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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Retro Sci-Fi DVD Roundup: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek: Alternate Realities.

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Wed, Dec 3, 2008 at 2:36 PM

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So yesterday--just in time for the new version!--a fancy-pants two-disc edition of 1951's classic The Day the Earth Stood Still came out on DVD. Thoughts on that DVD are after the jump, and because why not, I'm also going to use this post as an excuse to talk about two other, somewhat recent sci-fi DVD releases: The Outer Limits: The Complete Original Series and Star Trek: Alternate Realities.

Wait. Am I not supposed to refer to anything that's science fiction-y as "sci-fi" anymore? Shit. This post is already doomed.

First, a disclaimer/observation about how incredibly incestuous the sci-fi genre can be, as evidenced by these three releases: The Day the Earth Stood Still is directed by Robert Wise, who also directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which starred William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy--two actors who also appear in not only the Star Trek: Alternate Realities collection but also in The Outer Limits. Author Harlan Ellison wrote a couple of episodes of The Outer Limits (as well as some Star Trek) and also appears, being a grumpy old cantankerous bastard, in that video I linked to above. Two of Ellison's Outer Limits episodes reportedly inspired James Cameron to write The Terminator, which caused Ellison to get all pissy about not getting a shout-out in the credits for The Terminator. Meanwhile, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles stars that one dude from Beverly Hills 90210.

Huh. Okay. So I think I kind of lost my thread there with that Brian Austin Green business, but what I'm basically trying to say is that apparently, about four people on the whole planet are responsible for all of science fiction, and they all know each other.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (Two-Disc Special Edition)
There's a reason this thing is a classic: Over half a century after it was made, it's still awesome. When a UFO unexpectedly lands in Washington, D.C., two things come out: The first is a badass robot named Gort who vaporizes tanks with his laser vision, and the second is Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an ambassador who represents the galaxy's civilized planets. Long story short, the galaxy is fucking terrified of Earth, because all humanity does is build weapons and kill ourselves with them--so they've sent Klaatu to tell us that we can either clean up our act or get destroyed. The fear-stricken, violent peoples of Earth react to Klaatu's decree in a predictably reasonable, mature, intelligent fashion.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is fantastic: Smart and weird and cool, it takes some genuinely great ideas and bundles them together to make an incredibly entertaining story. The retro charm of the thing (Gort is a dude in a rubber suit!) makes just looking at it a lot of fun, but the actual story here is pretty timeless and relevant.

Anyway, it's highly recommended if you haven't already seen it, especially with the Keanu-fied version looming, and this two-disc set is the way to do it: There are a bunch of solid features on here, from featurettes on the making of the film to previews of the new version. But the best two featurettes contextualize the movie in really great and unexpected ways: An old newsreel from 1951, "Fox Movietonenews," contains a brief snippet about the film but is more interesting in its reportage on the then-terrifying red scare--seeing how utterly frightened Americans were of insidious communists at the time of the film's release makes the whole film feel very different, and there's also a weirdly fascinating look at the '50s sci-fi soundtrack staple the theremin.

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The Outer Limits: The Complete Original Series
If The Day the Earth Stood Still is retro sci-fi at its best, The Outer Limits is everything else: Running from 1963 to 1965, The Outer Limits was an anthology series that featured a new cast and a new story every week. It's a great idea in theory, but one that's scattershot in execution: Some of these episodes are killer, and some of 'em are terrible. I haven't made my way though all of 'em yet--there are like 50 hour-long episodes in this set!--but a few highlights include the "scheming Asians have stolen our political leaders' faces!" episode "The Hundred Days of the Dragon" (which, again, is pretty telling about Americans' attitudes at the time), the pilot episode, "The Galaxy Being" (image above), in which a jerky nerd accidentally makes contact with an alien who wreaks havoc on a small town, "Soldier," which is one of those Ellison/Termintor episodes; and "I, Robot," which features a young Leonard Nimoy as a reporter who's covering the trail of a robot.

In short, when you think back to budget sci-fi from the '60s--cardboard sets, janky costumes, special effects that involve model spaceships hanging from string with sparklers taped to them--The Outer Limits is likely what you're thinking of. These can be fun, but there are a lot of mixed-quality episodes here, and I doubt anyone but the most hardcore fan of the show is gonna need this box set. Plus, as good as some of these are, the whole series is a pretty shameless ripoff of the vastly superior The Twilight Zone, which you can also track down on DVD.

Oh! And! Remember that stuff I was talking about earlier with the incestuous nature of the sci-fi genre? Well, here's more: The Outer Limits' "I, Robot" is not this I, Robot, and in 1995, when The Outer Limits was relaunched as a new anthology series (and a decidedly crappier one), Nimoy starred in a remake of his 1964 episode, which I'm gonna embed right here, because really, what else are you gonna do today?

Okay. Moving on.

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Star Trek: Alternate Realities Collective
God that image is great. That's the noble Jean-Luc Picard flutin' it up in The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light," which is one of the 20 episodes collected here. The impetus for this set seems to be collecting Trek's "mirror universe" stories--the ones set in an alternate dimension, where Spock has a goatee, which is how you can tell he's totally evil. But since those only account for about eight episodes, the set also collects some shows with the themes "Twisted Realities" and "Alternate Lives." So there's time travel and alternate dimensions, and evil versions of Kirk and Spock and Sulu, and kind of whatever else you can think of--it's more or less a grab bag of some of the less conventional Trek episodes. The collection also includes pretty much the only two episodes of Enterprise that didn't totally suck, and even one or two from Voyager that hold up pretty well. While the Deep Space Nine ones are pretty middling, there are enough classics here from the original series and The Next Generation to make the set worth picking up, provided you can't quite bring yourself to cough up the dough for all the overpriced individual seasons of Star Trek's many iterations.

And also, the box set comes with this sticker on the outside, which is ludicrous and great. It makes me wonder what LeVar Burton does when he's shopping for DVDs and sees it. I bet he runs up to the clerk at Circuit City and demands they give him a high five. Then he probably tries to trick them into reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

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