Criticizing the plots of popcorn action blockbusters is usually a fool’s errand. Nobody cares if Hobbs & Shaw makes any sense, but surely it’s fair game in the Terminator franchise, where untangling pseudo-scientific time travel logic is 99% of the fun.
So the biggest disappointment of Dark Fate (other than its singularly unmemorable title, and the cruel execution of a digital Edward Furlong avatar) is that it offhandedly tosses its biggest question marks into a trashcan of exposition. I’m glad this movie revolves around three women, and relegates Schwarzenegger to a supporting role, but it seems to me that if your story involves a robot assassin that reprograms itself for good, after a lifetime of guilt and regret, that deserves more than a few perfunctory lines of exposition.
While we’re on the topic of telling-not-showing: Dark Fate introduces a new, rather creepy idea to the clichéd evil A.I. subgenre. Rather than a diabolical Matrix-style plan to subjugate humanity, the A.I. in Dark Fate simply turns off the world’s power and then sits patiently on its circuitry butt for a few decades while most of humanity kills itself off. Again, like Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne T-800 developing a conscience offscreen, this is far more interesting than any of the car chases or plane crashes.
Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.
Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne Predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t eat or litter.
When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?
One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their idealized likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.
But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.
While many other people, including his wife, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to today’s company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”
Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointingly fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.
There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld, The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.
A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.
The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.
The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.
Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.
Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.
Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven, but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.
Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.
Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.
The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.
Put simply, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is a clip show done right, in disguise as an original movie for television. Whatever else its intended purpose, it must also do double-duty as a kind of coda, appendix, or postscript to the celebrated television series (2004-2009). But is it one final cash-in, before the sets are struck and the cast scatters to the winds, or a noble attempt to address neglected aspects of the complex mythos that many fans felt weren’t justly served by the controversial final episode? Which, for the record, I loved for its audacity, while still sympathizing with the contingent of fans that felt it strained plausibility and raised more questions than it answered.
The Plan incorporates footage from across all four seasons, seamlessly melded with new material written by Jane Espenson, who wrote for the show during its fourth season, and directed by Edward James Olmos, who starred in the series as Commander Bill Adama and helmed several individual episodes. The DVD bonus features, while typically hagiographic, rightly point out that Olmos obviously had an intimate knowledge of the full story arc as well as a strong relationship with the entire cast, so he was probably the best choice to helm The Plan. Curiously, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is missing-in-action from the credits and DVD bonus features.
In a narrative conceit shared with the previous Battlestar Galactica special movie Razor (2007), key portions of the show’s continuity are retold from a different perspective, in this case that of the Cylons, a fractious race of synthetic lifeforms with a (shall we say) complicated relationship with their human creators. All but one of the actors portraying the twelve Cylon models appear in new sequences here (Lucy Lawless being the sole holdout), joining some of the original human characters (missing James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jamie Bamber). Oddly, President Roslin (McDonnell) is the only major character to not even appear in archival clips, being very conspicuous in her absence. Perhaps the actress objected to the script, or was her fee not met?
I personally don’t believe the series proper necessarily needed to tell more of the story than the writers chose to before its final episode (which is off-limits anyway, taking place chronologically after the events seen in The Plan). But if the goal of The Plan was to fill in some of the perceived gaps, it’s ultimately unsatisfying for not addressing some of the truly puzzling mysteries, particularly the still-unseen thirteenth Cylon called Daniel and the true nature of Starbuck’s (Sackhoff) death, resurrection, and subsequent visions. What new plot information and character insights we do get are nice, but inessential. We see more of the Cylon surprise attack, with the human colonies destroyed one by one, but how does this expand the story beyond indulging in some CGI apocalypse porn? But to The Plan’s credit, some of the most tantalizing mysteries are probably best left up to our imaginations. Not without reason, fans spent the final season wondering how Starbuck could be anything but a Cylon, only to find she was something else entirely. I would argue the writers chose to not drag the mystery down into mundanity, like the fatal mistake George Lucas made by providing a pseudo-scientific definition of The Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
So what is the eponymous Plan? As we saw in the first moments of the original series, the religiously-motivated Cylon race attempts to totally annihilate humanity in one fell swoop. A small fleet of human stragglers escapes, with a small number of Cylons unwillingly trapped among them (surely a frustrating situation for creatures who expected to perish in the cataclysm and be reborn in a heaven free of humans). The major revelation of The Plan is that much of the violent conflict we saw in the original series was actually a desperately improvised plan by this ragtag cell of partly-unwilling soldiers. Meet the new plan, same as the old plan: genocide. So we now understand these few Cylons to be a struggling terrorist cell.
