On a sunny afternoon in 1950, citizens of Washington, D.C., notice a sphere floating above the city. It becomes frighteningly clear it is something not from their world. A flying saucer is, indeed, descending into the nation’s capital. The shimmering saucer hovers over the baseball diamond in President’s Park, waiting for numerous, spellbound onlookers to dive out of its shadow before it lands. The silver saucer rests as brave spectators gather and officials flood onto the scene, militia prone and ready to strike from all angles. When the saucer is completely surrounded, a tall, humanoid creature emerges and walks slowly toward the awestruck crowd. The creature, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), calmly informs all of his good intentions and reveals something he is holding, but a nervous military official shoots and wounds Klaatu. As Klaatu explains the something was merely a gift to earth’s leader, a monstrous, hulking robot, Gort, emerges from the saucer and aims a beam at the soldiers who fired, instantly dissolving the soldiers’ weapons but not harming the soldiers.
Taken to the hospital by the military, the wounded Klaatu insists the U.S. president bring together the world’s leaders to hear his important message. Told this is not possible, Klaatu demands to be released. Confined to the hospital, he escapes in the clothes of another man, whose name, Mr. Carpenter, he assumes, and takes a room in a local rooming house. Among the house residents are a young widow, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), and her friendly son, Bobby (Billy Grey). Bobby ends up giving Carpenter a tour of Washington when Helen needs a last-minute babysitter, and Bobby takes a liking to the new boarder. Things get more complicated, however, when Bobby follows Carpenter late one night and sees him board the alien ship. Later, a terrified Helen finds herself in a do-or-die situation, memorizing the fateful words Carpenter has told her to use in the event he dies: “Klaatu, barada, nikto.”
The Cold War’s paranoid sense of unrest and tension that began just after World War II had some creative fallout in Hollywood by 1950. Producer Julian Blaustein found the property he was looking for in a short science-fiction story by Harry Bates and had screenwriter Edmund H. North adapt it. The resulting screenplay prompted 20th Century Fox to green-light the picture, and The Day The Earth Stood Still was about to become a reality.
The ambitious project was directed by Robert Wise, who, with a background in atmospheric horror and terse crime pictures, brought a unique sensibility to the project. While the science-fiction aspects had to be new and expressive, it was extremely important for the action to play as “normal” as possible to make the narrative work. Wise called upon veteran cinematographer Leo Tover, ASC (The Heiress, Hold Back the Dawn), to create the sharp, realistic world of 1950 and then use shadows and light to heighten the sinister elements injected into that world.
Tover’s slick, monochromatic work does capture a contemporary feel, but it also radiates with shadows and unusual lighting. In an obvious bid to draw attention to its 2008 remake of the film, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment recently released The Day The Earth Stood Still in a Blu-ray Special Edition. In transferring Tover’s 1.33:1 image to high definition, Fox has done a reasonably solid job of capturing the cinematographer’s inky blacks and crisp silvers. The transfer has an excellent grayscale range, and although some digital noise reduction seems to have been applied, it is not intrusive, striking a good balance and keeping some of the intended film grain in place. The pleasing, well-balanced image is better than any previous home-screen incarnation of the picture. The audio, presented in 5.1 DTS, is an excellent example of taking an original monaural track, cleaning it up and allowing only the faintest traces of center-channel mimicry to appear on the surround tracks. It should please sound purists who dislike newfangled sound mixes of mono films and satisfy those who love to feel the subwoofer, which is made use of on occasion. This new sound mix is most satisfying when composer Bernard Herrmann’s legendary music score takes center stage.
For this definitive release, Fox has complied an enormous amount of supplemental material, some excellent and some excessive. There are two commentary tracks; one, featuring Wise and director Nicholas Meyer, is a holdover from the laserdisc release, and the other features film-music historians. Both are excellent and informative, as is the 25-minute “making of” documentary featurette. There is also a fun-video segment on the theremin, the musical instrument Herrmann used to such great effect in the score; a look at writer Bates; a segment on screenwriter North; trailers; a newsreel, a still gallery and an almost two-hour reading of Bates’ original story. If that were not enough, there is also “Brief History of Flying Saucers,” which features too many talking experts; a silly video game; a pretentious segment called “Science Fiction as Metaphor” and a tedious eight-minute clip from Fox’s recently released remake.