A film review by Craig J. Koban


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 Hong

Directed by Scott Derrickson / Written by David Scarpa, based on the 1951 script by Edmund H. North.

Robert 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).   

The 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. 

This, 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. 

This 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 stylistic approach. 

The 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 modifications. 

Firstly, 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 exponentially.  Eventually, 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. 

Once 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. 

Slowly 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 barada nikto,” 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. 

The 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 manifestation.  However, 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 involvement. 

Yet, 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. 

This 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 here, folks.

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