THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, one of the best films from the classic era of cinematic science fiction, has been re-imagined for the new millennium; unfortunately, precious little imagination was involved in updating the 57-year-old property. Although there is an admirable attempt to stay true to the higher aspirations of the high-class source material, the new effort is undermined by the need to fashion itself as a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, loaded with exciting special effects. What emerges is a weird hybrid: half preachy message movie; half mindless action flick. Instead of an intricate piece of gene-splicing, however, the result feels more like two (or even three) different films haphazardly edited together. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the current social-political situation hardly provides the same kind of context that lent such memorable gravitas to the original. The threat of gradual environmental disaster lacks the nightmarish intensity of nuclear Armageddon, robbing the remake of believable urgency; its plot feels artificially manipulated by the screenwriter – not a reflection of real-life anxieties and concerns. In short, it’s a summer popcorn movie with mild delusions of grandeur – entertaining as long as you do not make too many demands of it, but no match for the 1951 original.
Despite the apparent need to sweep modern audience up into an action-packed story, the new version suffers from a slack pace that becomes immediately apparent in the credits sequence, set in the 1920s, which features a mountain climber (Reeves) encountering an extra-terrestrial sphere on a snow-packed peak; the unnecessary sequence serves only to reveal where aliens got the human DNA from which Klatuu (also Reeves) clones his human body decades later.
When the film jumps forward to present day, it initially resembles a Michael Crichton science-thriller more than the official source. In particular, scenes of Feds assembling a reluctant team of scientists to deal with the discovery of an alien artifact suggest Sphere; underlining the similarity, Klatuu’s space ship is no longer a flying saucer but – you guessed it – a sphere. After the alien ship lands, the script begins piecing together some familiar elements from the first DAY but omits most of the dialogue and drama, creating a sort of Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story.
This leaves room for the inclusion of several scenes depicting the military’s attempts to destroy GORT, Klaatu’s twenty-foot-tall enforcer robot. These attempts are about as successful as the Japanese army’s efforts to destroy Godzilla (which is to say, not at all), and indeed the later portions of the new DAY begin to resemble a kaiju film from the last fifteen years, with the science-fiction action propping up a rather blatantly delivered message about protecting the environment from mankind. In particular, the Gamera films of the ’90s flirted with the idea that the giant fire-breathing turtle was protecting the Earth – not humanity – and might turn against civilization. This is essentially the plot of DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: Klatuu has come to save the Earth, but to do so he must destroy mankind.
The threat of global annihilation never generates much suspense because the characters never come to life. Most of them walk on and off without making an impression. In the Patricia O’Neal role, Jennifer Connelly now plays an astro-biologist, but the job title does little to augment the character; if anything, her “strong woman” role is less heroic: she is spared from having to faint in the robot’s arms, but nor does she overcome fear and confront the robot to prevent it from unleashing destruction. Even more degraded is the role of her son (now step-son): the original’s may be been too good to be true, but the new one is simply annoying. Only John Cleese (in a much abbreviated role as a mathematician) manages to make a good impression on humanity’s behalf. If not for him, we would have no reason at all to root for the survival of the human race.
Reeves is good as the new Klatuu. His serene demeanor even echoes the calm patrician charm of Michael Rennie’s 1951 performance. Without resorting to any actor-y mannerism to convey his non-human nature, Reeves suggests an alien intelligence lurking behind the external facade. Sadly, his character is not well served by the script, which is in too big a hurry to get to the destruction. Like Rennie’s character, he expresses a desire to address the United Nations, but he drops the idea – after mentioning it only once – and moves on to Plan B without a second thought. Unfortunately for anyone with long-term plans for the future, Plan B is riding Earth of humanity.
In this he is once again assisted by GORT. Realized with computer-generated imagery, the new version of one of cinema’s most famous robots is larger, sleeker, and more agile, but he looks too much like a character from a superhero movie. (Some have drawn comparisons to the Silver Surfer, but he reminded me more of Venom from SPIDER-MAN 3.) His initial appearance betrays the CGI origins too clearly, and his speed works against the suggestion of enormous size. In a way, his best scene is when he is confined to a missile silo – a large silent, almost monolithic menace, whose mere appearance suggest the death and destruction he can unleash.
Apparently concerned that a slowly lumbering robot would take too long to wipe the human race off the face of the planet, the script has Gort transform into a swarm of metallic locusts that devour vehicles, buildings, and the people occupying them. This provides from some impressive Old Testament imagery as destruction reigns down like the Wrath of God, but it feels a bit contrived – an obvious attempt to provide a special effects spectacle in place of serious storytelling. It is also symptomatic of the film’s expansion of powers: both Gort and Klatuu can do whatever the script needs them to do; in fact, Klatuu shows such an aptitude for knocking helicopters out of the sky that you almost wonder why he even needs Gort to watch his back.
The most disappointing element of the remake is that it clearly strives to be something more. The story holds interest, but it remains oddly unaffecting; for all the effort to juice up the narrative, the action feels dull, unable to engage its audience on an emotional or intellectual level. The new DAY is bigger, but the extra size feels like unnecessary fat. It’s a bit like seeing a former heavyweight champ past his prime – slower, heavier, without the former grace and the sharp jab.
If DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was going to expand, it should have expanded intellectually. However, despite an attempt to modernize the old morality tale, the revamped version feels oddly out of touch. The message seems to be that mankind is unable to change course even though we know we are about to run off a cliff. Yet this message is delivered with all the passion of a detached thought experiment, divorced from the reality that would have lent resonance to the on-screen events. In the original film, the political squabbling between nations (scuttled Klattu’s proposed international meeting) felt like a piece of every day reality – utterly convincing. The remake, on the other hand, seems to take place in an alternate universe where scientific consensus about the need to stop Global Warming (a phrase that is never uttered on screen) does not exist, because to acknowledge it would undermine Klatuu’s mission. (If people are on the verge of doing something about the problem, there is no need for him to come to Earth.)
Also, this DAY features a famliar science-fiction mentality that is more old-fashioned than the original (which still feels relatively modern). Like a worn-out robot, this first rears its mechanical head in a scene between Reeves and veteran character actor James Hong as an uncover alien who preceded Klatuu – and prefers to remain behind and die among the humans with whom he has lived for decades. Hong deserves credit for selling his somewhat hokey dialogue, which has his character first denounce humanity for its destructive nature but then announce that there is something wonderful about them that he just cannot explain. It’s the old sci-fi platitudes about the contradictory nature of humanity, with its great potential for both good and evil – a cornball cliche that the original managed to avoid.
The 1951 DAY helped launch science fiction on the silver screen, but it was less sci-fi spectacle than a serious drama. A true remake would have been a genuine Oscar-contender, a film to make even cynical critics sit up and take notice. Only briefly does the remake offer an interesting and original spin on the familiar material, as when Cleese’s character points out that, only on the precipice of destruction, will a species summon the determination to take the leap of courage that can save them. If the remake had explored ideas like these, it could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its progenitor. Instead, it buries its ambition under a flood of visual and audio effects. Like the famous line, “Klatuu barada nikto,” it is there if you listen closely, but you can barely hear it above the sound and fury.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008). Directed by Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by David Scarpa, based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North (inspired by the story “Farewell to the Master,” uncredited). Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong.
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