There is a moment in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, one of many actually, that tells you that this is no ordinary sci-fi flick. Michael Rennie as the alien visitor Klaatu has gone undercover in a Washington D.C. boarding house in order to learn more about the Earthlings hes been sent to contact. He is talking to Patricia Neal, who plays the plucky war-widow, single-mom heroine of the piece, and when shes called away he picks up a box thats on an end table. He opens it and music begins to play. The look on Klaatus face, a mix of bemusement and delight is such an unexpected, such a, pardon the term, human moment. As a kid, that was the moment I was hooked.
Forget the rampaging robot Gort, though even he isnt the usual sci-fi mechanical man, this is a richly textured, smartly written parable about the human condition at its best and at its worst. Whats more, it speaks to our times as clearly, today as it did when it was released at the height of the Cold War in 1951. Then as now, governments conduct business with each other while showing the emotional maturity of three-year-olds, all the while threatening to end the world more because of petty bickering and paranoia than any real threat that might or might not exist. Playing skillfully on that theme, DAY places the peril that faces the planet from outside sources as being brought on by our own foolishness. If it places perhaps too much faith in science, in the person of eccentric Dr. Barnhardt in the person of Einstein look-alike Sam Jaffe, to save us from ourselves, still it is a lovely bit of hopeful fluff that retains its ability to kindle a flicker of optimism. One other thing bears mentioning. In the crowd shots, whether the people gathered around the spaceship after it lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and in the climactic finale where the worlds non-governmental leaders gather to hear Klaatu deliver his message to the Earth, minorities are prominently in evidence. Among the worlds representatives at the end, the Third World is well-represented and there are even, gasp, women in attendance. Between that and the hiring of Jaffe, who was all but already blacklisted, shows beyond any shadow of doubt that the people involved during those politically incorrect times were doing more than paying lip service to the idea of tolerance and universal brother- and sisterhood.
A film more than a half-century old is going to have elements that date it, among those being doctors who smoke and women who wear glove when going to work downtown. Wises direction, though, holds up with a timeless quality that mixes a straightforward approach with an undertone of expressionism that uses the black-and-white photography to best effect. A word about the special effects. Lets just say CGI was a very, very long time in the future. And this makes an interesting point. The story is so compelling, so intelligently acted, it just doesnt matter. And if you think about it, the state-of-the art effects on parade in ATTACK OF THE CLONES dont want to make anyone want to see that piece of work again.
The DVD has a superb restoration of the film. The picture is crisp, the better to show off Wises spare directing style and the sound enhanced with THX. For side by side comparisons, see the feature on the B side. The commentary track, which was done for the laser disc release, has Robert Wise chatting with director Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME, ST: THE WRATH OF KHAN) and is also superb, though there is an astounding gaffe as both men, who are watching a print of the film as they chat, start talking about Lock Martin, the actor who played Gort, when Rennie as Klaatu emerges from the saucer. Among the topics they discuss while commenting on the particulars of individual scenes are the Christ imagery (Wise claims he was unaware that screenwriter Edmund H. North had inserted it) and the anti-Cold War message that didnt seem to bother studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. For context, one of the extras is a newsreel from 1951 that succinctly explicates the gestalt of the Cold War.
Flip the disc over for a documentary, MAKING THE EARTH STAND STILL, that brings back Robert Wise, but adds actors Patricia Neal, Bobby Gray, and producer Julian Blaustein among others, including some rather obsessive collectors. If it lacks spontaneity, its a more organized telling of the making of the film than side As commentary track, and offers other points of view. Blaustein is particularly interesting, though lit badly, he talks about the underlying themes and his political philosophy with a passionate intensity that belies his advanced years.
Its deeply satisfying that a film classic like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL has come out on a DVD that does it justice.