As famous as The Day the Earth Stood Still is, I expected a hair-raising, action-packed shocker of a movie. Instead we get a carefully paced sci-fi thriller whose tension builds slowly. Fifty-odd years after its original release, it plays something like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, but an element of horror remains. It stems not from the events that take place, but from the human aspect of the story… the part that has nothing to do with special effects and still rings eerily true.
When a spaceship lands in Washington, D.C., a feeling of unease begins to spread amongst the people. It’s not enough to prevent them from setting up little wooden folding chairs so that they can gawk at the spacecraft, but it certainly overtakes dinnertime conversation and leaves everyone a little jumpy. Though the spaceman who disembarks is promptly shot in the arm by the military, he recovers in no time at all. The medical advances on his planet are leagues ahead of ours, and the life expectancy of its denizens is something like three times our own. All of this is rather worrying. If this visitor who calls himself Klaatu (Michael Rennie) hails from a planet far more sophisticated than our own, what chance do we have if he should prove unfriendly? Even more alarming is the giant robot that accompanied him. Sure it’s a little homemade-looking, but what has it been programmed to do?
By the time Klaatu escapes government custody (without revealing his intentions), the story of the spaceman has become something of an urban legend. People have their eyes peeled for a lumbering green alien with day-glo eyes and squiggly hair (or something along those lines). If nothing else, they’re certain that they’ll know the spaceman when they see him. This is why no eyebrows are raised when Klaatu quietly lets himself into a boarding house one evening. In fact, Klaatu looks just like us.
And so the residents of the boarding house allow Klaatu into the fold, actually sitting around at breakfast discussing the spaceman in front of him. How much does that make you want to scream? Even freakier is the fact that one woman (Patricia Neal) leaves her son (Billy Gray) in Klaatu’s care for a day after discovering she’s without a babysitter. Nevermind that we know he’s an alien—who entrusts their child to a total stranger?!
After a semi-fabulous day spent exploring Washington, D.C.’s finest monuments, the little boy develops an affection for Klaatu. He quickly discovers that his new friend is the spaceman, but you can bet that his mother won’t believe him when he tells her about all the freaky stuff he saw when he followed Klaatu out at night. Why is it that old movies seem to be populated by people who were never children themselves? It seems like every time a kid announces that there’s a strange man in their bedroom or a monster under their bed, they’re informed that they’re dreaming or imagining things or flat-out lying. Sometimes it’s a really good idea to listen when a kid runs up to you and tries to tell you there’s a spaceman in the house.
This is a lesson Patricia Neal’s character learns soon enough, and the next thing she knows, the fate of the human race is in her hands. It seems that the spacemen are watching, and if we don’t figure out how to behave a little better, we’ll be eliminated for the greater good. There’s no reason to question their sincerity—there’s always The Day the Earth Stood Still (literally everything stopped as these planetary cops shut down all forms of electricity) to remind us of their power. Clearly Klaatu’s people can and will destroy us if they need to.
Though the film is now fifty-seven years old, its message still rings true. It’s the same message scientists are trying to convey about global warming—if humans prove to be an annoying species, we will be obliterated by other forces. Though we might not wake up with Klaatu on our doorstep, it’s certainly worth giving a second thought to the consequences of our actions.
Disc One contains commentary by Director Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer (Director of Star Trek IV: The Wrath of Khan), a new commentary track by film and music historians, and an isolated score track. There are also a handful of featurettes that delve into the film’s history. “The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin: Main Title Performance by Peter Pringle” explores the instrument that makes the film’s score so singular. “The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still” features interviews with the film’s cast and crew, including Patricia Neal and Billy Gray (now all grown up!). There’s even a reading of the original short story that inspired the film.
Disc Two includes all new featurettes which examine everything from the history of flying saucers to the use of science fiction as metaphor. We take a look back at “The Astounding Harry Bates” (who wrote the original short story) and learn all about “Edmond North: The Man Who Made The Earth Stand Still”. An interactive pressbook and still galleries round out the fun, making this quite a comprehensive package.