The Day The Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still was without a doubt one of the most ground breaking films in American history
Most people think that the beloved genre of science fiction is purely for entertainment. While personally I am greatly entertained by this type of film the genre goes much deeper. Sci-Fi has almost from the beginning been used to depict moral, social and political problems in a fashion that is more acceptable to the public and the powers that be. What would be too ‘in your face’ if presented as straight commentary is somehow more palatable when cloaked in the boundless imagination of science fiction. People like Rod Serling (Twilight Zone), Joe Stephano (Outer Limits) and Kenneth Johnson (V, Alien Nation) have pioneered science fiction screenplays with a social conscious.
In the early fifties science fiction often was used to show the growing fear of communism and the strength of the American armed forces. Among these films a new twist was added, one that did not always show the American government in the best light possible. The Day the Earth Stood Still was without a doubt one of the most ground breaking films in American history. While best remembered for the giant robot Gort, The Day the Earth Stood Still ran much deeper without sacrificing pure entertainment.
The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with a huge space ship descending on the city of Washington D.C. It lands in a playground, perfectly framed by a children’s baseball diamond. Tension mounts as the army surrounds the craft. Slowly, an opening appears and a human like figure clad in silver comes out. He takes something form out of the suit, the army fires and wounds the visitor. The space man, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) was merely taking out a gift for the President, one that would increase man’s understanding of the universe. The fact that the army shoots first is amazing for a film of this time. Fear was outwardly shown as overcoming any reason. Klaatu escapes the hospital where he is being held and comes to stay in a modest suburban boarding house. There he meets a single mother Helen (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Grey). This single parent family is drawn into events that would decide the fate of the human race. There are subtitles in this set up. The reason Helen is a single mother is she lost her husband in World War II.
The Day the Earth Stood Still reminded the audience of the person loss war inflicts. This entire film has an undercurrent of breaks in the façade of the American dream. Humans are flawed and this includes Americans. Most films showed American authorities as the bastions on infallibility; here mistakes are made with the possibility of dire consequences.
For most of us that grew up in front of the television set the cast of The Day the Earth Stood Still will be very familiar. This only adds to the strong identification the audience maintains with the characters. Billy Grey went on to appear in Father Knows Best. Sam Jaffe, the scientist that helps Klaatu, was in the hit show Ben Casey and the owner of the boarding house Frances Bavier, was the beloved Aunt Bee in the Andy Griffth show, watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, people of my generation felt surrounded by old friends. Rennie commands the screen as Klaatu. He combines power and authority with the wonder of exploring a new society. He commands forces that can destroy the earth yet he has an almost child like amazement has he wonders around Washington seeing how these earthlings live. Patricia Neal displays the strong type of woman created in the United States by the war. Women where forced out of the home to work and support their family. So many faced the death of their husbands that the single parent household became more common place than ever, She loves her son and works hard to provided for him. She is also moving on from her loss dating Tom (Hugh Marlowe). Marlowe is no stranger to this type of film. He is an actor that made a career playing the every day man that the audience could identify with. Even when he plots against Klaatu the audience can understand his motives. He is worried about Helen’s involvement with the space man and worried about his country’s security. Just one note about the unsung star of this film, Lock Martin, the actor who played Gort the robot, this 7’ 7" actor made a career as a gentle giant. He often played monsters such as the mutant in the original Invaders from Mars. He took what many saw as a disadvantage and made the most of it.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was directed by one or the greats on American cinema, Robert Wise. When you look at the credits this man accumulated you have to be in awe. Wise was never one to be restricted to a single genre. His films ran the gamut form musicals like Sound of Music and West Side Story to dramas such as Run Silent Run Deep and I Want to Live. To list his it’s would be a book, a long interesting book, Wise was the master when it came to pulling the audience into the story. He composes each frame with artistic mastery. The way he lights the scenes shows the apex of the art of black and white cinematography. The Day the Earth Stood Still demands a separate viewing just to wonder at the art Robert Wise was able to bring to the screen.
One of the great things about the format of DVD is its ability to preserve classics like this for future generations of movie enthusiasts. Fox has mastered The Day the Earth Stood Still the way it deserves. While many DVD collectors have come to expect brilliant colors and surround sound this is not the case for this film. It was made in a time before widescreen really took hold of movies, when mono sound was the usual format. Get this film for the content not the technology. The full screen video is wonderfully restored. Most of us are used to old copies with all their scratches on late night TV. This presentation is crisp and clear. The mono sound is without defect. The extras include a comparison of the restoration work, a wonderful commentary by Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer and a 70 minute featurette. There is even a MovieTone news reel, something to make you feel like you are back in 1951. You are serious about film The Day the Earth Stood Still is a must have for your collection. Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com
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