The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

Though many science-fiction fans consider it a classic, I don’t much care for Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Jesus Christ analogs from outer space pointlessly delaying their message to humanity while the fate of the world hangs in the balance just don’t do it for me. Klaatu is well meaning, but he’s kind of a jerk when you think about it, and I was pleased to see the remake finally acknowledge that.

I’m ambivalent about this new adaptation of Harry Bates’ Farewell to the Master, which has once again nothing to do with the short story. My heart says, “Meh”, but my mind can’t deny it’s a technically sound remake. While remaining true to the spirit of the 1951 film, director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter David Scarpa have raised the stakes, thereby solving a major pacing problem, updated some of the themes to reflect the current political climate, and completely reinvented the female lead because portraying anyone with a vagina as a bumbling idiot is considered somewhat passé in 2008. The result is still incredibly preachy though.

The movie stars Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, an extraterrestrial with a dire warning for mankind. This is an ideal role for an actor with perhaps more charisma than range. I’ve mentioned this before, but Reeves does particularly well in effects-heavy blockbusters, no doubt because he looks like a digital creation himself. His awkward grace and monotone inflections are usually distracting, but here they serve as reminders of his character’s alien nature. Incidentally, Reeves also plays a human being in the film’s prologue. He’s terribly unconvincing in the part.

Klaatu wishes to address the United Nations, but the U.S. Secretary of Defence (Kathy Bates) feels her government should get first dibs to decide whether the world is ready for his announcement. Because he’s not American, the alien messenger quickly rejects the pompous notion and sets in motion a radical plan B, which I won’t spoil except to say it isn’t very nice. It then falls upon Dr Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an elite astrobiologist who could stand to gain a few pounds, and her obnoxious stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) to convince Klaatu the human race is worth a second chance.

I’m trying to decide what punishment would be appropriate for a boy repeatedly jeopardizing civilization as we know it just to spite his stepmother. Two weeks without video games? Helen keeps rewarding Jacob with warm hugs and compassionate stares, but what he really needs is a spanking. In fairness, the child is still grieving his father, who passed away before she could establish herself as a parental figure. The subtext is somewhat intriguing, but it seems out of place in a flick about extraterrestrial visitors and a big robot that can shoot energy beams from its gleaming red eye.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox
© Copyright 20th Century Fox

On the subject of G.O.R.T., I rather like the new design for Klaatu’s artificial sentry. The latter looks exactly like the 1951 android, yet remains threatening. This time around, though, its moniker is a military acronym for “Genetically Organized Robotic Technology”, a designation considerably less interesting than just “Gort”. I’m weary of sci-fi movies explaining every detail as if it mattered. The U.S.S. Enterprise doesn’t need dilithium crystals to travel through space. It only needs to be a spaceship. Similarly, I’m not convinced the scary robot requires a name at all, much less one so convoluted. Still, it’s an endearing throwback to the original film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is filled with similar homages, my favourite of which is a short detour to consult Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese). It’s easily the best scene in the movie, not least because Cleese is such an expressive actor, but the character’s rationale for saving humanity is rather dubious: mankind, he argues, shouldn’t be expected to address its problems right away because it can only change after reaching rock bottom. Kids, stop trying to make the world a better place. What you apparently ought to do is wait for war, poverty, and pollution to become unmanageable so we can evolve as a civilization.

Meh. The real issue is that The Day the Earth Stood Still has no staying power. Its final shot, coupled with Jacob’s cheesy line, is particularly underwhelming, relying on a sense of wonder that simply isn’t there. Wise’s version may have its faults, but I still remember it. A few days from now, all I’ll recollect from this remake is that McDonald’s is a place where great minds congregate and the U.S. government is the only organisation in movies to use Microsoft Windows. I suspect somewhere in the Fox vaults is a deleted scene in which the classic line “Klaatu Barada Nikto” (mysteriously absent from the final cut) is replaced by, “LG, life’s good.”

Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."