The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 movie poster


If the least one expects of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it merely ful­fill the promise of its title, then please move right along, for the earth stands still only a few moments. It is, how­ever, a far big­ger pro­duc­tion than the 1951 orig­i­nal directed by Robert Wise (read The Dork Report review), even account­ing for the infla­tion of film­mak­ing tech­nol­ogy and audi­ence expec­ta­tion for spec­ta­cle. As if to over­com­pen­sate for the original’s now admit­tedly amus­ing implau­si­bil­i­ties and the silly giant robot and fly­ing saucer, it tries too hard to impress with too many uncon­nected ideas and exces­sive hus­tle and bus­tle. It’s even rather inap­pro­pri­ately macho, with more uncon­vinc­ing dig­i­tal heli­copters and mil­i­tary hard­ware than a typ­i­cal Michael Bay movie. At least it’s much, much bet­ter than the dis­as­trous Inva­sion (the third offi­cial remake of The Inva­sion of the Bodysnatchers).

It does get off to a good start with a pro­logue in which a lone moun­tain climber (Keanu Reeves) dis­cov­ers a glow­ing orb in 1928 India. The sequence is mys­te­ri­ous and inter­est­ing, but ulti­mately unim­por­tant to the plot. We later learn that the orb was an alien probe that copied the climber’s DNA, from which to grow a sur­ro­gate body for the alien Klaatu (Reeves again) decades later. Even the most basic plau­si­bil­ity is vio­lated as humans dis­sect his alien body with­out bio­suits or any kind of quar­an­tine at all. One won­ders if ear­lier drafts of the screen­play involved Klaatu’s cap­tors ini­tially misiden­ti­fy­ing him as a miss­ing per­son from 1928. A missed oppor­tu­nity would be a scene in which the aged orig­i­nal adven­turer comes face-to-face with an alien mim­ic­k­ing his youth­ful self. But as it stands, this whole sub­plot acts as a dis­trac­tion. The orig­i­nal movie sim­ply pre­sented the alien as humanoid (if a lit­tle unusu­ally tall and angu­lar) and that was enough. The notion of a alien being reborn in a new body is inter­est­ing but an unnec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion, one that only raises ques­tions unre­lated to the cen­tral themes. Klaatu is lucky his tem­plate was the hand­some Reeves (at one point, he steals a schlumpy guy’s suit and it fits as if it were tai­lored for him). Sup­pos­edly this body is human, but he exerts super­pow­ers includ­ing the trans­mu­ta­tion of elec­tric­ity into some kind of sketchily-described life force. In this respect, the orig­i­nal is bet­ter; Klaatu out­wardly looks like us, period, end of story. Isn’t that enough? Another extra­ne­ous idea, super­flu­ous to the core story: Klaatu’s giant omnipo­tent robot com­pan­ion Gort is now com­prised of a swarm of nanobots. Why have both a giant robot and itsy-bitsy nanobots? Pick one idea and run with it.

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood StillKeanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves; first we must ful­fill another genre cliché. The Day the Earth Stood Still lines up after the likes of The Hap­pen­ing, The Day After Tomor­row, A.I.: Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Deep Impact, Watch­men, and Clover­field (the list goes on, and on…) to take another stab at dec­i­mat­ing poor New York City. When human­ity detects an uniden­ti­fied object set to strike Man­hat­tan, Dr. Michael Grainer (Man Men’s Jon Hamm) assem­bles a crack team of diverse experts includ­ing astro­bi­ol­o­gist Helen Ben­son (Jen­nifer Con­nelly) to fly around in black heli­copters and gawp help­lessly at all the spe­cial effects. Luck­ily, for the moment at least, the object turns about to be a space­craft. In 1951, alien emis­sary Klaatu (Michael Ren­nie) went to Wash­ing­ton like Mr. Smith. In 2008, this Klaatu fig­ures the place to make a grand entrance is Manhattan’s Cen­tral Park (never mind that the United Nations head­quar­ters is on the East Side). Fans of computer-generated destruc­tion of the sort in which Roland Emmerich traf­fics will be pleased to see Cen­tral Park forcibly land­scaped before the movie is over. Dur­ing the final cli­max in the Park, I’m pretty sure the prin­ci­pals hide under the exact same bridge as the sur­vivors at the end of Cloverfield.

