Everything about director Robert Wise’s 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still screams B-movie: the cheesy special effects, the title, even the campy movie posters. However, the film’s memorable characters, tense suspense and powerful pro-peace message raise it to A-movie status. I would even go so far as to rank it among 2001: A Space Odyssey, E.T., Star Wars, Alien and Close Encounters as one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Now this classic film has been released on DVD at a time when its message may be more relevant than ever.
The film opens with a spaceship landing in a park in the middle of Washington D.C. Hysteria ensues when an alien being walks out of the spaceship with a foreign object and he is immediately shot down. This is Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien who looks just like one of us, has the same anatomy as us and even speaks our language thanks to all the radio and television broadcasts his planet has been monitoring. Klaatu tells the Secretary of State that he has an important message regarding the safety of the planet, but will only deliver it to the leaders of every nation on Earth at one time. Of course this is at the beginning of the Cold War and getting every leader together is easier said than done.
When his offer is rejected, Klaatu decides to learn something about this planet’s inhabitants and gets himself a room at a boarding house. He immediately befriends a young boy named Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother (Patricia Neal). After a few days on the streets, Klaatu realizes that without a truly significant warning, the people of earth will never learn their lesson. So came to be The Day the Earth Stood Still.
As I see it there are three key elements that make this film successful. First, the suspense that director Robert Wise is able to generate. Why does Klaatu want to get all the world’s leaders together in one room? What are his intentions? Murder? Brainwash? Sucking their brains out through thin metallic straws? As we watch the film, we are just as skeptical as the officer who shoots Klaatu when he gets off the ship.
Secondly, the film uses its sci-fi plot as a means of delivering a terrific message for Peace. Made at the outset of the Cold War, the film boldly makes its case for peace. “The decision rests with you” Klaatu tells those gathered at his departure. “Join us and live in peace, or continue your present course and face obliteration.” As much as I hate to say it, planet Earth seems to be continuing their present course.
Finally, the third element that makes this film so memorable is that it is just fun to watch. It is fun to watch Gort the Robot melt the meek human weapons with a beam from his long, metallic eye. It’s amusing to watch the cliché, Frisbee like spaceship hover over Earth.
The new DVD includes audio commentary by Robert Wise and Nicolas Meyer, a 70-minute documentary featuring new interviews with cast and crew and even a classic newsreel from 1951. Like a lot of great movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still delivers more than you would expect. I guess that is why they say you don’t judge a DVD by its cover. I give it an A.