by Mel Valentin
It’s the end of the world as we know it and Keanu Reeves feels fine. Or rather the character Reeves was born to play, Klaatu, the alien visitor from another world with a mystery agenda, feels fine. As any science-fiction fan worth his or her DVD collection, Klaatu appeared in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the 1951 science-fiction classic directed by Robert Wise ("Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "Sound of Music," "West Side Story"). With its anti-war message delivered during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, its Theremin-based score, an idiosyncratic performance by Michael Rennie as Klaatu, and a silver-skinned, laser-equipped robot, Gort, "The Day The Earth Stood Still" is as memorable as fifties sci-fi films come. Whether, fifty or sixty years from now, the remake, directed by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and written by David Scarpa, is a question unlikely to be answered in the positive.With news of an unidentified flying object hurtling through the solar system, the U.S. military, led by Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), prepares for a possible “extinction-level-event” (e.g., Deep Impact, Armageddon). As she prepares dinner, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist, receives a phone call from an official-sounding voice. Within minutes, she’s leaving her stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), with neighbors and entering a caravan of SUVs and a police escort. At an airfield, she meets several other scientists, but they’re just as clueless. An anxious helicopter ride later, she’s at a military base where an old colleague, Michael Granier (Jon Hamm), fills her in on what he knows, which isn’t much, and sets her up to work on the aftermath of the object’s landing (or crashing).
"Keanu Reeves, in the role he was born to play."
The object, now identified as an incandescent, self-propelled, planet-like sphere, flies through the Earth's atmosphere, slows down, eventually landing in Central Park, Manhattan. As an alien in a biosuit emerges from the sphere, Helen is the first to make contact, but before they can exchange greetings, a member of the army shoots and injures the alien. The alien’s bodyguard, Gort, emerges from the sphere, prepared to respond with violence, but the alien stops him in time. At the military base, the alien’s biosuit dissolves, revealing a humanoid-looking alien who identifies himself as Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). Klaatu naturally asks to address the world’s leaders at the UN, but Jackson refuses, preferring to isolate and interrogate Klaatu to discern his true objectives.
As in the original, Klaatu escapes, with only Helen and Jacob as companions and guides into the complexities of human nature. In the original, Klaatu only wanted to address the world’s leaders to lecture them against nuclear war. In the remake, Klaatu’s mission is far less passive: Klaatu has arrived on Earth as judge, jury, and executioner. His mission, to cleanse the earth of the human race for transgressions against each other and the non-human world, hinges on finding a reason or reasons for giving humanity a second chance. Desperate but optimistic, Helen takes Klaatu to meet her mentor, Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese, in a too-brief cameo), a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for “biological altruism” (seriously).
As the advertising campaign suggests, the remake shifts the thematic focus from nuclear war, a legitimate concern in Cold War America, to climate change (a.k.a. global warming) and, presumably, species extinction as a result of climate change. While some (many?) fans of the original might object to the thematic shift, nuclear war as an existential threat wouldn’t have worked in a contemporary setting. Nor, contrary to what neoconservatives continue to believe, would the so-called “war on terrorism” and/or Islamic terrorism has filled the need for a global threat. Of course, non-believers in climate change will see The Earth Stood Still as another example of Hollywood liberals pushing their liberal agenda. Unfortunately (for them), there’s a longstanding scientific consensus on human-made climate change.
Along with the thematic shift comes a shift in how Klaatu’s purpose in the remake. While the Christian symbolism in the original was easily evident (as the screenwriter, Edmund H. North openly acknowledged), with Klaatu assuming the name “John Carpenter,” attempting to bring a message of peace (well, peace through superior technology), dying and rising from the dead (thanks to futuristic technology), the “new” Klaatu retains the Christ-like parallels (walking on water in one scene, resurrecting another man, Lazarus-style), but takes on stronger Old Testament characteristics (e.g., he’s here to judge us for our sins, his mission involves saving the flora and fauna before cleansing the earth, he’s seeking a reason or reasons for giving the human race). In that sense, Klaatu is more a (secular) angel, similar to the angel who accompanies Lot as he attempts (and fails) to find non-sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament.The remake "The Day the Earth Stood Still" excels in at least one area: casting. With his hard-to-place ethnicity, semi-focused stares, and idiosyncratic line readings, Reeves’ awkward acting style is perfectly suited to playing the alien-in-a-human-body Klaatu. For once, Reeves’ performance feels like it fits the character. Everyone else, including Jennifer Connelly, in the cast acquit themselves well, if unspectacularly. Jaden Smith (Will Smith and Jada-Pinkett Smith are his parents) unfortunately gives an uneven performance, especially during the heavy emotional moments, including several late-film exchanges with Klaatu. But that’s one misstep (the 28-foot tall, all-CGI Gort is another) in a film that manages to mix thought-provoking ideas with the computer effects-driven action they’ve come to expect from Hollywood-made sci-fi.
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originally posted: 12/12/08 19:38:50