Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

By David Luhrssen
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If nothing else, the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still spurred the reissue of the original 1951 film as a two-DVD Special Edition. The second disc includes interesting bonus material, especially a biography of screenwriter Edmund North, who narrowly escaped being blacklisted for his politics during the McCarthy era. North was a war veteran and pacifist who made much of his career scripting war movies. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in that line was rewriting Francis Ford Coppolaís screenplay for Patton. The two writers shared an Oscar for their movingly ambivalent portrait of one of World War IIís towering generals.

With Northís background in mind, the subversive aspect of The Day the Earth Stood Still comes clearly in view. The alien emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington on a peace offensive, issuing a stern warning to Earthís leaders: relinquish nuclear arms or else. Some contemporary critics find this preachy but those are probably the sort of people who canít absorb an idea unless itís bracketed by ironic quotation marks. Northís script makes super patriots appear foolish and wicked. It slyly advocates for nations to relinquish part of their sovereignty to a mechanism for enforcing peace. Nowadays Bill OíReilly would be outraged.

Details of the plot do seem annoyingly loose. Would the U.S. Army really guard Klaatuís saucer and his ominous sentinel robot, Gort, with a single sentry? But itís easy to overlook dangling ends. The Day the EarthStood Still moves with great momentum and economy through a story whose message is never sweetened with sentimentality. Itís classic science fiction whose eerie yet awesome score by Alfred Hitchcockís favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, set the pace in sci-fi music for decades to come.

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