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Movie Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
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The Day the Earth Stood Still
2008
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm
Rated PG-13
Release date: December 12, 2008

The latest classic film to get the remake treatment is Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. As much as this may seem like a bad idea, the original’s central idea — an extraterrestrial in human form landing on Earth not wanting to invade and enslave us, but rather help us achieve a new level of enlightenment at the risk of our complete annihilation — has for a long time been ripe for an updated perspective. Wise’s original was released several years after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in the final days of World War II and anti-Communist paranoia was on the rise as the Soviet Union was coming to the forefront as a world superpower. Several large nations had access to the most dangerous and destructive weapons ever created by man and as it is these days there was always the nagging fear that the leaders of those nations who had no idea of the scope of the power they held in their hands would be willing to wage a devastating nuclear war to maintain their global supremacy.

Although the Cold War was officially ended in 1989, the U.S. government and other prominent world leaders have never had a problem drudging up a new enemy on which to focus their fear and hatred, and by extension the fear and hatred of the people they led. Adding to that was the continued pillaging of the planet’s natural resources by avaricious major corporations and the corrosive effect it has had on our already fragile environment. The combination of those distinct but equally volatile elements made the time right for a cinematic cautionary tale in the vein of 1984 (which was already a book, I know) 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Dr. Strangelove, The Abyss, Children of Men, , and of course the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now the question is, does this new Day hold a candle to the original and the other standard bearers in the genre that came before it?

Scientist and Princeton professor Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is taken from her home one night and transported to a military base in New York City along with a group of scientists from different fields. There they receive a briefing from Helen’s old colleague Granier (Jon Hamm) that a rather sizable object of immense proportions is approaching Earth and is about to crash in Manhattan. Believing that the world is about to end, Helen and the others prepare for the worst, but to their surprise the gigantic orb-like object slows down once it hits the atmosphere and lands safely in the middle of Central Park. A humanoid figure outfitted in a full body suit resembling placenta emerges from the craft along with a monolithic metal bodyguard and is about to make contact with Helen when a trigger-happy sniper shoots it. The giant metal man goes into action disabling the military’s weapons and driving people to their knees, but a strange uttering from his master deactivates him. Back at the base, the being eventually sheds its skin and is revealed to look remarkably like a human male. His name is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves).

Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) arrives on the scene and attempts to get Klaatu to reveal his agenda. Obviously she doesn’t like his answers so she authorizes the alien’s interrogation. Sensing a connection with the otherworldly visitor, Helen helps Klaatu escape from the base. Once out, Klaatu reveals that he has come to Earth to save it from the humans. He is a member of a league of civilizations that has decreed Earth is too valuable as a source of sustaining life to be ruined by the destructive nature of the human race so they must be exterminated to ensure its survival. Helen, along with her haunted stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), uses everything in her power to convince Klaatu that mankind is not beyond salvation. Time is running out; the alien has engaged the planet-destroying “Process” and may not be able to stop it before all life on Earth is dead.

As an unnecessary remake The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t too bad, but it still need not have been made because it’s obvious from its opening moments that the filmmakers’ intentions were not to make an intelligent and passionate piece of genre cinema, but rather another soulless, effects-driven blockbuster spectacle in which the images take precedent over the ideas. Ultimately, it isn’t the worst film of the year, but it’s hardly a blight on the brilliant original. One could gleam this conclusion from the uninspiring marketing campaign that shows all the great FX money shots while keeping the most important aspect of science fiction cinema — the crucial human element — suppressed like some embarrassing secret.

The remake, ably helmed by Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson, starts off promisingly enough and maintains an air of mystery and awe for the first half-hour with the arrival of Klaatu and his massive protector (affectionately referred to by the military as G.O.R.T.) and the introduction of some interesting new ideas regarding how the visitor uses human DNA to form his Earth identity and the origin of his fascinating power over electricity. Derrickson and his technical crew also did well by Gort, making the big boy even bigger with a quasi-retro look complete with laser-blasting visor and shiny outer shell. They even gave Gort, an additional feature that figures prominently into the final stage of the “Process” that powers the film’s third act.

The film is also well cast, but not without an occasional weak link. Few actors can play an emotionless extraterrestrial like Keanu Reeves can. Unfortunately, his robotic acting style doesn’t serve him well for most of the film as it deprives Reeves of showing any emotional growth in the character. He reads all his lines like a bad Spock impersonator. Compared to the regal presence of the original film’s Klaatu Michael Rennie, Reeves often acts like the victim of the worst constipation bout. Jennifer Connelly fares better because she’s a much more talented actor than Reeves, and yet her scientist character doesn’t get many opportunities to show different dimensions and other emotions outside of alternately being concerned and being scared. Jaden Smith, son of the Fresh Prince, doesn’t give as annoying a performance as most reviews have claimed. He plays a kid who recently lost his father and is confused as to what’s really going on and it reflects in his character. Although Smith’s acting tends to grate, he holds his own with the cast of professionals he’s matched with.

