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Day the Earth Stood Still, The (2008) Print E-mail
Monday, 15 December 2008
ImageThe original “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” released in 1951, memorably starred Michael Rennie as Klaatu, an alien emissary sent to Earth to try to persuade us to keep our war-like activities confined to our own planet.  This remake, of the same title, stars Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, also an alien emissary, but he’s here to tell us that the cosmos only has a small number of planets capable of supporting life—and we’re ruining ours.  He’s here to save the Earth, not mankind; if we live, the planet dies; if we die, the planet lives.  For Klaatu and the alien civilizations he represents, the choice is obvious.  

Changing the theme from ban-the-bomb to save-the planet is a reasonably timely updating, except that, sadly, the anti-war premise is just as applicable today.  Nonetheless, evidently in hopes of making the new film more contemporary, the change was made.  That’s not a significant problem.  Some of the other changes are reasonable, like Helen Benson changed from Patricia Neal’s widowed housewife to Jennifer Connelly’s astrophysicist, raising her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will) alone.  But there is a major problem, one so severe it essentially destroys the film.

Most of the other changes are designed to make the movie more visually spectacular and to provide enough visual material to make previews satisfactorily spectacular and exciting.  The one getting the most play is the sight of an 18-wheeler truck (and its driver) being devoured into nothingness by a buzzing black cloud.  

But the story in itself is no visual spectacle; it plays out on a very human level.  More even than the first film, the new one is about alien Klaatu learning that there is value to the human race, that they might be worth sparing long enough to see if they can work out their own problems.  Even Klaatu’s attendant robot, Gort, here three times the size of the original, isn’t especially spectacular, as most of the time all he does is just stand there, right outside Klaatu’s spaceship.  (Here, a giant, swirling globe looking like a cloudy planet Earth, actually considerably less impressive than the glowing flying saucer of the original.)  This CGI Gort fires rays from his eyeslit, just as in the original, but the rays here simply switch off the technology of whatever he aims at, rather than reducing the targets to mounds of glowing slag, as in 1951.  He has another power, revealed near the end, which is more silly than spectacular, and something of a red herring.  Oh, it does its stuff for a while (for the previews), but Klaatu’s mind has been changed by this point. At least, that’s what he tells Helen.  It’s otherwise not easy to tell.  Michael Rennie’s Klaatu had the full range of human emotions—and we saw him in what, I suppose, was his original form.  Here, Klaatu emerges from the ship as a gray, humanoid figure immediately shot by a sniper (as in the original); rushed to a hospital, the gray covering turns out to be something like a placenta.  Inside, Klaatu develops from an embryonic but full-sized human figure into Keanu Reeves.

Reeves is perfectly acceptable casting for this role; he’s a bit alien most of the time.  But he’s chosen or been directed to play Klaatu as a blank slate, completely unemotional, no facial reactions at all.  But Reeves is an eloquent enough actor that by altering his stance and working his eyes slightly, he can suggest some (mild) emotional responses, as when he responds to Jacob’s reaction to the death of a policeman, and when he later saves Jacob himself.  But the idea of an alien without human emotions is by now hackneyed, trite and far too familiar; this was simply the wrong way to go.

The story roughly follows the original, with at least one unexpected, if minor, addition, plus a peculiar prologue, in which a human Keanu Reeves, way up a snowy mountain in India, encounters one of the alien globes back in 1928.  It leaves a mark on the back of his hand, heavily established in close up—and then totally forgotten.  Presumably the aliens sampled his DNA, but don’t use it for 80 years.  However, they do use someone else’s.  So what was this mountaintop scene all about?

Klaatu’s spaceship lands on Earth, in Central Park this time, rather than a baseball field in a Washington DC park.  When the human Klaatu is fully formed, he speaks English perfectly, and politely declares he must speak to the United Nations at once.  Secretary of State Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) tells him this is impossible; he’s evidently the property of the United States.  When she states, “This is our planet,” he coolly replies, “No.  It isn’t.”  When he’s hooked to a lie detector, this evidently gives him control over the entire building’s electrical and communications systems; he knocks out all the people, dons the suit of his interrogator, and walks out the door.

At a busy railroad station, he sees some of the worst of humanity in action, then cleverly finds a way to meet Helen.  She was one of those he met while still in captivity; rather than inject him with a top-secret drug, she humanely used a saline solution, so he’s aware she’s compassionate.  He takes her and the boy to—talk about product placement—a McDonalds where he has a conversation with an EARLIER alien sent to Earth (James Hong), who’s been here for 70 years.  When Klaatu points out that now he can leave, he chooses not to.  “This is my home now,” the aging alien tells the newcomer.  “This is my home now.  They are a destructive race, but there is another side.  I love them.”  This is the most interesting addition to the “Day the Earth Stood Still” story, but after this scene, the elderly alien is never seen again.

Meanwhile, the army encases the guardian robot in a big box and flies it off to an isolate “flash” base (the meaning of “flash” is eventually demonstrated).  The shots of the giant robot (or thing) in a chamber have a true science fiction impact; they could be realizations of the cover of an issue of “Astounding.”  Furthermore, other spheres, much smaller, have landed all around the world and are gathering biological specimens—we see frogs, snakes, scorpions and other creatures scurry toward the cloudy spheres.