The central characters that drive the action are a pair of Ones/Cavils (Dean Stockwell), whose pending execution provides a framing device to the entire movie. Also significantly expanded are Anders (Michael Trucco) and two very different versions of Four/Simon (Rick Worthy). We learn a little more about the hapless Five/Aaron (Matthew Bennett), the explanation for his relative insignificance in the show being that he is simply a little dim, often serving as an inept pawn of Cavil. We learn how the Eight that lived as Boomer actually functioned (she was a sleeper agent who genuinely believed she was human, but was brought in and out of this illusion by Cavil – with her human side eventually winning over). We meet an additional Six (Tricia Helfer) who worked undercover as a prostitute, contributing little to the story beyond more T&A. Speaking of, The Plan features a great deal of gratuitous full-frontal male and female nudity, not motivated by plot or character, and seemingly only there for titillation and a faux sense of realism.
Most of left-behind Cylons become contaminated, or at least influenced, by proximity with humans. Another Cavil is trapped on the post-apocalyptic Caprica with Anders, simultaneously revering him as a father of the Cylon race while challenging his empathetic leadership skills. How they all survive radiation poisoning isn’t explained. The Caprica-bound Cavil’s mind rapidly evolves to the point where he becomes worlds apart from his bitter, cruel twin in the fleet, who remains the sole Cylon purely dedicated to the original plan.
Was the project misconceived? It is certainly in keeping with the classically bleak Battlestar Galactica style and tone; a new character is a helpless little orphan kid, very out of keeping for a show that continually rejects cute & cuddly stereotypes, and I should have known that his fate would not be a good one. By design, The Plan is resolutely intended for diehard Battlestar Galactica fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s mythos. I consider myself a big fan, and have seen every episode, but there was much I hadn’t memorized, and about which I remain confused. For instance, I can’t recall if it was ever explained exactly why the so-called Final Five Cylons were implanted among human society to live as humans for several decades, and why only one incarnation of Cavil knew of their existence. It seems a mistake to produce a big-budget TV movie for a very narrow audience of superfans that can remember all this stuff, months after their favorite show stops airing. The Plan certainly won’t attract virgin viewers, as anyone interested in the series would certainly start with the original 2004 miniseries. I don’t even want to think about how The Plan must have seemed to any unfortunate viewers who had never seen Battlestar Galactica at all, let alone internalized its mythos.
It’s hard to see how The Plan can be anything other than the true end of the series. Getting this much of the cast back together for one TV movie must have been a real feat, so doing it again in the future seems unlikely. The prequel series Caprica is set far enough in Battlestar Galactica’s past that much of the cast cannot logically guest star (although, upon reflection, it might be possible to see some of the Final Five, who might be living among humans at this point). So The Plan is most likely the end.
The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.
In an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download in May 1999, nearly a year before the series proper. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series, including technobabble like “Cylon” (a marketing term short for, we finally learn, Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy, and one supposes we might later even see some of the “final five” Cylons from the original series (Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Michael Trucco, Rekha Sharma, and Aaron Douglas), who ought to have been running around in some form at this point in BSG chronology. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. Even the special effects are up to par with Galactica’s groundbreaking spaceship battles, although applied to spectacularly convincing digital cityscapes.
But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines. It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from giving Battlestar Galactica a chance, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the pilot episode: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome).
But maybe this gender inequality makes a kind of sense. The real core dynamic between the two male leads makes for classic storytelling. Industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) invented a virtual reality playground called the Holoband, and has since turned to developing weaponized robotics. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a crooked lawyer tied to an offworld organized crime syndicate that put him through law school, and further control him with threats. A terrorist bombing claims their daughters (and Adama’s wife), and the two men later bond over mutual grief, coffee, and cigarettes (like Battlestar Galactica, doctors and nutritionists many thousands of years in our past haven’t yet warned people about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine). The two men may be of different planets, races, and religions, but become bound by complicity in an act of industrial espionage that leads to a murder of an elected official (cast and costumed in thick glasses to resemble Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) from Blade Runner).
If one of the two had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two adult female characters are solely defined by their relationships with the men and/or kids in their lives. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.
Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of annoying child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of whiney teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of kids, two die but unfortunately come back to a kind of immortality (if you only counted one, check out the deleted scenes available on the DVD edition).
The first 10 minutes pack in a massive download of important information, especially tricky for any viewers not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators, the inciting incident that motivated the entire story arc of the parent series.
We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying this civilization’s late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, ogling hot lesbians, making simulated human sacrifice, and squaring off in a fight club knockoff. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation co-opts a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out in public too? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants to enhance their virtual appearance, say, to make themselves younger, more beautiful, covered in fur or made of diamond?
The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future before it is decimated in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new prequel series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that this is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the sister planet Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem modeled on the immigrant Sicilian mafia of 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to Capricanize everything else is his life: changing his surname to Adams and raising his son as a Caprican, all to the consternation of his mother.
This society’s most truly dangerous trait appears to be its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their secret representative Sister Willow recruits teen students from her exclusive private school. Zealous Ben (Avan Jogia), in turn, drafts Zoe and her friend Magda, and later stages the suicide bombing that claims the Graystone and Adama families. Ben was presumably being manipulated by Sister Willow (Polly Walker), who also had designs on Zoe’s brilliant computer skills that didn’t necessarily hinge on her remaining alive.
