– Summary –
Director : Scott Derickson
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, James Hong, Brandon T Jackson.
Year of Release : 2008
Length : 103 Minutes
Synopsis: An alien entity arrives on Earth with a message, only to discover that nobody wants to listen. Nobody, that is, except for a female scientist, who takes the extraterrestrial on a journey to unravel the mystery of his arrival. Klaatu, the alien, has been sent to determine whether humans are worthy enough to exist on planet Earth. With his advanced technology, incredible powers and abilities to thwart all our technology, the question is asked: what do we do if he decides we aren’t worthy?
Review : Ingratiatingly benign remake of the 50’s sci-fi classic, with Keanu a more mysterious version of the Klaatu role made famous by Michael Rennie, this version of the contemporary warning story is as impactful as a pie in the face. That is, it’s not very. The film is technically proficient, and should by all accounts be a whole lot more entertaining than it is, especially with such a great cast. The problem is, this version of The Day The Earth Stood Still can’t quite step out from under the enormous shadow its Cold War counterpart casts across it. Connelly is good, Smith is annoying, and John Cleese has a five minute cameo: Kathy Bates is the real star of this film’s acting chops, and she’s excellent. Reeves, again casting his mopey doe-eyed face around the film for something to look at, seems too inconvenienced with having to act to care about.
When I heard that they were remaking the 1951 classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still, I wasn’t exactly excited. The original film to me is, as it is to many, a confluence of magic that occurs only rarely in cinema. It happened with Gone With The Wind. It happened with The Wizard of Oz. And it hasn’t happened here. The powers that be decided it’d be a good idea to remake a classic film for, you guessed it, the “next generation of filmgoers to appreciate”. Whatever happened to DVD, I have to ask? Is it not possible for modern audiences to watch the original film and take from that the message they need? According to the bean counters who decided to green-light this film, it seems not. No, it seems impossible these days to stumble across a Hollywood film that isn’t a remake.
Keanu Reeves headlines this sci-fi epic, as the alien being Klaatu, who arrives in his spacecraft in order to speak to the leaders of humanity about the way we as a species have treated the Earth. Unfortunately, Klaatu lands in New York City, which is major trouble to begin with. The army swoop in, beauracracy runs amok, and to quote Venkman in Ghostbusters, dogs and cats start sleeping together. Klaatu is shot, and taken to a military medical facility for examination and interrogation, since apparently anything that occurs like this is likely to be in the almighty US’s National Interest. Step in Jennifer Connelly, a scientist pulled in by the Government to assist in the examination and reporting of the alien encounter, only she finds herself drawn to Klaatu and helps him escape. Cue chase sequences and The Fugitive-style subversion across the United States. Will Smith’s kid Jaden gets a run without dad in frame as Connellys stepson Jacob Benson, who still mourns the death of his recently deceased father. Kathy Bates does a great job as the US Secretary Of Defence who is in charge of communicating the US governments position to the alien, she’s as close to villainous as this film gets: more on this in a moment.
Where the original films’ suspense is drawn from a fear of the unknown and the unimaginably powerful, in this version, nobody seems to phased that an extraterrestrial being has arrived on Earth in a spacecraft that defies any examination and attack. The Government agencies involved in containing the alien scenario appear almost arrogant that they can nullify any problems that may (and eventually do) arise. The script calls for Klaatu to be almost apologietic that our fate is a foregone conclusion, a different outlook to Michael Rennie’s performance, in which he at least tried to understand our ways and thoughts. Perhaps the need for a darker, more apocalyptic feeling in the updated version is representative of the current era of terrorism and media-saturated war; our own nihilism works against us in this time of crisis.
Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as the mysterious and alien Klaatu: he’s silent and contemplative, a feature in Reeve’s acting that he’s managed to carve into every single character he’s ever done. That slightly sad expression he carries throughout The Matrix trilogy and other films he’s done is again present, almost like he’s embarrassed to be appearing in this film. Reeves lacks the emotional ability to convey true feeling to an audience, instead relying on his looks and screen persona to do the job, and it’s sub-par. For this film’s message to get across in the modern era of cell-phones and the Internet, the film needs to pack more of a whallop than it does. Reeves central alien character isn’t as talkative as Michael Rennie’s version, the screenplay siding on the “dark and mysterious” ethos most modern alien based films seem rely on these days. The problem with that is that as an audience, we never really get a great look into why the aliens have decided to do what they do: allow the Earth to be destroyed. Their motivations are shadowy at best, and it’s frustrating.
Jennifer Connelly does a bang up job as scientist Helen Benson, who is stuggling to raise her stepson (Jaden Smith) in the aftermath of her husbands death. Their conflict stems from his inability to overcome the emotion built up after his fathers death, and Helen seems to be unable to connect with him. Jacob is also hostile towards the alien arrival, stating that we should kill them before they kill us, unknowing at the time that Klaatu is in fact the one who decides if humanity is worth saving. In fact, it’s Jacob’s hostility towards the unknown that provokes Klaatu in deciding to go ahead with the planetary cleanup. I thought Jaden Smith’s character was annoying as hell, a little petulant child who badly needs some slapping to bring his attitude in line, although I understand why the character was written that way. But neither Connelly or Smith have the screen chemistry to make their character’s arc even remotely moving or interesting: their story simply runs aground on the epic scale of the rest of the film. But the sole cast member of this film who pulls herself above the written material is Kathy Bates, as SecDef Regina Jackson, the character who creates a lot of the tension in the film due to her resistance to believeing Klaatu’s explanation for his arrival. Humanity’s natural tendency to fear things it doesn’t understand is embodied in her character, and Bates plays it to the hilt.
Then there’s John Cleese, as a professor who specialises in altruism, to whom Klaatu is taken to try and change his mind on humanity. As a whole, I think this role was a complete waste of time, adding nothing special to the film and seeming somewhat shoehorned into the script as a kind of backstop for reason. Cleese gains an extended cameo and a title credit he was no doubt paid a lot for. But the moment he’s on screen is pointless, a storytelling aside that’s not worth the effort.
The marketing gurus made us all think this film was going to be an independence Day style effects event film, and nothing could be further from the truth. The destruction effects in TDTESS are limited to a few key sequences involving a truck, a football stadium and part of New York City. They’re perfunctory, lacking in a sense of occasion, and ultimately, there to service the story in a way that’s a little disappointing. The alien craft effects are well done though, as is the Gort robot that Klaatu uses as his harbinger of doom. Still, the film was always going to be more about the reasons why Klaatu arrives, than the how, and the destruction. That’s not the real point.
Is the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still as good as, or better than, the original classic? Nope. Scripting issues and a lamentable lack of energy in proceedings ensures this version will remain stuck in the shadow of it’s originator. Where you can see the film-makers tried something new with the concept, they’ve managed to make a film devoid of awe and spectacle, slowly paced and ultimately, fruitless in it’s intentions to get us thinking about the way we treat our planet. Perhaps in the gargantuan movement towards a greener world through carbon emissions and other pollution controls, and the saturation point that movement is at, makes us more cynical about yet another “treat your world properly” message movie. In any case, this version of TDTESS isn’t up to par with the emotional content the original contained, and results in a less than satisfactory outcome.
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