Archive for December, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

December 13, 2008

I’m a big fan of the 1951 Day the Earth Stood Still; in fact, I watched it again last night, in preparation for seeing the remake today. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) does an admirable job of updating the ideas and themes of the original, but uneven execution and forgettable performances fall short of making the movie as effective as it should have been.

1951’s Day was directed by Robert Wise, whose credits range from The Sound of Muisc and West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Made in the midst of the Cold War, its warning concerned the potential for mankind to bring nuclear weapons into space and threaten alien worlds; Klaatu was dispatched to Earth to give humanity a choice between peace and destruction, provided by Gort, the wobbly monolithic robot protector. 

For 2008’s Day, the focus shifts from what we might do to what we are already doing to the Earth. Environmentally, that is. Humanity’s abuse of the planet has become so extreme, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) explains, that the very existence of life on Earth is being threatened. This time around, the message appears to be that we have already failed our test, and now it’s time to get rid of us before we can do any more damage. 

I’ve never been a fan of Reeves as an actor, but here his trademark qualities–monotone dialogue, nonexistent emotions, staring, etc.–are so incorporated into the role that it feels like it was made for him. Michael Rennie, 1951’s Klaatu, brought a warmth and curiosity to the role that Keanu never attempts to match, although his approach seems appropriate for the tone of the remake. Apocalyptic prophets just aren’t that avuncular. 

I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler say this–but here’s your WARNING just in case: Humanity doesn’t get destroyed. This is a mainstream Hollywood movie, after all. This does bring up the movie’s biggest problem, however, because the salvation of mankind depends on love. There end up being two reasons why this is such a disappointing resolution.

First, it is unclear how seeing the loving side of people convinces Klaatu that we’ll stop desecrating the environment. Second, the emotions exhibited onscreen are not very convincing. The human core of the movie centers on Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son in The Pursuit of Happiness and in real life), and after an affecting cellphone conversation early in the movie, their relationship falls flat. Jacob’s one-on-one scenes with Klaatu were some of 1951’s most effective moments, but 2008’s never reach that same level. Thus, we are left to believe that love can save the world, even though we have seen few examples of it. 

And where the human relationships are merely unconvincing, 2008’s Day turns the government into such a fearful, reactionary entity that at times, I found myself agreeing with Klaatu’s assessment of humanity. Kathy Bates plays a secretary who acts as the eyes and ears of the president and vice-president, who have both been moved to undisclosed locations. To me, the fact that the president is not given a face or a voice underscores what is an excessively hopeless view of diplomacy. But this Day was made in the shadow of the Bush White House, so maybe the pessimism is understandable. 

When Klaatu mentions his disappointment with Earth’s politics, Helen tells him that politicians are not the real leaders; scientists are. Off they go to meet Dr. Barnhardt (John Cleese, the tall guy from Monty Python), whose credentials–he won a Nobel Prize in “altruistic biology,” not a real thing, if you were wondering–intellectual arguments and musical tastes encourage Klaatu to take a closer look at humanity. “There’s another side to us,” he says.

At this point, I think my review makes it appear as though I disliked the movie more than I did. Actually, I quite enjoyed the first half of the movie, which gives Klaatu’s origin a fun and creative explanation, and spends more time setting up the pieces of the story than the original did, which I appreciated. I also thought that the rather somber tone worked well for the direction the story appeared to be going. 

I guess my problems really began when the movie decided to have hope in humanity. I think the “save the planet” message would have been stronger if Derrickson had gone further in showing it, or even if he let the ending unfold as a negative morality play. More than that, though, it was the human side of the movie that was disappointing, because even though I think performances are not the most crucial element of a sci-fi movie, this Day needed to have better ones in order to give the movie its center. As it is, there’s plenty sound and fury in the final act, but what it signifies gets lost.