The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its controversial final episode (for the record, I loved its audacity). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called over-egging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.
Speaking of, how could a luminary in the cybernetics business not realize his own daughter was a genius-level hacker? Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with a means of preserving the 100 terabytes of human data stored in the human brain, and complement it with 300 MB of digital detritus that person has left behind on Caprica’s equivalents of Google and Facebook: medical records, playlists, email, searches, social networking, etc. Her breakthrough allows Graystone to resurrect Adama’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 100 terabytes of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.
Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientific breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.
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, 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.
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. 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 star if the kid hadn’t been in it.
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 The Happening, 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.
Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few essential science fiction movies that has lasted, overcoming dated special effects, acting styles, and the end of the Cold War (provider of subtext for many a horror story). In the company of Forbidden Planet (Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Space), The Blob (an invasive species consumes the population), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (smalltown America succumbs to the ultimate conformity), it continues to resonate decades later, even being reimagined in 2008 as an ecoparable.
Immediately striking is the dissonant score by Bernard Herrmann, of Psycho fame. The evocative piece over the opening credits sounds just like an outtake from Brian Eno’s ambient album On Land, thirty years early.
Wise shows us humanity’s first alien contact through the quaint filter of period radio and television; rest assured, “scientists and military men” are on the case. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a suave caucasian humanoid male alien, and his pet robot Gort (Lock Martin) park their UFO on a baseball field on The Mall in Washington D.C. His polite request for an audience with the United Nations goes rebuffed, for during the height of the Cold War, not even a flying saucer, an alien in a silver jumpsuit, and a giant robot is enough to convince the nations of the world to sit down and talk. Klaatu’s flying saucer is surrounded by hilariously lax security, and he is briefly taken into custody before handily escaping into the D.C. suburbs.
Klaatu has learned mid-Atlantic accented English from radio and television broadcasts, and outwardly appears perfectly humanoid right down to his slicked-back hair (they evidently have Brylcreem in space), so all he needs to blend in with the masses is to simply steal someone’s dry cleaning. He checks into a spare room, with some shots directly quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic The Lodger. He befriends young Bobby (Billy Gray) without a hint of suspicion, dating the film more than anything else.
Klaatu tries to get his message through to a pacifist scientist, but he’s discovered, shot, and dies. Gort, programmed to activate in such an event, threatens to exact an unspecified violence upon humanity. But Klaatu has already taught his interspecies ladyfriend Helen (Patricia Neal) the robot-mollifying fail-safe codephrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort ceases his hostilities, and instead revives Klaatu using machinery on their ship. Klaatu claims his new lease on life is only for a limited time, for true resurrection is only the domain of “the Almighty Spirit”. The remarkable fact that he believes in a God goes unremarked upon; both he and the humans to whom he’s speaking simply take it for granted they’re talking about the same deity. This line stands out for a reason; the dialogue was reportedly inserted at the request of the MPAA, who objected to Klaatu’s godlike powers of resurrection. Failing to reach the world’s leaders, he settles for the next-best thing: an assembled group of scientists (all, of course, white males). Message delivered, he leaves Earth in a huff.
So, let’s recap: an otherworldly visitor with a message of peace-or-else is executed, rises again, and ascends into the heavens. Do I have to spell it out?
But if Klaatu is analogous to Jesus, let’s take a closer look at his message. He claims Earthlings’ warlike behavior is of no interest to the spacefaring species of the universe, as long as it’s contained to one planet. But the interstellar community is beginning to fear that Earthlings are about to discover interstellar travel, and they will not permit humanity to bring their atomic weapons with them. Klaatu is the representative of other societies that have already passed through this phase, whom, unable to curb their violent impulses on their own, came up with a solution to police themselves: a fleet of lethal robots programmed to eradicate anyone that violates the truce. So they use weapons to deter the use of other weapons? What kind of message is that to a Cold War audience living under the nightmare of Mutually Ensured Destruction? To the 21st Century viewer, the immediate worry is whether or not we could ever trust an artificial intelligence with impartially keeping the peace. Indeed, whole science fiction franchises have been built upon that very theme, including 2001, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica.
But perhaps I’m being too literal. It’s a simple movie, but is it a simple analogy? Is the army of Gorts a symbol for Earth’s nuclear arsenal? No, because that’s exactly what Klaatu wants humans to put away. According to The New York Times, producer Julian Blaustein “told the press [the film] was an argument in favor of a ‘strong United Nations.'” But the U.N. is denigrated as petty and ineffective in the movie; they won’t deign to gather to merely listen to Klaatu’s speech. The overall message is very cynical: even more advanced aliens aren’t able to curb their violent impulses on their own. Klaatu is here to threaten, not save us. If we embark out into space bearing weapons, we’re toast.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is based on 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Walter Trevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (filmed in 1976 by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie) shares some plot elements (the alien Thomas Newton too bears diamonds as seed money), but veers off into another direction altogether. Newton has no interest in steering humanity’s course. He’s here on a secret mission to save his own people, but falls prey to his own all-too-human weaknesses.