Dick De Jong
December 29, 2008
I waited to write this review about the original 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, until I saw the 2008 version starring Keanu Reeves. After re-watching the classy Michael Rennie cooly embodying Klaatu - even encased in that plastic funky fishbowl helmet - I must admit I had a bit of trepidation about the 2008 retooled retelling.
I won't call it a remake. The earth didn't even stand still, unless that's what you think the ending was. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. The movie did have its moments, including casting John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt.
Compared to this new visual effects laden movie, the original seems almost quaint. In some respects, I can't help but see it as an historical artifact, partially because Director Robert Wise shot many scenes in almost a documentary style.
Life at Klaatu's boarding house was homey, especially with Francis Bavier, (Aunt Bee in the Andy Griffith Show), sitting at the dinner table and Billy Gray, (Bud on Father Knows Best) cast as Patricia Neal's gosh and gee-whiz son.
Visual effects were primitive at best with an inverted - though aerodynamic - pie-tin-in-the-sky flying saucer floating and glowing as it lands on the Mall in Washington D.C. And the idea of two soldiers guarding Gort and the spaceship seems remarkably minimal in our age of Homeland Security.
In all areas, the filmmaking was much more efficiently austere. But despite what our expectations might be today, the original holds up because the story is still meaningful and the storytelling is compelling. Though the film was in capable hands with a crew headed by Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and won Oscars for West Side Story and Sound of Music, and twenty-eight years later directed the first Star Trek movie.
And the acting, especially by the magnificent Patricia Neal, the detached Rennie, and even the All-American boy Gray, was top notch. Also, kudos to 20th Century Fox Studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck for sticking with blacklisted Sam Jaffe, with the Einstein hair, as Professor Barnhardt.
You might not think that you would need the Blu-ray version of The Day the Earth Stood Still to enjoy this black & white film shot in the old 4:3 format. But the transfer to high definition looks gorgeous, especially those noir scenes bathed in shadows. And Bernard Herrmann's score, with the spacey Theremin, sounds even more eerily ethereal in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
Beyond the usual Director's commentary, with Wise and another Star Trek alum, Nicholas Meyer, the Blu-ray disc packs a passel of other features.
Perhaps my favorite was the basic documentary, "The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still." In the aftermath of the Roswell reports, Producer Julian Blaustein wanted to make a flying saucer movie. It's fascinating to see how he took a Harry Bates short story and with the help of Screenwriter Edmund North, they fashioned it into an antiwar movie.
Casting what-ifs are always great fun. Can you imagine Spencer Tracy as Klaatu? Or Claude Rains? Tracy loved the script, but Blaustein wanted a newcomer and Rennie was a perfect fit.
Gort, the all-powerful menacing robot, was inhabited by Lock Martin, a 7' 7" doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater, who wasn't strong enough to carry Patricia Neal.
Bernard Herrmann's music score is often credited as setting the standard for science fiction movies for the next three decades. A second audio commentary even features three music historians who spend the whole movie discussing Herrmann and his work.
The Theremin, the electronic instrument that can transport audiences to other worlds, played an essential part in the sound track. In fact, Hermann used two of them.
In one of the extras, Peter Pringle performs the main title sequence on the Theremin. In another, he shows how you play the instrument without touching it. And for the wannabe composers, with the "Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score" feature, you can build a Theremin tune by constructing notes and rests. When you are finished, your creation is played back over a scene from the movie.
As I said, this Blu-ray of The Day the Earth Stood Still contains a long list of extras including the original theatrical trailer, a portrait gallery, spaceship construction blueprints and a shooting script. Though I found the vaporize-the-soldiers "Gort Command!: Interactive Game" an odd counterpoint to a movie about reducing violence in the world.
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Billy Gray, Sam Jaffe, Lock Martin, Frances Bavier
Length: 92 minutes
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1:33:1
Dolby Digital Mono, DTS HD 5.1
Dolby Digital 5.1
Dolby Digital 5.1
English SDH, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin