Wednesday 7 January 2009

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

Wednesday 7 January 2009
Spoilers. Another sci-fi classic reinterpreted for modern times; director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose) updates Robert Wise's 1951 cautionary tale about an alien visitor who warns mankind of nuclear self-destruction. In the 2008 version, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) arrives as the vanguard of mass extermination, because humans are knowingly polluting the planet...

Single mother Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is recruited by the government, after they detect a celestial body on a trajectory with Earth. For ill-explained reasons, she joins a haz-mat team of assembled scientists at the calculated impact-site of New York's Central Park, to gawp when a marble-like spacecraft descends from the heavens and "births" the aforementioned Klaatu (an alien intelligence inside a human body.) The authorities swoop to interrogate Klaatu, but a sympathetic Helen decides to help the extra-terrestrial escape incarceration, to complete his mysterious mission…

Unlike most remakes (which rarely succeed in improving anything but the production values), The Day The Earth Stood contains enough tweaks to keep it watchable if you're geeky enough to have seen the black-and-white original. Reeves plays Klaatu as a stiff, emotionless outsider from the beginning (in contrast to '51s benign, human-like visitor), essentially channeling Neo sans ray-bans, avec lobotomy. Its environmental concerns are also more prescient than the Cold War-inspired nuclear threat of its predecessor.

The main problem with The Day The Earth Stood Still is how predictable events become after the story shifts into Starman-like fugitive mode, with escapee Klaatu assisted by Helen and her step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith), a young boy grieving the death of his father. The plot becomes laborious and flaccid in the middle, only enlivened by a few action beats -- mostly involving the side-issue of "Gort", a humanoid robot that guards Klaatu's space-orb from attack by military drones and tanks. Such FX distractions aren't enough to distract you from a rather bland story, sadly. Audiences are more sophisticated than '50s cinemagoers, and the direction of the story and its moral message is so obvious that we're constantly two steps ahead of the characters, waiting for them to catch-up.

Generally well-made by Derrickson, a few key moments are unfortunately mishandled: the arrival of alien orbs around the world is disappointing (first contact with otherworldly beings has rarely felt so dull), Klaatu is persuaded humans might be worth saving far too easily, and there's a terribly abrupt finale -- not helped by the fact Klaatu fails to deliver a wake-up call ultimatum to humanity, and never meets with an authority figure of real significance.

There are some memorable moments to counterbalance the missteps, though: the worst start to alien-human relations imaginable, Klaatu's lie-detector interrogation and nifty escape from a secret DoD facility, the updated B-movie glory of towering automaton Gort, and a blizzard of unstoppable nano-termites that devour everything in their path.

The always-excellent Connelly turns in the best performance of the film (one of the few attractive actresses who can play a scientist without resorting to just wearing spectacles); child actor Jaden Smith seems to have inherited acting talent from his father Will Smith, even if his character deserves a slap; and Reeves does exactly what's expected of him, but his Klaatu is so emotionally stunted as to become annoying. Couldn't his human biology have allowed him to slowly develop emotions as time passed? These days, Reeves seems to only play characters whose impassive demeanor can be excused as part of the movie.

Overall, The Day The Earth Stood Still earns respect for not tainting the original by association (this is no Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes), and for making enough changes to ensure it's not a totally stale retread. Indeed, the characters of Helen and Jacob (Bobby in the original) are much improved from their generic '51 counterparts. That said, the movie wastes a talented supporting cast (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Kyle Chandler), the storyline doesn't contain much nourishment (simple-minded, few surprises, an unsatisfying conclusion) and it's hard to see what the $80 million was spent on.

So, not a total stinker; but it's the kind of movie that drifts around your mind as it plays out, to evaporate from your memory like steam when the lights fade up. Unforgivably, The Day The Earth Stood Still's environmental concerns fail to spark any post-movie debate -- but, admittedly, unlike Robert Wise's original version, it never once felt like it intended to.

20th Century Fox
Budget: $80 million
103 minutes

Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: David Scarpa (based on a screenplay by Edmund H. North)

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Klaatu), Jennifer Connelly (Helen Benson), Jaden Smith (Jacob Benson), John Cleese (Prof. Karl Barnhardt), Jon Hamm (Dr. Michael Granier) & Kathy Bates (Regina Jackson)