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    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Thu, 11 Dec 2008 14:45:40

    Movie Reviews: The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Despite primitive special effects and occasionally clunky storytelling, 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still ranks as a science fiction classic because it has a good underlying plot, interesting characters, and a meaningful moral. (Anyone taking issue with the term "clunky" clearly has forgotten long scenes of hat-wearing radio and T.V. announcers commenting on the proceedings, interminable second-unit shots of soldiers in military jeeps tracking a taxi, and Gort the Robot's offscreen and apparently uneventful stroll across Washington, D.C., to retrieve the alien Klaatu from a jail cell.)

    A remake would have been a risky undertaking even if the best elements of the original had been left intact. Unfortunately, the 2008 reboot includes a very wrongheaded plot change that makes it play more like an illogical public service announcement than an instructive semi-religious parable.

    But at least it has a great-looking Gort.

    In the original, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives to warn us that Earth will be destroyed if we attempt to militarize space. Other worlds have noted man's discovery of atomic power, and are not about to let us threaten universal peace by spreading our warlike aggression.

    In the remake, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is here to prevent us from doing further damage to other living things on our own planet by removing humanity from Earth's ecological equation. The problem with changing the movie's message from "stop being mean" to "clean up your room" is that it turns an existential dilemma about human nature into a merely practical problem. As a result, the 2008 Klaatu's mission to render mankind extinct—instead of sharing advanced technology that could "green" our sources of pollution—seems not only petty but philosophically inconsistent. If he can travel from his world to ours in a big blue marble, can't he simply tell us how to build Mr. Fusion units that run on banana peels and beer cans?

    In both versions of the movie, Klaatu initially wants to address all of the world's leaders but is not given the chance. The 1951 Klaatu deals with this setback by temporarily pulling the plug on the planet's power sources to get everyone's attention. The 2008 Klaatu bafflingly allows the destruct process to begin without any such demonstration, then has to make a heroic effort to stop it.

    Reeves substitutes icily inhuman detachment for Rennie's stern but fatherly concern, just as the new movie as a whole is more techno-chilly than emotionally resonant. The 1951 Klaatu is a Christ-like figure who promotes peace as a means of salvation, dies, and is resurrected to drive his message home. (The first two words in the original, from soldiers who spot Klaatu's incoming ship, are "Holy mackerel!") The 2008 Klaatu is more like a skinny, milder-mannered Terminator with the compassion of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Vogon—until he experiences a change in his thinking.

    That attitude adjustment is inspired by the astonishingly alluring astrobiologist Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), the first scientist to approach Klaatu when he arrives. Her efforts to keep him out of government hands, and her devotion to her troubled stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), convince Klaatu that there is more to humanity than just a capital-punishment-worthy carbon footprint.

    Patricia Neal's Benson in the original was a much more relatable "viewpoint" character for the audience, being a mere secretary who encountered Klaatu by chance. In supporting roles, Kathy Bates feels slightly out of place as a no-nonsense Secretary of Defense, but Monty Python's John Cleese is surprisingly credible as a thoughtful, Nobel Prize winning physicist who connects with Klaatu on an intellectual level.

    And then there's Klaatu's eyebeam-shooting bodyguard Gort, transformed here from the original's hokey guy-in-a-rubber-suit to a graphite-textured, 28-foot-tall CGI wonder to behold. He ends up serving a different (and less satisfying) climactic purpose this time around, and we don't see nearly enough of him. But when he's on-screen, that tall, dark, and nano-some example of "Genetically Organized Robotic Technology" is the coolest thing about the movie.

    Unfortunately, most of the rest of The Day the Earth Stood Still is just plain cold.

    —James Dawson
    12.11.08

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