Nothing to Say and No Way to Say It: Revolutionary Road

The first few minutes of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road feature one of the boldest jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beatnik hipsters at a loft party. Like any flirting young couple, how each chooses to introduce themself comprises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glamorous April simply says she is studying to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toiling in nothing jobs holding him back from vaguely-defined great aspirations. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to several years later to find Frank and April married in suburbia with two kids. An older Frank privately cringes during April’s weak debut in a community theater production. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sensitive enough to know it. Her sense of definitive failure and his frustration at her frustration combusts into a blistering roadside argument on par with any of the cataclysmic rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road
“You were just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled condescension toward their peers in the office and on their suburban street. They both share mutually incompatible senses of superiority, feeling destined for something great without knowing what, or having any obvious natural talent to nurture. It provides no satisfaction when Frank does eventually manifest an aptitude in marketing, something they both view as disappointing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of superiority? Are we to read their hubris as a critique of the Greatest Generation (Frank is a World War II veteran, an experience he romanticizes even while acknowledging his sheer terror at the time)? This generational theory would be supported by how the older Givings family views them – but more on the Givings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by overpraising parents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscurity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds himself trapped, but any other relatives are wholly absent from their lives. Perhaps if Frank and April had been born a few generations later, they would be the sort of overconfident personalities drawn to compete on reality TV shows.

After April gives up on her dream of acting after her disastrous debut, she latches onto a fantasy of moving to Paris and supporting Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never specifies what he imagines himself becoming. Writer? Politician? Artist? He has nothing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gallic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really commits anyway. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller coworkers with whom he shares daily steak and martini lunches. He becomes further ensnared by success in the business world, as measured by income, the sexual availability of naive office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking ladder of promotion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road
“Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

One flaw of the film is dialogue that sometimes strays from naturalism into the novelistic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of arguments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

I promised to return to the Givings family, whom I believe are the key to understanding the film. Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) gently teaches April how to be a good housewife, offering passive aggressive critiques of such fripperies as lawn maintenance. But she slowly reveals a longing admiration for the Wheelers as an ideal American nuclear family: a nice, good-looking, successful, model young couple in love (their coarse neighbors the Campbells also idealize the Wheelers). Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her troubled son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician and intellectual brought low by mental illness and electroshock therapy (whether it is the disease or the cure that ails him most is a question that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the coldest, clearest, starkest view of reality, and cuts right through all the subterfuge and doublespeak with which these American nuclear families delude themselves. Everything he says is right, but tragically, Frank and April interpret the bitterly damaged man as a kindred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damningly illustrates their faults.

Kathy Bates in Revolutionary Road
Helen admires the Wheelers’ splendid picture window looking out on Revolutionary Road

In some ways, the final scene is the most devastating, and it doesn’t even feature the Wheelers at all. The Givings chat at home alone, long after the Wheelers revealed themselves to be fatally fractious and tortured. We witness Helen rewrite history, belittling the Wheelers in terms of their ability to maintain the value of their home (read: their family). As she’s busy erasing her emotional stake in the Wheelers, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) turns off his hearing aid to literally drown her out. He gazes at her emptily, dispassionately, dead inside. We might imagine their marriage survived the kind of emotional flashpoint that destroyed the Wheelers, but trapped them in a cold, loveless life together.

I Came to Save the World: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

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 Still
Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first we must fulfill another genre cliche. 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 Still
Jennifer 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.