A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
2008, PG-13, 103 mins.
2008, PG-13, 103 mins.
Klaatu: Keanu Reeves / Helen Benson: Jennifer Connelly /
Regina Jackson: Kathy Bates / Barnhardt: John Cleese / Michael
Granier: Jon Hamm / Jacob Benson: Jaden Smith / Mr. Wu: James
Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a
film that I proudly placed on my list of the Ten
Best Films of the 1950’s. Based
on Harry Bates’ short story FAREWELL TO THE MASTER, Wise’s black
and white alien invasion film was one of the very first efforts of the
genre to transcend it. Earlier
films involving extraterrestrial beings coming to earth were delegated to
B-grade, kiddie matinee fare with lame, shoestring budgets and sloppy production
values. Yet, Wise’s film
stood proudly apart from the heap for the way it became one of the very
first noteworthy sci-fi parables (a staple requite of the best of the
genre even today). It
utilized tried and true fantastical conventions and married them with a
story with a topical, geopolitical significance for the times (the way
Wise used real world concerns and otherworldly elements predated STAR TREK
by more than a decade).
film was a real trendsetter as a result of its then original and inventive
approach. The alien visitors
were not sickeningly grotesque monsters, but were rather human in
appearance. They were also
outwardly benign as well, but also came with a rather
uncharacteristic twist: They came to Earth to warn us in both greetings of
peace and a dire ultimatum – stop your warring ways or else be
completely decimated. Not
only did THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL comment on the growing concerns of
the Atomic Age and bitter Cold War politics, but its also was the first in
the long string of intelligent and introspective sci-fi films that gave
legitimacy to the genre. Thought-provoking
works about aliens, like Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
and Robert Zemeckis’ terribly underrated CONTACT may not have been possible
without Wise’s 1950’s tale. Most
importantly, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL made a once spat on genre important and relevant.
of course, inevitably brings me to the new large scale remake of the film,
which marks the second attempt at retooling a classic sci-fi film in the
last few years (the other notable example was THE
INVASION, based on several incarnations of INVASION OF THE BODY
SNATCHERS). After seeing remake after remake over the last few years I
have realized that they are seemingly becoming one of the predominant
genres today. In essence, I
have fairly humble expectations of them: (1) They need to be faithful –
at least in tone – to the original it’s trying to emulate and (2) it
needs to find a fresh and revitalizing manner of telling the original
story over again for contemporary audiences.
2007’s THE INVASION, despite its troubled production history, was
able to fulfill these two basic requirements.
Likewise, this newer and much more lavishly and epically mounted
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL more or less appeases my simple requirements. The
film certainly may not recapture the original’s subtle and haunting
allure, nor is it as suitably low key as Wise’s film (this remake is
much more in love with mammoth visual effects and gee-whiz spectacle than
Wise ever was). Yet, the film
certainly has a very difficult legacy to uphold, and despite the fact that
this new DAY is more comfortable with pyrotechnics and big wow moments,
it's still nonetheless maintains some semblance of a social advocacy film.
Like the previous, it too is about ideas and involving debates,
despite the fact that it changes the setting, time, and themes and is, at
face value, more or less a popcorn alien invasion flick.
new DAY has the same basic essence of Wise’s ’51 entry, but it
certainly ups the ante in terms of visual scope and scale.
Yes, the effects here are mighty impressive and, on the level of
pure artifice and make-believe, this remake is a stellar and memorable
achievement. Whereas the
’51 DAY had the alien visitors come in the obligatory flying
saucers, the ’08 version deserves some accolades for giving viewers the
first truly original and awe-inspiring conception of an extraterrestrial vessel. When the first ship arrives it comes in the form of an
incalculably large metallic sphere that appears organic and alive at every
pore. After seeing endless
sci-fi films give us the same basic and rudimentary vision of alien
crafts, it’s nice to see this new DAY attempting to be different in its
film does have the same basic precepts of the original’s overall plot,
but makes tweaks – some subtle, some very severe.
This film does have a alien visitor from another cosmos named
Klaatu (played in the original by the urbane and wonderfully understated Michael Rennie) that does arrive on Earth with his gigantic robot
companion (in the original the robot was named Gort, in this new version
his name is explained in a different manner as an acronym provided by the
US military). The new film also
has a scene where the military confronts the landed space ship and Klaatu.
Fearing that he may be aggressive, they shoot him and wound him.
Klaatu is greeted in this film by various US politicians and
scientists, is befriended by a woman and a young child, and still has the
same mission of speaking to all of the world leaders to give them a final
warning about trends that are effecting the planet.
All of this is transferred from the ’51 original, but with some
when Klaatu emerges from his pulsating sphere of a ship with the monstrous
Gort (now the product of some obvious CGI and not an obvious tall man in a
plastic suit…and he's much, much larger now) in New
York’s Central Park, he appears like a mannequin covered in a bright and
shimmering space suit. After
he is shot by the army he is abruptly taken by a greeting party headed by
Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connolly, thanklessly decent here) to an
undercover medical facility. One
nifty little twist to this new version is that the surgery on the alien
reveals that his suit is a protective, placenta-like material that is
dissolving off. Once all
removed, it reveals an undeveloped human body that is growing
the alien fully assumes human form, more specifically, the form of actor
Keanu Reeves, which certainly marks one of the best castings of an alien
in a recent film. As an
performer known for his reliably wooden and iconically stoic performances,
there is certainly no one better suited to play the role of Klaatu - an
alien that has been introduced into a human frame - than Neo
himself. Reeves is
the pitch perfect embodiment of emotional and dramatic vacancy here, a
criticism that has plagued his past work, to be sure, but now a sincere compliment in this
film. When Reeves
deadpans a line like “This body will take some getting used to,” it
gets an affectionate – not a mocking - chuckle.
