The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Review
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Robots are one of the staples of science fiction in the cinema. Some have even gone on to become icons in their own right, including such notables as Robby from Forbidden Planet, the titular assassin of The Terminator, and the Star Wars series’ ubiquitous R2-D2 and C-3PO. One of the earliest members of this group appeared in 1951 with the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still. While the giant alien robot, Gort, takes little action and speaks nary a word, his very presence drives the film and many of the themes it touches upon.

A few years after the end of World War II and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. From it emerge the towering robot and a man wearing a space suit. Even after declaring peaceful intent, the man is shot by a nervous soldier. While he’s recuperating at a government hospital, the military tries to interrogate the alien (played by Michael Rennie), and he, in turn, asks for the chance to live among ordinary humans for a time in an effort to understand them better. When they refuse and attempt to confine him, he escapes and takes on the alias Carpenter. The movie follows the alien as he takes up residence at a boarding house, befriending the young son (Billy Gray) of a single mother (Patricia Neal) who’s staying there.

In time, the alien reveals that he’s an emissary from a galactic civilization that has taken notice of Earth’s first steps into atomic energy. He warns that this civilization disapproves of atomic weaponry and that any attempt by the Earth to further the development of such will be viewed as a threat against the rest of the galaxy. If the governments of Earth cannot come to an agreement limiting such weapons, an intergalactic police force of robots like Gort will obliterate the planet.

Filmed at the beginning of the Cold War, The Day the Earth Stood Still was intended from the onset to be a polemic against nuclear arms and a statement in favor of international cooperation. It illustrates a recurring theme of the period that viewed technology as both potential savior and destroyer of civilization. In the years since its initial release, it has proved to be a touchstone for how genre films can still comment strongly on contemporary issues.

It’s also an example of how cinematic art can speak to universal questions that transcend specific moments in history. No matter what tack the remake takes, the original still has plenty to offer contemporary viewers. Questions that it raises include the use of threatened violence as a deterrence against violence, the necessity of developing morality to correspond to developing technology, society’s desire for and rejection of messianic figures (it’s no accident that the alien visitor chooses the pseudonym “Carpenter”), the usefulness and necessity of international cooperation and even the primacy of aggression and violence in human nature. And let us not forget the question that has absorbed film critics for half a century: what does “Klaatu barada nikto” really mean, anyway?

This new edition of The Day the Earth Stood Still is an excellent addition to any DVD collection. The transfer is nice and sharp, and the audio makes excellent use of Bernard Hermann’s eerie, theremin-infused score. Two commentary tracks offer plenty of information on the creation of the film, and a decent selection of featurettes helps place it within historical, creative, and interpretive context.

Compared to the colossal special effects budget that is sure to define its remake, The Day the Earth Stood Still, like its robot enforcer, is a quiet, spartan affair. But there’s no denying the power and depth that its simple-looking exterior hides.

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