A flying saucer lands in Washington D.C., and emerging from it is an alien visitor named Klaatu, with a peaceful greeting for mankind. Since he looks like a Commie, the army shoots Klaatu, who is then taken into military custody but escapes and goes into hiding in order to try and understand mankind better. After learning of various earth events (notably the world wars and the discovery of atomic power), Klaatu decides to offer mankind an ultimatum: stop being the war-mongering pricks that we are, or his robot guardian Gort will go to town on our asses.
When I first heard of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL way back when, I initially blew it off as another one of those B-Movies from the 1950's with cheesy effects, ridiculous costumes and plots. Obviously, I was wrong. There are several good reasons why the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1995, and why the AFI named it the fifth best science-fiction film ever made as part of the its AFI's 10 Top 10, and to a lesser extent, why the remake seriously pales in comparison.
Despite the presumption that this film is a B-Movie, it's about as far from that cheesy fare as you could get. Director Robert Wise stated that he wanted the film to appear as realistic and believable as possible, in order to drive home the core message against armed conflict in the real world. Even before Wise was on board, producer Julian Blaustein was said to have reviewed over 200 science fiction short stories and novels to find a storyline that could be used to illustrate the fear and suspicion that characterized the early Cold War and Atomic Age, which he eventually found in Harry Bates' short story, "Farewell to the Master". Coupled with realistic acting by everyone involved and the sparse yet effective special effects, this is far from a your typical sci-fi B-Movie fare.
Another great thing about the film is, quite simply, Bernard Herrmann. The master of the movie soundtrack made particular use of the electronic instrument theremin in the film's score, forever changing the way we think of the UFO in science fiction films, as well as the musical style associated with science fiction film above all else.
But again, the strongest aspect of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is its message, something which the remake failed to utilize and recognize. There have been other films made that echo the ideas of nuclear war's negative effects, but having a superior alien presence come and tell us to knock that shite off or be destroyed, and demonstrating its power to do so, really makes you stop and think for a moment. Again, the threat and fear of nuclear war was more prevalent 60 years ago than it is now, but it's still a very real and very present possibility today.
I'm sure there are better critics out there who can more accurately convey the significance of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, albeit some in a more pretentious way. But as for me, I'm telling you straight up that the film, despite lacking in all the good stuff horror and sci-fi action fans have come to expect from the genres, is still a great one to see and to think about. It's an intelligent film that set a precedent for others like it, and it proves that the genre has more to it than giant mutant ants and zombies.
Video: Presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 full screen, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is solid in its look, even after being restored several times in the past decade. Bright, smooth and crisp, there are some nice details and strong black levels with this transfer, and it's not even in HD. The transfer is such that you can make out wires holding up characters, holes and seams on Gort and the spaceship, and other sorts of details. This is probably as good as you'll get without Blu-Ray.
Audio: Several options are available for viewers. First up for purists is the original English Dolby Digital Mono track, along with its French and Spanish counterparts. Crisp, clean with clear dialogue, this is again as good as you'll get from a half-century old film. For those who want a more robust experience, there's also a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track which sounds just as clear as the rest, albeit with the added range in sound.
This new 2-disc release takes a mixture of the supplements from the original 2003 DVD and the 1995 laserdisc, as well as a few new goodies.
First up is a preview for the 2008 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remake, which is your typical EPK fare. Following that are two commentaries for the original film. The first is a commentary by director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer (Meyer directed STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, by the way). An interesting and informative listen, Wise and Meyer discuss their approaches to filmmaking and techniques they use. The other commentary includes film and music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg, and Nick Redman, and obviously focuses on the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Again, informative and enjoyable, though not as much as the commentary by the two directors.
Following the two commentaries is the 5.1 isolated score track, which has the score playing throughout the film, sans dialogue and effects. A real treat for the ears and for soundtrack buffs.
Carried over from the 2003 DVD (albeit in a severely cut down form) is The Making of "The Day The Earth Stood Still", which runs for 23 minutes (compared to the original's 70-minute runtime). This is a great documentary, which covers the initial genesis of the project with producer Julian Blaustein, moving on to Wise's biography, casting, location shoots, special effects and the score. I still would've preferred to have the original cut of the documentary on here, but what's left is still great to watch.
Following the main doc is a 5-minute piece entitled The Mysterious Melodious Theremin, which takes a look at the electronic instrument used by Herrmann in the film. Hosted by Peter Pringle, we get an explanation and demonstration of the instrument, as well as its history and use in numerous motion pictures. Basically a spinoff of the previous featurette is The Day the Earth Stood Still Main Title: Live Performance by Peter Pringle, where Pringle duplicates the main title theme from the film using the theremin.
For those who want to hear the original short story that inspired the film, there's Farewell to the Master: A Reading by Jamieson K. Price, which has Price reading the story (obviously). There are some rather significant differences between the film and the story, so you won't be bored in the slightest.
For the real-life history to go with the film, there's an episode of Fox Movietonews from 1951, which highlights the tensions between the West and the Soviet Union, as well as including a very short article about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Lastly, we get the film's theatrical and teaser trailers, as well as the 2008 remake trailer.
Over on disc two, we start off with Decoding "Klaatu Barada Nikto": Science Fiction as Metaphor, which elaborates on the idea of the film as a reflection of its time, going over the tensions between the US of A, the Russians and the Chinese, and the very real threat of nuclear arms being used. You really do get a sense of the fear and to a lesser extent the paranoia that was around at the time, which is sobering, to say the least.
A Brief History of Flying Saucers covers the phenomenon of UFOs in the world since the 1940s, exploring the first sightings, the United States government's investigation and your typical conspiracy theorists. It's interesting, but if you're a fan of the X-Files and well-versed in the Roswell Incident, there's not a whole lot of new stuff for you here.
The Astounding Harry Bates covers the man behind the original short story that the film was based on. Starting off with the fathers of science fiction and moving onto the evolution of the genre. Again, an interesting piece, even at a 10-minute runtime.
Edmund North: The Man Who Made the Earth Stand Still covers the film's screenwriter and his biography, pointing out how his success in the army during the Second World War turned him into an anti-war advocate, as well as how it affected his writing. As a spinoff from the previous featurette is Race to Oblivion: A Documentary Short Written and Produced by Edmund North, which is a nuclear disarmament public service film hosted by Burt Lancaster. The doc has a bleak outlook to it, cross-cutting an interview by Lancaster of a Hiroshima survivor and excerpts from speeches made at a disarmament event. This is even more sobering than the Science Fiction as Metaphor featurette.
Finally, we have an extensive Stills Gallery, with dozens of pictures, drawings, photographs, and reproductions, divided into Interactive Pressbook, Advertising, Production, Behind the Scenes, Portraits, and Spaceship Blueprints. Also included is the full shooting script for the film. About the only thing that's missing is the original text form of "Farewell To The Master", but hey, that's what the internet's for.
A science fiction classic with a strong message, coupled with a great transfer and extras, this DVD should be on the list of every sci-fi fan to get. For those with the patience, you may want to hold out for the Blu-Ray version (whenever that hits), but for now, this is the definitive set for you. 'Klaatu Barada Nikto'? Don't mind if I do!