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 Coppola’s screenplay for Patton. The two writers shared an Oscar for their movingly ambivalent portrait of one of World War II’s towering generals.

With North’s 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 Earth’s leaders: relinquish nuclear arms or else. Some contemporary critics find this preachy but those are probably the sort of people who can’t absorb an idea unless it’s bracketed by ironic quotation marks. North’s 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 O’Reilly would be outraged.

Details of the plot do seem annoyingly loose. Would the U.S. Army really guard Klaatu’s saucer and his ominous sentinel robot, Gort, with a single sentry? But it’s 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. It’s classic science fiction whose eerie yet awesome score by Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, set the pace in sci-fi music for decades to come.

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