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American Cinematographer Magazine

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Stereo (THX)/Mono
20th Century Fox,

Metropolis notwithstanding, science fiction was considered B-grade fare of lesser studios until 1951, when 20th Century Fox released The Day the Earth Stood Still, elevating the genre to A-list status and sparking a sci-fi boom. Though the earthbound story was more about politicking than outer-space wonder, the film preached a daring anti-war message for its time - the United States and the Soviet Union were butting nuclear heads in the Cold War, and U. S. and South Korean troops were trying to prevent the spread of communism below the 38th parallel.

In Edmund North's screenplay, which was based on Harry Bates' story Farewell to the Master, a flying saucer sets down in a park in Washington, D.C. Out of the ship steps Klaatu (Michael Rennie), who comes in peace with an important message but is rudely met by the shoot-first, ask-questions-later military. The hulking silver robot Gort (Lock Martin) emerges to defend his master with its head-mounted laser before Klaatu calls a halt. The injured spaceman then escapes from a hospital and blends into society while the city goes into lockdown. While at a boarding house, Klaatu befriends young Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother, Helen (Patricia Neal). Bobby's innocence and open mind convince Klaatu that the human race is worth saving, but he first sends a warning by bringing the world to a complete standstill. Of course, Klaatu is eventually shot again, which prompts Gort to go on a rampage. But the alien still sees hope for the human race, and the classic words "Klaatu Barata Nikto" alter the robot's mission.

The film's original camera negatives yielded sepia images that were faded and jittery. In 2002, Fox performed a full film and video restoration of the movie, striking a new 35mm print with two fine-grain master positives, one for the video transfer and one for the Fox archive. Before-and-after comparisons are included on this disc, and the results are impressive. Dirt and scratches have been minimized, although there is a noticeable hair in one nighttime close-up of Gort using his laser. The image, though grainy, is crisp with clean lines, and DVD compression artifacts are imperceptible throughout most of the film. The contrast has been restored, but rather than creating a stark black-and-white image (like the one that can be seen on the DVD of Them!, for example), a slight warming of the image has been maintained to pleasing effect.

Oscar-nominated cinematographer Leo Tover, ASC (Hold Back the Dawn, The Heiress, The Lost Squadron, The Pride of St. Louis, Journey to the Center of the Earth) used reserved camerawork and lighting on the show. After listening to the audio commentary by director Robert Wise, who is interviewed by fellow filmmaker Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Day After), it's obvious why. As Wise notes, "I don't like cameras that call attention to themselves. That, to me, takes away from what's up on the screen and what you want the audience to be involved in. I have the same feeling about surround sound." Both he and Meyer feel that a sci-fi story is fantastical enough.
Wise never mentions Tover, but his commentary does provide some good trivia - Martin, the 7'-tall actor who played Gort, was a doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and Wise had a run-in with studio head Darryl Zanuck during the production when Zanuck criticized the director for overshooting. (Wise showed Zanuck how each angle had a purpose and was then left alone.) But it often seems as though Meyer is using his interview with Wise to extract directing tips to employ on his next outing. The film's cinematography is mentioned in passing at best; alas, this oversight also holds true during the 70-minute documentary Making the Earth Stand Still.

Tover often positioned practical sources within the frame that were boosted with off-camera gag lights. Early in the film, he carefully uses shadow and silhouette for Klaatu to suggest that, despite what he claims, the alien still might be visiting Earth with bad intentions. Inside the spaceship, the cinematographer stretched his legs a little with some topnotch lighting that rakes up at various angles through the floor grating, producing a stylized look that rivals today's imagery. The checkered lighting pattern on the faces of Helen and Klaatu in an elevator during the world stoppage also stands apart.

Earth is one of the all-time great science-fiction films, and it looks better than ever on this DVD. The two-sided disc includes still galleries, the shooting script, a theatrical trailer (which paints the alien more as an invader), a 1951 Movietone Newsreel about the fight against communism and a handy THX optimizer for proper audio and video setup.

- Douglas Bankston

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.