As the cold war tensions between the United States and Soviet Union escalated, and as The Korean War raged, science fiction found its real cinematic voice. The 1950's set the stage for what could only be described as The Golden Age of science fiction and acting as a refracting mirror to our national psyche, the genre fully embraced the growing paranoia about all things atomic. From atomically super-sized ants of "Them" to giant colonel Glen Manning in "The Amazing Colossal Man" and atomic science in general such as "This Island Earth" and as we discuss here, "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Based on a short story by Harry Bates (appearing in Astounding Science Fiction) and adapted by Edmund North, Robert Wise's tale of Klaatu (Michael Rennie) a messenger from an intergalactic federation, and Helen Benson, the Earth-Girl who comes to trust and help him, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a stern warning to those who would use atomic power for the wrong reasons. This film exceeds most of the others in its timeline, partly through the deft and almost documentary style direction of Robert Wise, and in the otherworldly performance of Michael Rennie, at the time a virtual unknown to US audiences.
A mysterious UFO orbits the Earth, and is tracked making a Bee-line for Washington, DC. When the craft touches down in the center of the United States capital the world falls rapidly into panic. What could they want? A single man emerges, his face obscured by a translucent helmet. He draws something from the folds of his tunic and is shot by a jittery National Guardsman. Thus sets the stage for a trip through the best cold war/atomic paranoia. Klaatu escapes from his hospital room, paired with the always plucky Helen Benson who takes him in at her boarding house, Klaatu sets about letting the world know that they are not alone in the universe and any attempt to threaten the other galactic residents will be met with punishing, deadly force. As a short demonstration of his power, Klaatu unplugs the world's electrical supply (sparing airplanes in flight and hospitals). The world is given a day to answer, submit to the will of the community of the galaxy, or face swift and complete extinction, but when Klaatu is again captured by the US government that threatened extinction may come even sooner.
The cast of The Day the Earth Stood Still is universally excellent, from the always lovely Patricia Neal to the strangely gentle Michael Rennie who manage to sling plenty of hard sci-fi dialogue around like old-pros, to the few but still impressive special effects (it's a cerebral film with a cerebral script so not much whiz banging is necessary), to Bernard Hermann's insane double Theramin score. The Day the Earth Stood Still retains its thought provoking and entertaining edge even today.
Fox presents The Day the Earth Stood Still in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. For a nearly sixty year old film, The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t look a day older than, say, thirty. While the image features some grain, it’s not nearly as bad as many much more recent films I’ve seen upgraded to HD. There’s some print damage and the occasional specks, distortion, and digital noise, but all of that is to be expected with a source as old as this, and, overall, I commend Fox for putting together the best visual representation of this film that I have ever seen.
The soundtrack, much like the film, shows its age, but the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio mix does an admirable job given the mono source (also included here). Bass is deep and booming, dialogue is very crisp and clear, and much of the old “background noise” from previous releases has been cleaned up quite nicely.
Fox really went to the vaults for this release, offering the most comprehensive collection of extras I’ve seen assembled for a film from this era. It’s really quite amazing what they’ve dug up, here, including a feature commentary from director, Robert Wise, and Nicolas Meyer; an “historical commentary”; an isolated soundtrack highlighting the aforementioned theramin score; six featurettes (including a making-of); the documentary short, “Race to Oblivion”; an audio reading of the original short story, Farewell to the Master; interactive pressbook; stills and poster gallery; a schematic of Klaatu’s ship; the original theatrical trailer, and much more.
The set also features two Blu-ray exclusive features; Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score and the java game, Gort Command!
Rounding out the extras is a twenty minute segment from the remake of the film, scheduled to open 12/15/08. This sequence looks good and is obviously included here to drum up interest among fans of the original, although, after watching the original, I can't imagine how they can possibly improve upon it.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of the premier examples of "modern" 1950's era science fiction (along with This Island Earth and Them) and one of the best examples of cinematic science fiction from any era. The film looks and sounds better than ever, and the exhaustive collection of quality extras make this the definitive edition of a sci-fi classic, as well as a must buy for any science fiction fan.