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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) - Movie Review

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

By 2005, Fox producer Erwin Stoff saw actor Keanu Reeves as something of a golden goose, after Stoff produced or executive produced successes like Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Chain Reaction, Feeling Minnesota, The Devil's Advocate, The Replacements, Constantine, and most notably, The Matrix. One day, Stoff found himself glancing at a poster for 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still and wondered what it would be like if Reeves were cast as Klaatu in a modern remake. Screenwriter David Scarpa was hired to pen a script in 2005, not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern coast of the United States, and he decided the remake should focus more on environmental concerns of the day, only without Klaatu outright preaching to the audience or anyone ever uttering the phrases "global warming" or "climate change."

Scott Derrickson, a relatively young director at the time who hadn't yet made a name for himself with Sinister and Doctor Strange, was hired to direct. Derrickson was a fan of the original film and its director, Robert Wise, who he met in film school. It was Derrickson's idea to change the setting from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan and to make the robot Gort larger and more menacing. Despite a late start to principal photography, the production went smoothly and the film was given a December 2008 release to a critical drumming but a generous box office.

Let's be perfectly clear here: 2008's The Day the Earth Stood Still is not a very good movie. That said, nothing about its conception is all that bad. There's nothing inherently wrong about remaking a classic and updating it for more modern times with more modern political concerns--that's been done successfully on more than one occasion--and casting Keanu Reeves as an alien is one of the best things this movie has going for it. There's nothing terribly wrong with changing the setting to New York--it's closer to the U.N. after all, which is where Klaatu says he wants to go in both versions of the film--and making Gort enormous could have been pretty frightening, especially in the hands of a good director who works mainly with horror, like Derrickson.

It's the execution where everything falls apart. It's hard to assign full blame. Perhaps Derrickson was too inexperienced with big budget filmmaking, or perhaps Scarpa's script (which went through at least forty iterations) was too sloppy. Perhaps the studio had too many mandates, or maybe the producers interfered too much. Maybe the actors weren't delivering their best performances, or maybe a perfectly good film was destroyed in the editing room. The most likely explanation is some combination of the above.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Jennifer Connelly goes through the whole movie with this look on her face

Let's start with what I consider the film's most egregious fault: the characters. This is a movie in which nobody ever smiles, not once. The new Klaatu lacks the grinning, paternalistic charm of the original; the young boy he befriends--now played by the insufferable Jaden Smith--is an angry, bitter kid who takes no joy in anything and spends the majority of the film hating Klaatu; his mother, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is ridiculously earnest; and even the great John Cleese can't bring any lightness to the new, stuffier version of Professor Barnhardt. Not every movie needs to be a quippy romp, but just one nervous joke every twenty minutes or so could go a long way to humanizing a bunch of characters who are very difficult to connect with. Without that, the movie comes across as a mean-spirited and cynical screed against humanity in general, as not one of the human characters is particularly likable or interesting.

Then there's the cookie-cutter stereotypes, best exemplified by Kathy Bates' Secretary of Defense. Here we have an absurdly single-minded stand-in for blunt government aggression, lacking any shades of nuance or humanity. She is, in essence, just a facial scar away from being a James Bond villain. All she is interested in is painting Klaatu as a threat and eliminating it, and then she has an unearned one-eighty in the final act that comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. Contrast her character with that of Frank Conroy's Mr. Harley from the 1951 version, a cool-headed man who explains to Klaatu the dilemma his government faces without being threatening or duplicitous about it; he and Klaatu have a warm exchange, and never once does he try to have the alien drugged against his will. The underlying conflict between the two characters is essentially the same, but instead of being born out of a rational and understandable difference of opinion about what's politically possible, the new version beats audiences over the head with the simplistic "government = bad" cliché. It certainly doesn't help that Bates is playing it like a charicature of Hillary Clinton.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Even before he turns into an evil cloud, the effects on Gort are pretty terrible

The character problem is exacerbated by the story's more omniscient point of view. The original focused almost entirely on Klaatu, only occasionally switching over to Helen or the kid, whereas the remake is all over the place, occasionally focusing on Helen, but mostly wandering from character to character. Also, there are far too many characters, with so many superfluous ones it would take me too long to list them all. For instance, the opening sequence introduces us to around half a dozen scientists (and one civil engineer) who are brought in to deal with the incoming alien vessel, and after the ship lands and Klaatu reveals himself, all of these newly introduced characters are dropped from the story like so much dead weight. What was the point in having them in the first place? As for Klaatu, the anchor of the original film, the wandering P.O.V. avoids him. That, combined with the emotionless way he is written and the wooden way Keanu Reeves plays him, makes it impossible for audiences to relate to or properly undertand the alien, an absolute necessity for the story to work.

The original was a relatively simple film, filled with good character-building moments and sequences that give Klaatu perspective on humanity, such as the lengthy montage where the boy gives him a tour of the capital, ending with ice cream and a trip to the alien ship. The remake, on the other hand, is a cluttered mess of a story that doesn't have time to build its characters or pause, even for a few seconds, to let suspension of disbelief settle in. (The poor CG surrounding Gort doesn't help, either.) There are numerous unnecessary additions to the plot, like a preface that overexplains where Klaatu got human DNA from, and some of these additions open up logistical plot holes, like why Klaatu insists on speaking to the world's leaders before he's even checked in with the newly invented alien spy who, for some reason, likes hanging out at McDonald's. There's also some notably bad dialogue, characters who figure out relavent plot points with little to no evidence, and a lot of disaster-movie apocalypse porn during the climax, so it feels like this movie was too busy trying to be a blockbuster to actually be a good film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
When I think about intelligent science-fiction, I picture action heroes walking away from explosions, don't you?

There's also no sense of the allegorical possibilities. The enormous nano-tech Gort isn't really a stand-in for environmental collapse and Neo-Klaatu has lost most of his Jesus parallels, only sacrificing himself in the end through a cliché change of heart about humanity that is never properly established or explained. Instead, Klaatu is the antagonist for the majority of the film, a typical alien invader intent on destroying mankind, and that takes away from what made the original story so special. This movie, then, becomes a heavy-handed environmentalist message movie, and even though Klaatu's speech at the end was taken out to make it seem less preachy, it feels more sententious and condescending than the original ever has, no matter what your political views may be on the subject. It also tries to portray as hopeful an ending in which--spoiler warning--all our technology has been permanently disabled, taking us back to the stone-age. This might be an extreme environmentalist's wet dream, but for the vast majority of us, it is a nightmare scenario that isn't much better than letting Gort run roughshod over humanity.

This is not a film that failed because it was a bad idea. I contend a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still could be done well, even though it would be difficult to get right. Unfortunately, from the perspective of Hollywood, 2008's The Day the Earth Stood Still didn't fail at all--it made a modest profit at the box office, despite flopping with critics--and it's likely the men and women behind the scenes learned no good lessons from it. I have no faith in their ability to succeed if they were to give it another shot, and so I'm content to just keep watching Robert Wise's original film and pretending this remake doesn't exist. It's just better that way.

-e. magill 1/24/2019

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