Helen takes Klaatu to Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), where the two men have an amusing blackboard duel of working out a formula, and Cleese delivers the only line actually retained from the earlier movie.  (Supposedly “Klaatu barada nikto” is in there somewhere, but I didn’t hear it.)  The conversation between the scientist (originally based on Einstein, and here he lives not far from Einstein’s Princeton) and the alien is interesting, very serious, very direct and very intelligent.  Barnhardt won the Nobel Prize, we’re told, for “biological altruism.”  Huh?

The first half of this “Day the Earth Stood Still” is far better than the second.  The script, by David Scarpa, is careful in how it builds the situation; suspense accrues as Klaatu is first identified, then escapes, then hooks up with Helen and the very skeptical Jacob.  But when his goal becomes clear, the movie slows down and marks time.  
The biggest problem with the film is the ending, but discussing it constitutes a spoiler.  Therefore, SEE BELOW**

Remakes have been part of Hollywood moviemaking since the beginning; there’s nothing inherently wrong with redoing a film, even a certified classic like Robert Wise’s original “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”  But there should be an obvious reason beyond the pro forma redo of a popular movie for the remake to be made in the first place, and there’s no such reason here.  It’s as if the time for a remake came along, and so Fox went ahead and did it, as if forced to.  The movie is surprisingly lifeless, even in the early scenes; it comes to life for a moment in the brief scene with John Cleese, then turns blank and inexpressive again, just like its lead character.  Little or no suspense is generated; there’s none of the almost overwhelming tension of the early scenes of Wise’s movie.  Part of that was because of the outstanding score by Bernard Herrmann; the highly conventional score here is by Tyler Bates, and is anything but memorable.

But it’s also because of the stolid direction by Scott Derrickson.  He directed one of the “Hellraiser” movies and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”  He has a straightforward style—keep things moving, concentrate on the characters—but he’s also humorless, even glum.  The movie is mostly well paced, although as mentioned before, it does slow down at about the 2/3 mark, and never picks up again.  The scenes have little human energy; there are too many shots of people staring off in awe at something just out of our sight that’s glowing brightly.  It’s as if he cannot generate the sense of wonder Wise conjured up so effectively in the original, and so is going for serious and solemn instead.  Even with the tension of the original, there was a lightness of touch that works even today.  This movie doesn’t have anything like the amusing, revelatory shot of Klaatu discovering what a music box does. (Rennie’s reaction: a delighted laugh; Reeves’ Klaatu is incapable of laughter.)

The 1950s established virtually all the science fiction themes that Hollywood has repeatedly returned to since.  Virtually all of the major SF films of that decade have been remade (exception: “Forbidden Planet;” a remake was announced in October).  Sometimes the new movies turned out very well without drastic changes, as with the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  Sometimes the changes were radical and resulted in a very different movie, occasionally an exceptional one, like David Cronenberg’s redo of “The Fly.”  Sometimes they were mixed bags—impressive and disappointing by turns, like the redo of “The Thing.”  And sometimes they were utter disasters, like the 2007 remake of—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  This new “Day the Earth Stood Still” is not a disaster, but it’s a movie that has no reason to exist beyond the helpless thought of “well, we might as well redo it.”  Some elements are interesting and worthy, others are mistakes.  There are no soul-destroying, cataclysmic blunders here—but this movie will never supplant the original.  In five years, when people refer to “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” they won’t be talking about this one.

**SPOILERS FOLLOW.  And one reason they won’t be talking about this one is the dreadful ending.  In the original film, when Klaatu is denied the opportunity to speak to all of Earth’s leaders in one massive meeting, he realizes he has to do something to demonstrate the power he represents.  So he returns to his spaceship and with the help of Gort sets up the day the Earth does stand still.  At a preset time (Klaatu and the heroine are in an elevator at the key moment), all power on Earth is simply switched off for half an hour.  Trains and automobiles halt; electric signs and traffic lights go out; all electricity is cut off.  (Dialogue carefully explains that there were some exceptions—hospitals, planes in flight, that sort of thing.)  That Klaatu can do this gives punch to his threat to reduce the Earth to a burnt-out cinder.   

Here, Klaatu apparently wants the meeting with Earth’s leaders simply to tell them he and his robot are going to destroy all human life and everything we built (the destructive force is seen eating a truck and its driver, and also road signs).  So the decision to wipe out mankind was already made; I guess he was going to tell us this just so we could kiss our asses goodbye.  However, as mentioned earlier, he does gain a better attitude toward humanity, and instead, as his ship leaves, all the power on Earth is turned off—the Earth stands still.  But now there’s no sign it will ever get moving again; Klaatu has wiped out powered technology, even watches.  But this time we have to assume that there are millions of deaths the world over: planes plunging out of the sky, ships stranded at sea with no way to reach a shore, patients in hospitals depending on technology to stay alive.  There would be vast fields of crops that can never be harvested, researchers dependent on technology (as with bases in the Antarctic) are goners.  Presumably, after this initial plunge of mankind to a pre-technology stage could in time be overcome—but we’d still be the same planet-ruining race we are today.  Surely the alien races Klaatu represents must have risen from to an advanced technological level; surely they must have found ways to keep from despoiling their planets.  Why doesn’t Klaatu merely give us those solutions?  No, the title is “The Day the Earth Stood Still” so by gum the Earth has to stand still because it’s, like, cool.   

Remakes should represent new thinking of old ideas and/or embody new production techniques.  There’s nothing really new about this movie, except that it’s in color.  And, unlike the original, is quite profoundly stupid.  (Thanks for some of this insight to Kerry Gammill of the Classic Horror Film Board.)

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