With the nuclear age came the realization that humanity had crafted a fire as destructive as any god. Worse, there was no sign that God stood in its way. One of the first movies to address that anxiety, The Day The Earth Stood Still recast the story of Christ in the stainless steel curves of the post-war era, using flying saucers and otherworldly visitors in the service of a not entirely reassuring reminder that existence is much bigger than us, and may barely notice if we disappear. The boom that does us in may be echoed only by a disappointed sigh and the sounds of the universe moving on.
Working from a script by Edmund North (Patton), taken from a story by Harry Bates, Robert Wise directs the movie with a minimum of spectacle. A UFO lands in Washington D.C. in the opening scene and leaves at the end. In between, we meet a placid visitor named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and an intimidating giant of a robot named Gort with incredible powers of destruction and little inclination to employ them unless necessary. But the focus remains on humanity. After getting shot while trying to introduce himself, Klaatu disappears into the streets of Washington, takes the name Carpenter (possible symbolism alert), and befriends a widowed mother (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray). With the son in tow, he wanders the U.S. capital, seeing reminders of the principles we profess and balancing them against the newfound destructiveness that brought him there in the first place, all while attempting to convey a simple, disturbing message to the leaders of Earth: They’ve reached a point where they’re either going to have to live with each other or not live at all.
The story skimps on the subtlety, but Klaatu compensates by wearing a look of paternal disappointment that suggests the cosmos knows we could do better if we tried a little harder. It’s an understated parable that uses hulking metal monsters and beams of destruction to remind viewers of the importance of staying peaceful and selfless and the possibility that something out there may notice if we don’t.
Key features: The new edition reprises a commentary track with the late Wise and Nicholas Meyer and adds one with a group of film and music historians with a special emphasis on Bernard Herrmann’s influential, theremin-heavy score. A Blu-Ray feature lets viewers create their own quaver-tastic theremin music. (Also, there’s a trailer for a remake starring Keanu somebody.)