Klaatu finds himself accustomed to his new body, he is confronted by the
US Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates).
He demands that he is given a meeting with all leaders of the
world, which Bates’ Secretary replies would be an impossibility.
This frustrates Klaatu, but he states that nothing will stop him in
his mission. Despite his
outwardly mortal human frame, Klaatu is deceptively dangerous with all
things mechanical (in one clever moment, he abruptly turns the tables on
an attempted lie detector test). He
eventually escapes the facility with the help of Dr. Benson.
She has left behind her young son named Jacob (Jaden Smith
from THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS), who is actually her stepson from a
previous marriage. Jacob’s
dad is revealed to have been killed, so now the son expresses a lot of
pre-teen angst and aggression, especially towards his mother.
The handling of this character is the film’s least satisfying
element, especially considering that you can see his character arc and
later change of heart from a mile away.
Jacob is well played by Smith, but the role is one of plot
convenience more than anything else.
but surely, the very strange Klaatu reveals his true motives to Dr.
Benson. In the previous film
Klaatu told the world that if they did not put down their outward
hostility to one another - and their nukes - then he and his race would be back to destroy
the planet (talk about negative reinforcement!).
This time, Klaatu’s mission is spawned less by fears of Earth’s
Atomic bomb proliferation and the politically warring super powers as it
is about the planet itself. As
he reveals to the doctor in one key expositional moment, his true issues
are with global and environmental change to the planet, which he feels has
been mostly caused by humanity. The
new Klaatu’s end game is decidedly more catastrophic:
His race will destroy every human being on the planet in an effort
to save the planet’s resources from future tampering on their part.
In his mind, Earth is like a precious geological stone that has too
many flaws and imperfections in it and needs to be cleansed anew.
As he creepily tells Benson at one point, “If the Earth dies, you
die. If you die, the Earth
survives” (geez, not much
in the way of giving humans a choice now, huh?).
Benson, of course, pleads with the alien that humans can, in fact,
change for the better, but Klaatu just looks more dispassionate with all
of her pleas, which sets the film in motion towards a fairly predictable
conclusion. Faster than you cam say, “Klaatu
the emotionally impenetrable Klaatu begins to see the error of his ways, but
only after he has already set his plans for human Armageddon in place.
central and chilling heart of both of the DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL films
is a simple question: Does humanity deserve to survive? In the 50’s version the question was pondered based on the
persistent issues of its day, which is much of the same in the new
themes of human caused climate change seem considerably less politically
subversive than the Cold War concerns of Wise’s film.
I think that this reboot could have achieved something more
compelling and relevant if it forced us to ask tougher questions about, say,
America’s growing preoccupation with having a military presence in
other nations. I think that
there is a more endlessly absorbing and chilling film to be had here if
Klaatu focused on wiping out America and her enemies instead of the entire
planet. The best sci-fi films
are parables, but the parable of "be kind to your planet, or else" in this
film feels a bit too pedestrian, obvious, and safe.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL could have been an arresting expose
on our current and fragile post 9/11 socio-political climate.
Man warring on his neighbours is simply more gripping and
polarizing than dealing with worldwide environmental strife.
A film that had the aliens wanting to rid the world of religious
fundamentalist terrorists and the war and fear mongering exploits of their
enemy nation would have inspired so much more contemplation and emotional
the new film (helmed by Scott Derrickson, who previously directed THE EXORCISM
OF EMILY ROSE) is able to overcome its lack of a stirring narrative with
its professional polish and some fine performances.
This new film looks really fine, and the initial alien landing in
New York inspires legitimate awe. The
opening sequences involving Klaatu’s "birth” in human form and
interrogation have a properly eerie vibe.
Later developments, like how Gort is turned from an
immense robot to a dangerous doomsday device, have a great visual flare
(especially when we see the destruction of Shea Stadium; really cool
stuff). Some of the main and supporting performers are quite solid,
especially Connolly as the doctor that becomes more invested in Klaatu’s
earthly mission. Bates is
also effective in the very small part as the Defense Secretary, whereas
side characters played by the likes of John Hamm (a very focused and
dependable actor from TV’s brilliant MAD MEN) and - in one glorious
cameo - by John Cleese, are respectably handled, but are a bit underwritten
for their own good. Cleese in
particular gives the film some much needed poise and gravitas in his
regrettably short and minimal cameo as a Nobel Prize winning scientist.
new THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL does not hold up a candle to the
immortal 1951 classic it’s trying to emulate.
Its story lacks both the tension and thrills of the first
version and an underlining theme that feels frighteningly topical, not to
mention that no attempt was made whatsoever to reproduce Bernard
Hermann’s original and legendary 1951 film score, which used the
electronic Theremin to give the proceedings a evocatively bizarre
sensation. The new DAY also has
an ending that seems rushed and without the weighty prominence of Wise's
entry. Yet, this
new DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a glossy, consummately directed, and a very
fantastic looking invasion film that’s fairly entertaining. Sure, it certainly is not as evocative with its ideas as
Wise’s film, but it undoubtedly makes up for its deficiencies with slick
and rock solid production values (at the bargain price of $80 million, this film’s
looks like twice its budget), some jazzy and spirited effects trickery,
and…yes…Keanu as Klaatu. It
certainly is a hoot watching the actor, where his blank slate stare,
whispery one-note enunciation, and nearly comatose body posture and
emotional inflection actually dominate every scene.
Robotic and expressionless acting is rarely as watchable as it is