Film

Moving forward but standing still

The Day the Earth Stood Still remake has updated politics, similar hokiness

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If we must have remakes of Hollywood classics, ’50s sci-fi certainly isn’t the worst chunk of the canon for contemporary filmmakers to plunder. On the most basic, audience-grabbing level, five decades of innovation in special effects allow for the realization of fantastic visions that were able to receive only the most rudimentary visual treatment back in the day. More than that, though, science fiction is a genre that all but demands radical reinterpretation, if only because America’s subterranean fears—the subtext, however unwitting, of every sci-fi flick—are in a state of constant flux. And so it is that The Day the Earth Stood Still, which in 1951 spoke to the nation’s anxiety about the terrible power of nuclear fission, has now gone green. It’s as if the planet had been invaded by aliens who’d caught An Inconvenient Truth on intergalactic cable.

Representing these visitors, in hunky human form, is Klaatu, here played by Keanu Reeves at his most somnambulant. Arriving in Central Park via a giant translucent sphere (updated from the typical ’50s flying saucer), Klaatu, accompanied by a 28-foot silent robot dubbed Gort, asks to speak to the United Nations, but our belligerent Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) is having none of that—not until she’s seen this potential threat strapped down and interrogated. Consulting astrobiologist Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) thinks that’s totally uncool, but it’s only after she helps Klaatu escape that she discovers that he’s been sent to exterminate the human race before we irrevocably poison one of the universe’s very few life-sustaining planets. How can she change his mind, armed only with a cute stepkid played by Will Smith’s son?

The Details

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Two and a half stars
Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Rated PG-13
Opens Friday, December 12
Beyond the Weekly
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still Trailer
IMDb: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Rotten Tomatoes: The Day the Earth Stood Still
IMDb: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Like the original Earth Stood Still, this remake offers humanity an essentially self-flattering vision, despite its doomy proclamations about our uncertain future. Sure, we’re violent and irrational and shortsighted and xenophobic—but we also love, and weep, and listen to Bach. (Hope you like this theme, as it’s central to next year’s Watchmen as well.) Trouble is, Reeves, bless him, has such a limited range that Klaatu’s emotional journey isn’t so much from indifference to ardor—“Now I see what you infantile humans can be at your best,” etc.—as it is from totally narcotized to mildly stoned. Klaatu, who’s apparently a being of pure light when he’s not slumming around Earth, claims to be uncomfortable in his new body, but Reeves doesn’t even attempt the amazing sense of corporeal dislocation that Jeff Bridges achieved in Starman. He merely empties his face of all expression and speaks in a more halting monotone than usual.

Then again, it’s not as if the original Klaatu, Michael Rennie, was exactly Laurence Olivier. Truth be told, the ’51 film was little more than earnest schlock, best remembered for a single kitschy line of untranslated alien dialogue: “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” While the remake inexplicably omits this pop-cultural nugget, its treatment of Gort himself is by far its most interesting element. On the one hand, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his team remain essentially faithful to the original robot’s very ’50s, sort of proto-Cylon look. (Perhaps for that very reason, Gort barely appears at all in the film’s trailer.) But they’ve completely reimagined the nature of his destructive power, which now has an oddly ecological bent in keeping with the overall environmental message. It’s also certainly not just coincidence that the (step)mother-son relationship that so moves Klaatu has now gone interracial. The Day the Earth Stood Still is only passable entertainment, but future historians will be fascinated.

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