sticks a microphone in Klaatu's face. Mr. Carpenter manages to say "I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason" before the reporter, annoyed at the lack of quality sound-bite, cuts him off and moves on to find someone more, you know, normal.
As the reviewer for Time magazine put it then, Klaatu "is no villainous monster; he is an ultra-civilized being who makes earthmen....look like a monstrous race of Yahoos."
All these components of 1950s America went into the mix that made The Day the Earth Stood Still such an emblem of its era. Understandably, it has lost some of its gloss over the years. Both as a movie and as science fiction, it's primitive stuff by modern standards. Although as a science fiction movie it's so mindful of purpose and skillfully crafted that it embarrasses us behind our vacuum-headed CGI gimmickry. While its ruminations on human nature and our collective future were already familiar to the science fiction magazine readers of the time, big-budget movies that attempt to tap into those higher chakra points remain distressingly rare. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains one of the few spaceships-and-aliens features determined to be about something bigger than just itself.
Klaatu as Commie ... or Christ
At a breakfast table after Klaatu has vanished from the hospital, we see that newspapers are cooking up alarmist end-of-the-world hyperbole. On the radio, a yakker's frenzied fear-mongering screed against the "escaped space monster" would be right at home in the mouths of today's Limbaughs and Hannitys and Savages (a name that Klaatu would agree with). In the same scene, someone asks "Why don't the people in the government do something?" The reply he gets: "They're not people. They're Democrats." It's hard to chat about The Day the Earth Stood Still over brandy and cigars without bringing up its core politics.
It's the chewy gristle of power politics that propels viewers both Left and Right to imprint their own viewpoints and chauvinisms onto Klaatu and Gort and that whole "disarm or die" thing. The movie was conceived, written, and directed as a political parable about the importance of nations working together to achieve true Peace. No one can argue with its lofty goals (Limbaugh, Hannity, and Savage notwithstanding), but it seems that everyone weighs in on the stated means of accomplishing that abolition of armed warfare. A race of invincible robot policemen eight feet tall? Gort alone, we're told, could destroy the world. "In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us," Klaatu says in his own Sermon on the Mount from the top of his spaceship's ramp. "This power cannot be revoked. At the first signs of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk." Ironic words for a United Planets that exists "without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war."
In 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still won a Golden Globe award for being "the best film promoting international understanding." It says something about this movie that people still talk about it with a passion that extends into realms other than E.T.s and antigravity drives. Is relinquishing final authority to the metallic monitoring of Gort and his fellow interplanetary peace-keeping machines a price worth paying for security? Is peace-through-fear really peace? Gort as the ultimate Enforcer. Klaatu as the voice of progress achieved only after universal (terrestrially speaking) disarmament. Is Klaatu's final benediction to Earth fascist or realistic? "Your choice is simple," he says before entering the saucer and heading back to Outer Space. "Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration." Sheesh! What happened to "blessed are the peacemakers"? Isn't You're-either-for-us-or-against-us a demonstrably simplistic and primitive foreign policy?
Whether heady philosophy or murky morality, we can bet that many more beers and pixels will be spilled by those who view the movie through the lenses of their personal or political biases.
You want symbolism? Klaatu as a Jesus figure was intended by the screenwriter from the beginning. (Wise says that he didn't notice the clues until long after the fact. Uh huh.) A gentle man from the heavens bearing a message of peace is killed by the very people he has come to save. A higher power resurrects him so that he can complete his mission and ascend back to his celestial home, where he says he'll be watching us. And that "Mr. Carpenter" isn't exactly subtle. Some fervent fundamentalists would tell you that Jesus did say something to the effect of "My way or the highway," but Klaatu's warning that we're doomed to absolute cataclysm if we don't learn to get along sounds so Old Testament, all Sodom and Gomorrah conflagration. (It may be worth noting that George Pal's When Worlds Collide, which really did wipe out our planet in a fiery heaven-sent hellstorm, also played our screens in '51.)
1970s fire-and-brimstone bestseller Hal Lindsay wrote that Satan might land in a flying saucer proclaiming a message of world peace to steal the worship that belonged to Jesus. Thankfully, Lindsay has fallen off the New York Times Top 10 list. I mean, really that pleasant, well-spoken Michael Rennie is the devil? Twaddle!
The naiveté of some of the film's thinking is trumped by the virtue that it's thinking at all, and that it asks us to do likewise. Whatever personal spin, if any, you give to The Day the Earth Stood Still, it's the deeply earnest attempt to speak plainly to and about our world that keeps it high on every list of Great Science Fiction Movies. Some say it's among the great Hollywood achievements of the 20th century. Perhaps so. Its indelible images seem to emerge from the same universal subconscious ether where psychologist Jung ascribed all those flying saucers to mental archetypes created by our fears. Gort has planted his huge silver feet so solidly into popular culture that the world seems to wear its own "Klaatu barada nikto" T-shirt.
So, how would Klaatu's Second Coming be greeted if his saucer landed in today's Washington D.C., a place again twitchy and fearful of imagined dangers here and abroad? Let's hope that this time he'd remember to wear a bullet-proof vest.
