The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for scary images and violence
Running time: 104 min.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, John Cleese, Kyle Chandler
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: David Scarpa (based on the 1951 film screenplay by Edmund H. North)
Review published August 3, 2009
Remaking a revered classic film is already an uphill struggle, but The Day the Earth Stood Still proves particularly useless in its pursuit from the get go. The main reason? Robert Wise's original 1951 film had been set firmly in the middle of the post-WWII Cold War, where the threat of nuclear annihilation was a palpable reality. Through the course of major events, we humans learn from our alien visitors that there is much more to the universe than we realize, and that killing each other is not the answer.
The 2008 remake also sees the Earth on the brink of destruction, except that it isn't nuclear war that threatens us, but our own negligent treatment of the environment. The aliens have arrived, not to save us, but to save the rest of life on Earth from us.
Jennifer Connelly (Blood Diamond, Little Children) is the protagonist of the film, playing a leading microbiologist named Dr. Helen Benson. Helen is coerced by a group of government agents to join a squad of the Earth's greatest scientific minds to solve a fundamental problem regarding a massive object in space that has appeared suddenly and is threatening to collide with Earth within hours. A giant orb of light (resembling a large marble) descends upon Earth, and emerging from the center of it is a human form, calling himself Klaatu (Reeves, The Lake House). Klaatu has a giant robot bodyguard named Gort to protect him and his interests while he goes out to find the world's leaders in the hope that he can convince them to change their ways.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, as the saying goes, has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, as so often happens when Hollywood intends to inject audiences with messages in the guise of a big sci-fi/action blockbuster, its head is nowhere to be found.
Despite being widely regarded by critics as an actor of limited range, it isn't Keanu Reeves that kills the film's entertainment value. In fact, his role practically necessitates not having to act, reciting his lines in a stoic, lifeless fashion that is easily within Reeves' ability. And yet, it still sticks out somehow as bad, as if he's laboring so much not to emote, it comes off just as hammy as when he does. Connelly also proves to be a liability. It's not that she can't act, it's just that she might be too talented, too credible to believe in the construct of a very implausible story. Kathy Bates (PS I Love You, The Golden Compass) brings a great deal of life and energy to a role that ends up going a whole lot of nowhere as the most likely heavy of the film.
Making comparisons to the original film is very easy to do, and when the original is considered one of the best and most influential science fiction films of all time, the chance of a Keanu Reeves remake to live up to expectations seems infinitesimal. However, the one aspect of the remake that you'd suspect would at least be improved is the special effects. Certainly, when compared side by side, the new version runs rings around the special effects from the 1950s. And yet, the updated effects still look fake by today's eyes. Take, for example, Gort. At least he looked like a giant robot in the original film. In the new version, he looks like a giant cyclopean CGI cartoon in the middle of live-action actors, which is precisely what it is. Some of the late moments in the film include the destruction of buildings and stadiums that are definitely impressive, but by the time they occur, most of the audience is either bored or shaking their heads in disbelief by how awry the story has gone.
It sure doesn't help when what should be the most fascinating character of the film, Klaatu, ends up being the least. At no time do we get a feel for just who or what he is, why he does what he does, or even what purpose he serves in the film, save for a potential deus-ex-machina ending. The whole goal of Connelly's character in the latter half of the film is to convince Klaatu that human beings, when on the precipice of destruction, can change their ways. Do you think that all use of Earth's resources such as oil and metal will cease because of certain destruction? If a human like me doesn't buy it, how can a party of aliens hell-bent of humanity's destruction ever become convinced?
Of course, the message of the film is flawed for one major reason. The entire time, Dr. Benson is essentially telling this alien race that human beings have the capacity to change, but only when faced with its own extinction. Destroying the Earth, the environment, and killing off every non-human creature on the planet is perfectly acceptable, and does not necessitate any action on our part to remedy. Why in the world would a race of powerful and judgmental aliens be moved that humanity only has the capacity for change when it faced with certain death?
By the end of the movie, you'll be wishing that, in addition to those buildings and bridges eradicated, that movie theaters will also be taken down, particularly the one you're watching the film in, just so you won't have to endure anymore of the heavy-handed, and misguided, preaching. It also doesn't aid the message's cause when one entire key scene is a blatant advertisement for McDonald's (two alien characters in human form meet in what has to be the cleanest, quietest, and most upscale McDonald's in the country), which goes to show that perhaps the heart wasn't in the right place either when feeding the coffers of corporations that are partially responsible for the global warming situation the storyline is so much against (the mass consumption of beef alone is seen as a major contributor to CO2 emissions) .
The blandness of Reeves' character can be said about everything else set up in the film. Kathy Bates' cranky Secretary of Defense, Connelly's scientist, Smith's (The Pursuit of Happyness) precocious youngster (easily the most annoying character in a film full of them), and a slew of supporting players are given plenty of early screen time only just become fodder for special effects destruction in the final half hour. The directorial decisions, combined with the lacking screenplay, lead to some very poor examples of storytelling. When you can't find a single character in the film you care about as far as survival goes, it doesn't say much for those we don't see, i.e., the rest of humanity. And when the end of the film suggests the end of all of us and we aren't in awe or even moved one iota about that prospect, the only conclusion is that the film fails, both as a story and as a message of morality.
The Day the Earth Stood Still isn't the worst science fiction film in recent years, but it is a reminder of how far Hollywood has fallen in terms of marrying social commentary with populist delivery (Wall-E is a notable exception, and virtually negates this film's existence in every capacity). If Spielberg couldn't best a 1950s classic like the original War of the Worlds, why would anyone think Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno) has what it takes to remake an even better and more beloved film? Although not everyone's cup of tea, the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, proves far more riveting and terrifying than anything the makers of this best-forgotten misfire can conjure up with its slick direction, a vast budget for effects, and an ominous score.
Without even seeing the movie, you can do your part to help the environment. You might feel proud doing your part for the Earth, and for yourself and family, by not wasting any precious oil in traveling to the theater to see it or purchasing the DVD.
©2009 Vince Leo