BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

By • Jan 9th, 2009 •

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The 2008 remake was heading in the right direction, clever, revisionist, in the mode of 1982’s THE THING, updating the narrative in sensible, surprising new directions, but still remaining faithful to the original in just as many ways. Yet for whatever reasons, as has been sadly and widely acknowledged, the second half fell completely apart (check Victoria Alexander’s review, much of which I agree with), and the industry wisdom says that an audience will forgive a bad first act for great third act, but not a bad second half for a good first half (I added the second motto). Now that the remake has whetted a new generation’s curiosity, Fox presents a deluxe version of the original – 2-discs’ worth – and it’s a pleasure to own, for the supplements as well as for the simple, classic beauty of the 58-year-old feature.

A UFO descends onto a Washington, D.C. baseball field. Out comes a humanoid alien, who is promptly shot, whereupon an ominous robot appears, and it begins to dawn on the military personnel that they may have made a mistake. Later, the alien escapes from his hospital room and joins an American family to learn more about mankind first hand, while simultaneously trying to accomplish his mission, that being to warn the people of Earth about just how cross the universe’s other civilizations have become concerning our misguided use of nuclear power, and how the robot will teach them a lesson they’ll never forget if they don’t rethink their ways. He takes the name of ‘Carpenter’, offers peace and is mistrusted and abused, finally killed, and the all-powerful robot resurrects him so that he can deliver a sort of sermon on the mount. Then off he goes, back into the cosmos from whence he came.

I’d long known that Screenwriter Edmund North introduced the Christ subtext without letting director Robert Wise or Producer Julian Blaustein in on it. His attitude was that this way it would stay subtext and not intrude on the film’s surface narrative. What I was unaware of was North’s socio-political commitments. That he’d co-written PATTON, and that another of his screenplays, for a Western called THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLATS, was a response to the blacklist.

Most fascinating of all, he’d written and produced a short in 1982 called RACE TO OBLIVION, which was a balls-to-the-wall condemnation of nuclear proliferation. The short is presented on Disc 2. In it, a blunt scientist explains that anyone in a bomb shelter during an atom bomb explosion would be dry-roasted at 2000 degrees. Then Burt Lancaster appears, interviewing a female Hiroshima survivor who was thirteen when the bomb hit on August 6th, 1945. Though the quality of the film is grainy, contrasty and unpolished, it is powerful and makes all its points. It even features a chorus of children singing a song over a war montage ending in nuclear holocaust – pre DOCTOR STRANGELOVE.

Some supplements are repeated from the earlier DVD release, such as the commentary track featuring Robert Wise and filmmaker Nicholas (TIME AFTER TIME) Meyer.

But one large documentary on the making of the film has not been reprised; instead a new, shorter one takes its place. The shorter one, despite some poorly thought-out sound cuts, is the better doc because the earlier one goes on and on as if every frame of Producer Blaustein and Director Wise was made of gold. In fact the earlier, bloated doc is boring, and Blaustein is unattractively shot. What confused me was that in the new doc, none of the filmed interviews from the earlier doc are used. Some of that footage was quite good, just not as much as the filmmakers used. A bit of the Wise interview is used in another supplement, so the DVD producers apparently still had use of the footage if they’d wanted it.

The film itself remains as entertaining as ever. Beyond the cold war sentiment that it encapsulates so adroitly, it is told in a simple, economical style by Wise, sparing us any undue histrionics, and is supported by Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score (there’s good theramin info in the supplements as well, and the score is isolated for your listening pleasure, something that should be happening much, much more often on DVD). Michael Rennie, in his US debut is a tall, benevolent, ascetic alien (though I’ve heard quite the opposite concerning his behavior on set), and Patricia Neal, though she claims to have taken the assignment at times rather lightly, is convincing. In the scene where she is pursued by Gort near the end, and looks up at him, fearfully, the camera looking down at her frightened face, she exactly replicates the Siamese cat in THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1963) in the scene when it faces down a bear to save the life of its elderly bull terrier friend. Same expression, same high angle. Weird.

Sam Jaffe is a terrific Einstein stand-in, and the back-story of how studio concerns about his political affiliations almost cost him the job is interesting. Hugh Marlow is a bland Judas, but effective. And Billy Gray, the boy Klaatu takes a shine to, now on the far side of middle-age, appears in the docs on both the old and current DVD releases, looking radically different in each.

With its many enlightening supplements, and its enduring classic status, this is a shelf-worthy item.

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One Response »

  1. Great review! The original had a real Heart! The remake to me was just another example of Hollywood too lazy to come up with something original or taking the time to pull out a good book, never filmed before, read it and then decide if it would be worth building a good film with real talent!

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