It’s thus left up to the supporting cast of film and television professionals to improve the movie’s acting quality. Kathy Bates could play the kind of hard-nosed authoritarian character she plays here in her sleep, and it often seems like she does. During her scene with Reeves, I wish Bates would draw up a bit of the fire she had in the past playing juicy roles such as Libby Holden in Primary Colors and Dolores Claiborne. Hell, it would have been awesome to channel Annie Wilkes the madwoman of Misery and sledgehammer Reeves’ ankles as he laid in that hospital bed to get him acting. Jon Hamm of Mad Men drops his smooth talking Don Draper act to play the frazzled Granier. He’s fine even though his character doesn’t get much face time for most of the film or even a stand-out scene like most of the cast. Robert Knepper (Prison Break) makes the most of his part as a macho military bonehead leading the effort to contain Gort….big mistake. I was surprised to see Tropic Thunder‘s Alpa Chino Brandon Jackson in a small role as a soldier. Kyle Chandler, another veteran of quality television from Friday Night Lights, steps up ably for a few scenes as another fearful government schmuck.

In a cast this well-stocked with topline acting talent the stand-outs are the two actors who’ve been in the game longer than any of their fellow cast members. James Hong has a single memorable scene as one of Klaatu’s fellow aliens who has been on Earth all his life. He has a touching monologue where he expresses the good that he has observed in the human race. But the best scene in this new Day goes to the brilliant British comic actor John Cleese taking over for the original’s Sam Jaffe as the Nobel Prize honoree Professor Barnhardt, the man of science who proves crucial in the effort to change Klaatu’s destructive agenda. He and Reeves have a wonderful moment where the two minds meet at Barnhardt’s blackboard to solve a complicated scientific formula that has perplexed the scientist for years. Watching the two of them weaving the chalk like wizards’ wands while a classical music selection from Bach underscores them turns the scene into a magical dance of intellect and humanism that will go down as one of my favorite scenes of any film made this year.

But that’s where the good points of the movie end and where it’s true problems begin, and they can all be found in how Derrickson and writer David Scarpa (working from the 1951 screenplay by Edmund North that was based on the short story Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates) reworked the original Day the Earth Stood Still‘s narrative. In attempting to update the relevance of Robert Wise’s classic film for a new generation the filmmakers have gutted the thematic backbone that drove the 1951 film’s story and dumbed it down to the point where I felt as offended as I did when I first watched the 2005 movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and how it completely destroyed the story arc that ran throughout all five of Douglas Adams’ masterful novels of sci-fi satire.

At this point I’m completely sick and tired of Jesus Christ and general biblical references in genre films because it just feels like writers and directors are so desperate to give their story an epic grandeur that they will fall back on these well-worn story tropes. As if the Matrix trilogy didn’t hammer that analogy enough into our skulls like we were being mentally crucified, here we get the thrill to the dull-as-dishwater sights of Keanu Reeves walking on water and resurrecting the dead with a mere touch of his hand (only after he’s killed them first). Plus, if you’ve always wondered what the mighty Gort would look like if it were to suddenly break down into an Old Testament plague of microscopic mechanical locusts that destroy anything and anybody in its path, then thank your lucky stars because Scott Derrickson has answered your prayers. But chances are you didn’t want that, and in that case you are just like every other fan of the original Day , including myself, or just someone who thinks that religious subtext in a science fiction story is kind of like a turd in a punchbowl.

In the original Day the Earth Stood Still the entire point of Klaatu and Gort’s visit was to issue a warning to mankind and give it a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the vastly superior races that monitor its progression and regression. There were no millions of dollars in visual effects to distract from that simple and stark reality. Klaatu returns to his planet knowing that, thanks to the noble efforts and willingness to change of a few select humans, the people of Earth can alter the course of their evolution. Instead, in the remake Klaatu is pretty much set on destroying the human race. Then he spends a few hours in the company of doe-eyed Connelly and her precocious step-brat and after about an hour of them pleading with Klaatu to spare mankind, the constipated visitor from the stars changes his mind without having seen anything to really show that they can do better. No my friends the filmmakers fall back on that most hoariest of cinematic cliches — in the end love conquers all, but only after several scenes of the Gort swarm laying waste to a bunch of cars and buildings in disintegrating fashion. In the end we have learned nothing, but we did get to see a lot of cool shit blow up! At least the special effects are well done if seemingly amateurish when weighed against the classics of the past, and composer Tyler Bates contributes another fine musical score.

Despite the presence of some minor original ideas and fine performances, this new Day the Earth Stood Still remains a waste of celluloid and an idea that should have stayed on the drawing board, a thankless remake in a time where originality should be embraced and not shunted.

BAADASSSSS will return.

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