Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still / ** (PG-13)

Klaatu: Keanu Reeves
Dr. Helen Benson: Jennifer Connelly
Jacob Benson: Jaden Smith
Regina Jackson: Kathy Bates
Michael Granier: Jon Hamm
Professor Barnhardt: John Cleese

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by David Scarpa. Based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sci-fi disaster images and violence).

“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”
         —“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)

Those four simple words are really just gibberish—an alien language made up as a command the heroine of the movie must speak to prevent an alien robot from destroying the Earth. There is no translation provided for these words in that Cold War sci-fi classic. None is needed.

In a time when world terror has become as frightening a prospect as nuclear war between the US and Russia once was, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seems a fitting remake. But it also seems that in the past 57 years filmmakers have forgotten that how a movie is made isn’t quite as important as why it is made. The new “The Day the Earth Stood Still” looks great—all spectacle and special effects—but somehow the reasons have gotten buried in a muddy mess underfoot.

The reasons are there. An alien lands on Earth with a giant robot to save the planet from the destructive nature of humans. A few good people try to help this visitor and prove to him that humans are worth saving while others of more aggressive natures react to him with fear and violence. Is the dual nature of man as a creature of both love and hate worth the pain and suffering we cause each other? And is the survival of one species as important as the survival of the entire planet? It’s message is not of a subtle nature, but director Stephen Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) is more concerned with the spectacle of an attack on the Earth by more advanced beings than he is with contemplating the full implications of the questions the story asks.

The movie opens with a flashback to a mountaineer in 1928 who discovers a glowing sphere on a mountaintop. He touches the glowing ball and wakes up later with a burn on the back of his hand. This scene serves to explain why when a giant sphere lands in present day Central Park, the alien who emerges from it looks like Keanu Reeves (“A Scanner Darkly”). The scene is completely unnecessary, containing information that could have been communicated in one brief line of dialogue. But it looks good.

The alien calls himself Klaatu and is treated as a potential dangerous weapon by Secretary of State Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, “Fred Claus”). A single mother scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, “Blood Diamond”) senses the alien is benevolent and frees him from his military captivity. Soon they are fugitives on the run with Helen’s young son Jacob (Jaden Smith, “The Pursuit of Happyness”). Helen is aghast to learn the Secretary’s fears aren’t far off as Klaatu plans to save the Earth by ridding it of human life.

All of this is told through action scenes of car chases and helicopters and explosions, all the while the military is left to its own devices in trying to disengage the giant robot that is destined to become the instrument of humanity’s destruction. Screenwriter David Scarpa (“The Last Castle”) even goes so far as to give the biomechanical robot an anagram to explain his name, Gort. I honestly didn’t pay enough attention to the anagram to reproduce it here, but explaining why Gort is named Gort and how Klaatu can appear human is missing the point. Hell, the Earth never even stands still at any point in this remake!

It is perhaps a great irony that John Cleese—a man who became famous with his depiction of stupidity through silly walks and dead parrots—should appear in this film as Professor Barnhardt, an intellectual example of the potential that man could one day reach. Cleese (“Die Another Day”) provides some of the very small amount of philosophical rhetoric found here that comprised the majority of the original dialogue-driven film.

Watching this film, I was reminded of the backlash against the first “Star Trek” movie, which was helmed by the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” director Robert Wise. Wise was thought of as a prominent director when he landed the “Star Trek” assignment but was still well known for his seminal sci-fi classic. There was great anticipation for what he would do with the popular cult series on film. But fans were disappointed with how little action there was in the first “Star Trek” movie. Well, there was almost no action in the original version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. What Wise recognized about “Star Trek” was that it wasn’t about action, it was about ideas. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is about ideas as well. These new filmmakers would have done better to recognize that.

Or maybe I’m just upset that they chose to depict the destruction of Giants Stadium.

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