Like the orig­i­nal, it’s cred­ited as being based on the 1940 short story “Farewell to the Mas­ter” by Harry Bates. Its cin­e­matic touch­stones include The Brother From Another Planet and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it shares a crit­i­cally flawed plot ele­ment with the more recent Watch­men (read The Dork Report review). In the lat­ter, mor­tal hero­ine Silk Spec­tre must con­vince Dr. Man­hat­tan, an ambiva­lent non­hu­man that couldn’t care less, to save the world. Klaatu arrives on Earth to receive the report of an ear­lier agent, who con­firms humans are self destruc­tive by nature. That’s enough for Klaatu to begin to purge the planet, but the agent goes on and tries to impress upon him human’s com­plex­ity. Klaatu is unswayed. Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith) try to do the same and suc­ceed just as Silk Spec­tre did, but in both cases the audi­ence can’t quite under­stand how their argu­ments go through to supe­rior beings one step away from god­hood. Because she’s pretty, and her kid whines so much that Klaatu caved in just to shut him the hell up? Per­son­ally, if I was an alien judg­ing human­ity, and I met such an insanely annoy­ing kid, I would purge the planet too. The movie would merit at least one more Dork Report star if the kid hadn’t been in it.

Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood StillJen­nifer Con­nelly in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Jen­nifer Con­nelly is sadly wasted, again. As in Ang Lee’s oth­er­wise under­rated Hulk, she’s rel­e­gated to second-billing below the com­puter effects. The great Kathy Bates fares even worse in a role any­one could have played. As for the leg­endary John Cleese’s cameo as a mad sci­en­tist, I assume the idea was to cast a slightly kooky per­son­al­ity with a British accent to project intel­li­gence to dumb Amer­i­can audi­ences. But the for­merly manic Cleese has mel­lowed out so much in his later years that they could have just cast any old Brit.

The orig­i­nal Day the Earth Stood Still was quite obvi­ously a Cold War para­ble, if a lit­tle mud­dled in its par­tic­u­lars. This ver­sion skirts the pol­i­tics of war, choos­ing instead to recast the basic premise as an eco-parable. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Hap­pen­ing (read The Dork Report review), New York’s Cen­tral Park is ground zero for an eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe. Part of Klaatu’s mis­sion is to save sam­ples of the Earth’s bios­phere, which the Sec­re­tary of Defense (Bates) explic­itly equates to the Bib­li­cal tale of Noah’s Ark.

Wikipedia notes the film was a largely green pro­duc­tion, in which the crew recy­cled or donated props and cos­tumes, and uti­lized a cen­tral intranet to reduce paper waste. But within the story itself, for an alien con­cerned about clean­ing up the Earth, Klaatu is quite con­tent to ride back and forth from Man­hat­tan to New Jer­sey in a gas-guzzling SUV (the man­u­fac­turer of which no doubt pro­vided prod­uct placement).

Finally, some ques­tions: exactly how much of the world is dec­i­mated in the end? How does Klaatu expect human­ity to clean up the planet when he’s already destroyed most of the infra­struc­ture? Imag­ine all the home­less­ness, star­va­tion, chaos, riot­ing, and loot­ing that must be dealt with before any gov­ern­ment could even begin to think about ozone holes or car­bon col­lec­tion. Also, Klaatu’s species has the tech­nol­ogy to dis­in­te­grate all man­made mate­ri­als on an entire planet, but he totally dis­misses out of hand the idea of clean­ing up our pol­lu­tion for us, or at least lend­ing us the tech­nol­ogy? The orig­i­nal Klaatu had more faith in humanity.

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