Day the Earth Stood Still, The (United States, 2008)
By all accounts, both the director (Scott Derrickson) and star (Keanu Reeves) of this 2008 film are fans of its 1951 precursor. So what went wrong? At what point did this initially promising remake lose its way? After all, Robert Wise's science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, is far from a perfect motion picture. Parts of the movie are contrived and there are gaps in logic and common sense. That being said, it's a powerful and compelling motion picture with something specific to say about the human condition. The new version, while admittedly addressing aspects of the first that date it, opens new holes, some of which are more problematic. Worse, it lacks the simple elegance and intelligence of the earlier film, and employs special effects and pointless action scenes to replace passages of dialogue.
A successful remake has a difficult path to traverse. It must honor the original while at the same time bringing something new, interesting, and intelligent to the project. The Day the Earth Stood Still fails a little in both categories. Too often, the need to be a spectacle trumps the desire to be smart and thought-provoking, and this works to the film's detriment. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still was like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. This movie feels too much like a '90s/'00s generic disaster feature. Okay, The Empire State Building remains intact and the Statue of Liberty is still hoisting her torch, but let's just say that the Giants and Jets are going to need a new home.
Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) arrives on Earth with the giant robot Gort in tow. His vehicle of choice is a giant, pulsating sphere which parks in New York's Central Park. Before Klaatu can intone, "Take Me to Your Leader" to the greeting party headed by Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), he has been shot and is on his way to an undercover medical lab for surgery. The operation reveals that, under a protective layer of placenta-like material, is Keanu Reeves. He has a job to do, which includes making a speech to all the leaders of the world, and no one - especially not Secretary of Defense Jackson (Kathy Bates) - is going to stop him.
In 1951, Klaatu came to Earth to offer a grim prognostication for the human race if we continued pursuing the insane strategy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). In 2008, Klaatu's beef is global warming. He succinctly states his case for genocide: The planet is too valuable to allow its indigenous human population to destroy it. Better that they be eliminated so it can survive rather than allowing them to destroy it and themselves with it. Either way, after all, mankind is dead.
The Day the Earth Stood Still opens strongly, with a credible enactment of how such a first contact might occur and a vivid introduction of Klaatu and Gort. Some of the ideas surrounding Klaatu's stay in the medical facility are also interesting. The film veers off course during its second half with clichéd "character building" sequences, pointless pyrotechnics, and a lot of running around in the backwoods of a New Jersey that looks suspiciously like British Columbia. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax and lacks the ominous and downbeat "warning" of its predecessor.
There's a kid in this movie, just as there was in the first one. Here, he's the step-son of Dr. Benson and is played by Will and Jada's son, 10-year old Jaden Smith. My complaints are about the character, Jacob, not Smith's portrayal of him. This child is a source of frequent irritation. It's as if he was written with a checklist in mind of all the annoying things 10-year old kids do in movies. He's not just a stereotype; he's an infuriating stereotype. His arc is equally predictable - he starts out the film as the stepson of the woman he calls Helen but, by the end, they have bonded and she is "Mom." Along the way, he's on hand to do things like phone the military and tell them Klaatu's location.
Keanu Reeves is a good choice to play the implacable world-killer. The low-key, largely emotionless actor imbues Klaatu with an alien quality. Mr. Spock would appreciate the character's cold logic as he discusses why the human race's time is up. Jennifer Connelly has the thankless role of the sidekick (at least she's a scientist, not a secretary). Hopefully, she got a nice paycheck. John Cleese makes the film's biggest impression in what amounts to a one-scene cameo. He presents an impassioned case for why the human race should be given a second chance, then suggests Helen use something other than logic to persuade Klaatu. This opens up a lot of interesting possibilities about where the movie could have gone but elects not to go.
Mention must be made of "Klaatu barada nicto," which has become a cult science fiction phrase over the years. Remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still without it would be like remaking Star Wars without "May the Force Be with You" or Star Trek without "Live Long and Prosper." According to the filmmakers, "Klaatu barada nicto" is in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it is drowned out by the overactive soundtrack. I'm still not sure where it is located - it could be in one of two places, or perhaps in both. Regardless, it's inaudible and so might just as well have been left out of the movie. The film does a little better with other nods to the original, such as scenes involving a sea of tombstones and a blackboard equation, and the re-use of some of Bernard Herrmann's music.
If one ignores the fact that The Day the Earth Stood Still is a remake, it still falls short of expectations. There's too little drama and tension and Gort's eventual transformation into a lethal cloud makes for a less-than-thrilling climax. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the production is that there would appear to be considerable room to update the story and, while some of that is done, it is largely a wasted opportunity. Remaking a movie is easy. Engineering a good remake is difficult. One key quality that separates the two is inspiration, and that's a characteristic not to be found in 2008's The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Day the Earth Stood Still, The (United States, 2008)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, John Cleese, Jon Hamm
Screenplay: David Scarpa, based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: Tyler Bates
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox