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Day The Earth Stood Still, The (2008)

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 12/12/08 16:00:00

"Move On, People. Nothing to Save Here."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still will never be far from the lists that sci-fi experts compile amongst the best of its kind. Remembered for it’s simple (if preachy) message about the Earth’s inhabitants destroying themselves, the iconic first encounter with the alien and his 7-foot robot protector, Gort, the eerie strains of the instrument known as the Theremin (which eventually got its own documentary) and one of the classic geek catch phrases of all-time, Klaatu Barada Nikto. Remaking it is almost instant sacrilege in the eyes of film lovers, even if their most fondest of memories of its best bits probably trump it’s weaker ones. Still, if you’re going to dare to take on a classic instead of reworking a film that could use an improved update you better come armed to the teeth to justify it with more than just the sort of updated technology that Klaatu first warned would be the death of us.

Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is preparing supper for her stepchild, Jacob (Jaden Smith) when a call comes in saying she is going to be whisked away for national security. Seems an object is approaching the Earth at blazing speed and in just over an hour, Helen’s colleague, Michael Granier (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), expects a cataclysmic impact with Manhattan. Preparing for the worst, the Army whisks all the experts in a helicopter directly over what’s going to be ground zero, only to miraculously saved from that dumbbell move when the flying orb slows to a crawl and lands in the middle of Central Park. Just as Helen gets close to the silver-skinned creature that emerges though, it is shot and here comes his personal Iron Giant to disarm the itchy fingers and then shut down as the unconscious master he’s protecting is whisked away by the scientists. Some guardian, huh?

When the alien’s protective layer peels away, he is “reborn” into human form as Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, better than usual here) who is taken aback when the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) refers to Earth as “our planet.” He has come as an emissary for a federation of civilizations who don’t like what the humans are doing to the precious Earth. Soon after he escapes through means of piercing our eardrums and when his wound gives his new body problems he calls upon Helen who was all too eager to keep him from being sedated and also gave him to go ahead to “run.” With her angrily annoying, contantly bitching stepkid in tow about what his dad would have done in this situation, Helen chaffeurs Klaatu around to meet the leaders. Both one of his, a fellow alien who has lived in the body of Lo-Pan for 70 years and one of ours, Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), who has won a Nobel Prize for “biological altruism”, which for all we know means he fed some of his own blood to Audrey II. Unless Klaatu can find some answers to our worth in the universe, the process will continue to wipe us out for good.

Now we know how filmmakers love to just destroy our precious landmarks from the White House in Independence Day to all of London in Armageddon. The best The Day The Earth Stood Still can offer is Giants Stadium as if the aliens lost money on the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Only this is not a story that is supposed to be about mass destruction, but the potential for it. The very end of the original film was an eerie exercise in ambivalence when we were left with a warning to shape up or be shipped out (followed closely by the words “THE END.”) Exercising our own advances in visual effects is to be expected, but not when they are so half-assedly employed to spice up what is destined to be a very talky picture. The scenes with Robert Knepper as an Army Colonel appear little more than fitted-in moments of action as a temporary aside to satisfy audiences looking for an explosion or two. And they are so lazily strapped together that the only jolt you’re likely to get is from Knepper somehow managing to be more ridiculous and over-the-top than he was in Transporter 3 and Prison Break combined.

You can almost expect such cheap tricks to be folded in for a 21st century audience, but its astounding just how dumbed down the film’s central message has become. Never spelled out in so many words, but its obvious we’ve moved away from potential nuclear annhiliation to humans treating the planet as their own personal toilet. What’s not so obvious is what Klaatu sees in his brief time amongst us that gives him the necessary change of heart. First he’s shot and held captive. Then he witnesses looting and a train station mugging not once, but twice when the victim suffers a heart attack. But then he hears Bach and sees a little brat change his mind about killing him once he kinda gets to know him and all of a sudden we’re not so bad? I’d like to see Klaatu file that report in front of a Kryptonian jury or the Metalunans from This Island Earth. Even the most potentially interesting scene between Klaatu and Barnhardt (if for no other reason than to see John Cleese playing it completely straight – and playing it well) barely lasts a few minutes while its explained that Earthlings basically find Jesus when they think its all over for them. Only Jesus is never mentioned, our hypocrisy is never challenged and the film actually accomplishes the unfathomable feat of making us believe that Earth would be better off without us.

Whatever director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) envisioned this remake to be is hard to fathom since there seems to be no vision at all from him or screenwriter David “The Last Castle” Scarpa except to crib not just a few memorable cues from Wise’s version but even more from John Carpenter’s Starman. Klaatu’s DNA-inspired rebirth, planet-like vessel and ability to resurrect (random cops but not Helen’s friend) will have you wondering if Derrickson knew what film about a visiting alien who comes to appreciate the beauty between our horror he was remaking. Even a radar pattern resembles, of all things, the breast-shaped spacecraft from the Roger Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars and between this and Cloverfield, schools have a new instructional video on hiding underneath the bridges of Central Park to avoid chaos and destruction. Removing all association with bastardizing a classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still is just an overall lame piece of science-fiction and an even lamer parable that fails to distinguish its own ironies of what’s worth saving when filmmakers like Derrickson piss all over something so many of us cherish, even if we occasionally forget why.

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