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DVD Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still/The Man Who Fell to Earth

By Glenn Abel

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Day art A world filled with fear. Nations hopelessly divided, on the brink of war. Nuclear arms in the wrong hands, at the ready. Enter, from the skies, a starship bearing a savior, his robot and a promise of global peace via a fail-proof solution to war.

Answered prayers? Certainly not in Hollywood's 1951, when the alien peacemaker, Klaatu, was duly hunted down and slain. Not in the real-life 1950s, either, when Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" terrified much of its audience with images of the robot enforcer Gort. Today, wistful viewers might ask: Where are Klaatu and Gort when we need them most?

Fox has rereleased this classic mixture of drama and science fiction as part of its Studio Classics collection (retail $19.98). The DVD offers a restored and remastered version of the film that's out of this world. Extras are interesting, but a bit dated -- they debuted on laserdisc in the mid-'90s. Man art

Another fascinating tale of a visitor from the skies, "The Man Who Fell to Earth," returns to DVD in a THX-stamped restoration (retail $29.98). David Bowie, 100% credible as an alien, stars in Nicolas Roeg's cynical cult film from 1976.

A strong believer in UFOs and a passionate opponent of atomic warfare, Wise seemed the perfect choice to direct. "It was a marvelous way to get a message to the world," Wise says in his DVD commentary. Studio mogul Darryl Zanuck, hardly a dove, saw the film only as good entertainment.

Zanuck nonetheless backed Wise when co-star Sam Jaffe came under attack for his left-wing politics. Jaffe, who plays the Einstein figure, was perfect for his part, finger-in-socket hair and all.

The Klaatu role seemed destined for Spencer Tracy or Claude Rains, but Zanuck ultimately decided that a newcomer was needed to sell the otherworldy being (imagine Tracy walking out of a flying saucer). From London came the tall and elegant Michael Rennie, with his angular features and piercing eyes.

Rennie's pals Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe took the other main adult roles, with Billy Gray playing the kid who befriends and understands the alien as he masquerades as a human. ("I try to associate myself with the film the most I can," Gray says these days.) Neal had a hard time taking the story seriously, blowing endless takes as she cracked up at lines such as the immortal "Klaatu barada nikto." Marlowe, a Fox contract player, played the Judas figure. His leaden performance comes in for relentless bashing from Wise's co-commentator on the DVD, director Nicholas Meyer ("Star Trek").

Wise says he was unaware of the Christ references when he made the movie, though, as Meyer points out, they are pretty hard to miss. Screenwriter Edmund H. North gave the alien the alias of Carpenter. He is betrayed by a stuffed-shirt Judas, killed by the government as preaches peace, and is resurrected from the dead. (Censors demanded that the resurrection be temporary and that God's powers of eternal life must be mentioned by Klaatu upon revival.)

The Army refused to cooperate after reading the script, but the National Guard agreed to provide the military hardware. Most of the film was shot in Culver City, with second-unit work in Washington. None of the cast members went to the capital. Wise admits he doesn't know how many of the film's famous special effects such as the killer laser beam were done, even today.

The giant robot Gort was in fact a doorman at Hollywood's Chinese Theatre who stood 7-foot-7 and wore 6-inch platforms in costume. The doorman was too frail at that height to pick up actress Neal, so various tricks were used to give the robot his towering menace.

The audio restoration gives Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score extra punch, even in simple stereo, with dramatic lows pounding out of the subwoofer. Herrmann employed a pair of electronic Theramins to crank up the eerie mood.

The crisp black-and-white images have an elegant silvery tone, benefiting greatly from the film's latest restoration, as demonstrated on a DVD extra. The superimposed images of the actors in Washington blend in much better with the fine grain than on the laser. Night shots are breathtaking. The film is presented full frame (1.33:1).

A 70-minute documentary features Wise, Neal, producer Julian Blaustein and Gray, the ex-child actor. Other extras include the script, a 1951 newsreel and still galleries.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" gets a needed restoration as well, coming in a two-disc set. Director Roeg toys with time in the same way that "Memento" did years later. The film is, by turns, creepy and cheesy, literate and vapid. Some viewers will be fascinated; others bored. Anchor Bay bills the film as uncensored, and indeed, it is sexually charged.

Bowie, in his first starring role, worked with a strong supporting cast that included Candy Cane (a maid who loves the alien), Rip Torn (a professor obsessed with him) and Buck Henry (the patent attorney who builds his fortune).

The Bowie character sneaks onto Earth seeking water for his dying planet. He builds a high-tech conglomerate to accomplish the task but ends up brutalized by corporate raiders who learn his secret. "We'd have probably treated you the same way," he says to his tormentors. Peter O'Toole originally had the part but backed out. Bowie provided a new face for their alien. The androgynous Bowie was "just at the height of his beauty," co-star Clark points out. "I thought he looked like he came from another planet, so it was easy to pretend he was."

Roeg is on camera for much the 24-minute featurette, praising "the marvelous charity" of his investors, who rarely make money. Clark looks like a soccer mom, in startling contrast to her white-trash character in the film.

Audio comes in DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX, both making modest use of the extra rear-center speaker. Dialogue is clear. John Phillips' eclectic music sounds good, ranging from old-time pop to spacey jazz.

The film comes in widescreen (2.35:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs. Images are soft, in keeping with Roeg's other films of the period. Colors are decent colors but a bit washed out.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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