The Day The Earth Stood Still (Region 1 edition)

Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray and Lock Martin
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
RRP: $19.98 (USA only)

Certificate: G
Available now

Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto! Cinema's coolest robot is back as he and his alien emissary partner try to convince mankind to ditch nuclear weapons, set aside warfare and work in union. By the way, their message does have a codicil: it's 'Goodnight Vienna', Washington, Baghdad and everywhere else if we don't comply...

Imagine a film that works both as great entertainment and as a passionate antiwar call, promoting the United Nations as the only viable forum for conflict resolution. Even if it were more than 50 years old, many, perhaps most of you would wholeheartedly endorse its message today.

Then imagine another film. It is also classic cinema. However, it states that if a rogue entity threatens its neighbours and is poised to extend its reach, it must be given this ultimatum: fall into line or face total annihilation. Again, you can see the nods of recognition - and quite a few of you would concur with this argument.

Actually, let's imagine just one film - because both readings can apply to The Day The Earth Stood Still.

DTESS was primarily intended to have the first message, as director Robert Wise and producer Julian Blaustein note on a timely Region 1 edition of this 1951 masterpiece (unfortunately, we don't get Blaunstein's input on the also just-out Region 2 disc - more of that later).

At a time when other flying saucer/invader entries played up McCarthyite paranoia about 'reds under the bed', Blaustein got 20th Century Fox to put its full resources behind a movie with an opposed point of view. One character, a thinly fictionalised Albert Einstein, is even played by a then blacklisted actor, Sam Jaffe.

In an excellent 70-minute documentary, Blaustein reveals how the idea for DTESS began when he saw press reports of a "peace offensive" and noted the obvious contradiction. Sci-fi could be the ideal genre to tackle the subject, he thought, and sought out an appropriate story as his vehicle, finally lighting on Harry Bates' 'Farewell To The Master'.

As completely reworked by screenwriter Edmund North - the robot Gort (originally Gnut) and Klattu are virtually all that survives from the original and even their relationship is radically changed - DTESS also gained a strong Messiah theme: its alien adopts the pseudonym Carpenter and undergoes a type of resurrection.

With this in mind, one might cheekily ask if the film's 1999 theatrical re-release in France influenced the long-term thinking of Jacques Chirac. That is until you dig a little deeper. Then you conclude that perhaps Tony Blair's speechwriters should rent the disc.

Klattu is no negotiator; he arrives with an ultimatum. Mankind now has the capability to reach into space and visit its violence upon galactic neighbours. In response, he is "blunt": join the other 'planets' in renouncing weapons of mass destruction or carry on as you are and suffer a pre-emptive strike that will turn Earth into a "burnt cinder".

Critics have debated the central contradiction in DTESS since its release - encouraged by an open-ended climax - and events today suggest we are no nearer a solution. The one thing that is agreed upon is that the work's intelligence in tackling the subject puts its head, shoulders and upper torso above almost all its peers.

The script - with dialogue that remains crisp and natural in 2003 - seamlessly interweaves its themes with the essential drama of the 'peaceful' alien coming up against mankind in 'shoot first' mode. Wise's direction is note perfect, pulling on his own experiences making B&W horror features for RKO, film noir, and the documentary realist style that was filtering into Hollywood from Europe back in the early 1950s.

There is also a welcome economy to the film. 'Less is more' is the overriding dictum from the shooting style and plotting to the understated but sensitive performances, and the sleek lines that make Gort a classic movie menace. In just 92 minutes, the movie carries you along, rapt in attention and admiration.

It's no surprise that an acknowledged classic has got excellent treatment on DVD. What is disappointing is that Fox has opted to put out a significantly inferior package in Europe.

Region 2 gets some valuable extras. Most notably, the disc features a superb, new black and white transfer and a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo remix. As Wise is a director who knows how to make light and shadow work (as indeed did cinematographer Leo Tover), the master restores an important dimension to a familiar film. Wise's wishes also dictated the soundtrack options - he dislikes surround sound as a distraction from the on-screen image - but justice is nonetheless done to Bernard Hermann's famous and, at the time, hugely innovative score.

Also, for Region 2, Wise joins up with fellow director Nicholas Meyer for an informative, witty and, in parts, sparky commentary. Meyer followed Wise into the Star Trek movie director's chair with The Wrath of Khan and is not afraid of saying what he does not like about DTESS, while also putting some acute questions. The 'informed' Q&A format is rapidly emerging as the best approach to this extra.

Europe's other miscellaneous goodies include clips to illustrate the restoration process, the original trailer, and a useful and amusing compilation from 1950s Movietone newsreels, cutely mixing the 'cheese' with a contextual history lesson.

So, you'd normally consider this pretty good , particularly given the age of the film. But flip the Region 1 disc and the fun continues.

First, there is the documentary. True, its interview with Wise duplicates much of his commentary, but Blaustein's views are invaluable to better understanding the film, and there are further useful contributions from actress Patricia Neal and fan-turned-director Joe Dante.

North America also gets stills galleries - including the US and UK press books- and a copy of the shooting script. Almost all of these extras have been carried straight across from Fox's 1995 laserdisc release, and the studio apparently owns the rights.

Given that Michael Rennie's starring role made DTESS, if anything, an even bigger event in the UK than the US (it was his first Hollywood job, although he had been an established British star for some years), and greatly contributed to its European status, the decision to drop these features in Region 2 seems perverse. French and Spanish speakers may also care to note that they will get their own mono soundtracks and there are Spanish subtitles on the import version.

With this in mind, the European release merits 7/10. The film, after all, is what really matters and its basic presentation is terrific. However, for those with multi-region players, there really is only one option. That import is quite simply a must.

Paul Dempsey

Buy this item online
We compare prices online so you get the cheapest deal!
(Please note all prices exclude P&P - although Streets Online charge a flat £1 fee regardless of the number of items ordered). Click on the logo of the desired store below to purchase this item.

$14.99 (Amazon.com)

All prices correct at time of going to press.