At last, the film that brought Klaatu and Gort to Earth gets the blue-ribbon DVD treatment. The newly restored image is a wonder and Fox has really backed up the truck and unloaded a fine, fluff-free selection of extras.
What a stunner! This fully restored full-screen (1.33:1) image comes from a new 35mm print created from original elements, a labor of love that involved two fine-grain positives one for this DVD and a second for the Fox vaults. Footage that had been damaged over the years was repaired or replaced altogether. It's been digitally scrubbed, so the black-and-white depth, grayscale, and contrast are as solid as polished marble, and detail is crisp. The restoration work wasn't overdone or heavy-handed, so expect an "accurate" amount of grain and only a smidge of leftover wear. The transfer shows only minor and infrequent artifacting. What we have here is a definitive edition of The Day the Earth Stood Still that's a class act DVD in the most important way that counts.
Likewise, the audio received loving and meticulous attention. It's offered in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural and stereo options. Both mixes are clear, vivid, and strong, delivering surprising dynamic range for this vintage. There's really little difference between the two, though the stereo option guarantees that Bernard Herrmann's famous score is especially well treated.
On this double-sided, dual-layered disc, Side "A" kicks off the special features with an audio commentary by director Wise and fellow director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), who acts as interviewer/enthusiast. It was originally produced for the 1995 Laserdisc edition, a fact given away by Wise referring to the wonders of Laserdisc technology. No matter. Wise discusses in impressive detail his involvement with the picture from its beginnings through its modern status as a "classic." The cool-to-know trivia level is very high (both Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains were considered for the role of Klaatu, for instance) and the track is thick with production information regarding the script development, what attracted Wise to the project, producer Darryl Zanuck's participation, the Herrmann score, the troublesome Gort costumes, working with the cast, the filmmakers' socio-political content and responsibilities, puzzling over the Cold War's self-contradicting catch-phrase "peace offensive," and this old-school director's thoughts on hands-on versus modern digital editing techniques. Wise's experience extends back to working with Orson Welles editing Citizen Kane and up through directing landmark hits such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Every drop of that experience shows through here. The Q&A format works well and manages to remain mostly scene-specific. Meyer knows the film backward and forward, can speak with Wise as both a fan and a colleague, and makes sure that their dialogue keeps moving forward at a relaxed but never dull clip.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is placed within its contextual climate through a 1951 Movietone newsreel. This fascinating time capsule comes complete with frothing Red Menace hyperbole. The movie appears briefly in the middle when it's awarded the Certificate of Merit at the 9th World Science Fiction Convention. Our 21st century eyebrows are raised by the leering reportage of the Mrs. America pageant ("126 pounds of heavenly homemaker") and sneering digs at foreign dignitaries at a U.N. assembly.
The theatrical trailer is here. This period piece is charming in its over-the-top style that's ratcheted up for a B-chiller-thriller experience.
A THX Optimizer rounds out Side A.
Side B holds a wealth of supporting supplements, most also carried over from the '95 Laserdisc:
Making the Earth Stand Still is a 70-minute documentary spotlighting Wise, producer Julian Blaustein, Patricia Neal, Billy Grey, and others. It's one of the better "how we did it" pieces to appear on DVD shelves in a long while, packed tight with remembrances, information, and insights on the production and the people involved. As a documentary it's as no-nonsense and straightforward as they come. The utter absence of any E! Network gloss and filler is refreshing. We hear about the good thinking behind casting stage actor Rennie instead of an A-list star. Billy Grey is all grown up now and remembers the shooting experience with wistful fondness. The frail giant who filled out the Gort costume Lock Martin, a 7'-7" doorman for Grauman's Chinese Theater is eulogized. Patricia Neal won't win much love from the film's fans as she recalls how she found the script so laughably silly that she couldn't get through her scenes without cracking up. And of course the secrets behind Klaatu's saucer are revealed. It concludes abruptly with a tour of some hardcore fans' memorabilia collections.
A four-minute Video Restoration Comparison shows off the fine work that went into this new print. Compared side-by-side are scenes from the 1993 Laserdisc master, the 1995 film transfer master, the 2002 film restoration, and the 2002 film restoration with video restoration.
Five click-through Still Galleries reproduce what looks like an entire Fox warehouse of behind-the-scenes production shots, PR photos of the cast, all manner of original marketing and pressbook material from the U.S. and the U.K., the Shooting Script, spaceship and Gort models, and even the original spaceship construction blueprints.
Finally, we get trailers for One Million Years BC and Journey to the Center of the Earth.Mark Bourne
- Black and white
- Full-screen (1.33:1)
- Double-sided, dual-layered disc (DS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (English), Dolby 2.0 monaural (English, French, Spanish)
- Subtitles: English, Spanish
- Audio commentary by director Wise and fellow director Nicholas Meyer
- Documentary: Making the Earth Stand Still
- 1951 Movietone newsreel
- Theatrical trailer
- Video Restoration Comparison
- Five Still Galleries
- Trailers for One Million Years BC and Journey to the Center of the Earth
- THX Optimizer
[Back to Review Index] [Back to Quick Reviews] [Back to Main Page]