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Intelligent Classic Sci-Fi - Original is Still Best (Film only)
The Day The Earth Stood Still  (DVD)
Member Name: thereddragon
The Day The Earth Stood Still  (DVD)
Date: 14/07/09, updated on 14/07/09 (100 review reads)
Advantages: Michael Rennie as Klaatu, intelligent script, compelling story and acting
Michael Rennie as Klaatu
Patricia Neal as Helen Benson
Billy Gray as Bobby Benson
Lock Martin as Gort
Last year there was a box-office-topping remake of this classic 1951 film which although it looked promising in theory, what with starring Keanu Reeves and possessing lots of impressive glitzy special effects, received mostly poor reviews by both those who had not seen or heard of the original as well as those who know and love the original.
Having seen both, I was disappointed to see that the remake was really not the same story except for the characters of Klaatu and Helen Benson having the same names, and being about an extra-terrestrial man who comes to Earth to warn humankind that their aggressive and warlike ways are on a path to threaten the safety of inhabitants of other planets should they extend their aggression into space, and that should that happen, it may be necessary to destroy life on Earth.
For those who don't like black & white films and only feel able to relate to recent films, it's necessary to remember this movie was made shortly after the end of World War Two at the beginning of the 'Communist witch-hunts' and 'Cold War' era of the 1950s, and the themes of this movie very much reflect what was going on then. Having just been through two world wars, a very aggressive and warmongering era, 'the man/woman in the street' was understandably worried about threats to their peace and security.
So, there were many films made back then around the theme of these fears, and this was one of them. It may be helpful to cast your mind back to that point in history when watching this, or else think of it in terms of today's problems with terrorism and the Iraq war, as things unfortunately really haven't changed in the world since then, only with different players.
'The Day The Earth Stood Still' begins with a documentary-like montage of news footage and various government and military organisations charting the arrival of some strange unidentifiable flying object towards northeastern America, finally coming to settle in a baseball field in Washington DC. A huge host of military troops are sent to wait in readiness with guns trained on the spaceship, and masses of the local populace converge on the area to gawp at the huge 'flying saucer' sitting there.
A humanoid in space suit and helmet emerges from the ship and announces 'We have come to visit you in peace, and with goodwill.' (As was so often the case in Hollywood films, and still often is, the alien is played by an Englishman with a plummy accent.) As he approaches the troops, he extends a small metal cylindrical device to them, which they misinterpret as a weapon and shoot him. At this, a giant robot emerges from the ship (played by a man in a costume built up to be 8 feet tall, unlike the building-sized robot in the remake), which naturally freaks everyone out and the troops begin firing at the robot. The robot responds by beaming rays at the various weapons and melting them. The spaceman shouts a command to the robot, which ceases firing. To a small group of soldiers approaching him, he indicates the broken cylindrical device and explains 'It was a gift for your President. With this, he could have studied life on the other planets.'
The spaceman is taken to hospital to attend to his flesh wound (a bit different from the OTT revival-from-death scenario in the remake!). He receives a visit from Mr Harley, Secretary to the President, and tells Harley that his people are extremely concerned that Earthmen had now developed atomic weapons and rockets and that with this new weaponry Earth had become a threat to life on other planets. Harley reluctantly agrees to Klaatu's insistence that he put the proposal to the President.
But after Harley has returned later that day to say that Klaatu's proposal has been rejected due to too much red tape being involved, Klaatu, exasperated, steals some Earth clothes and escapes the hospital. He decides to live among ordinary Earthfolks posing as an Earthman, to see what they're like and to try to decide how to get his message across, and comes to stay at a local rooming house. Here he befriends fellow boarder Helen Benson, a widow (an ordinary office worker as opposed to a top scientist in the remake) and her son Bobby. Will Klaatu find a way to get his message through, will he elude or even survive the manhunt that has now been launched to find him, and will the people of the world actually take heed of the gravity of what could happen to them if they don't curtail their aggressive ways?
Throughout the film, we hear hysteria-filled TV and radio broadcasts issuing warnings about the 'spaceman' that are very much in the vein of the anti-Communist paranoia of the time. A discussion at the dinner table at the boarding house consists of such gems as, referring to the escaped spaceman, 'Why don't the government do something about it?' 'They're only people.' 'People, my foot! They're DEMOCRATS!' Not too far off the kind of talk we'd hear today!
I really love this film, thinking it possibly the best of the golden age of Sci-Fi films (1950s). Michael Rennie plays the definitive Klaatu, as if born to play him, and the Klaatu we see in this film is miles away from the character in the remake. In this film, Klaatu is the main character and has most of the screen time, including many engaging and sometimes amusing conversations despite his grave mission, and is a likeable personality, very 'human', unlike the leaden automaton-like character depicted in the remake.
The story is very well-written, with depth of intelligence and thought, both of which are so glaringly absent in the remake. This really is a thinking person's story, unlike the remake which was all glitzy special effects and not a lot else. The special effects here are in fact pretty decent, even a bit ahead of their time, by 1951 standards.
After all, this film was directed by Robert Wise, who was also director of West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Sound of Music, so we're not talking B-movie directorial standards here!
The soundtrack is brilliant as well, written by the legendary Bernard Herrmann who wrote the atmospheric and dramatic scores for many classic films including Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Cape Fear, Jason and the Argonauts, Fahrenheit 451, Taxi Driver, and many others, beginning with Citizen Kane! Here he creates a surreal soundtrack combining horns with a theremin, to produce a spooky and eerie other-worldly backdrop.
A bit of trivia - for those of you who hadn't heard of Patricia Neal, who plays Helen Benson, as well as being a very noted and respected serious actress in the 1950s she was also married to the great quirky writer Roald Dahl (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, etc).
Available on DVD and also sometimes as a download or 'watch on line' from some public domain websites, though whether this film is really in public domain is open to question. My copy is not the DVD pictured on this page but is a very high quality one, so good clear prints of this film are definitely available.
Also on Ciao as thereddragon.
Summary: A classic, possibly the very best 50s Sci-Fi movie