Locus Online



14 December 2008

Captain Klaatu and the Planeteers, or, The Day the Face Stood Still:
A Review of The Day the Earth Stood Still

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Written by David Scarpa, based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North

Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, and James Hong

Official site: 20th Century Fox: The Day The Earth Stood Still

Well. If you have never seen the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), if you value neat-o special effects above all other aspects of the cinematic experience, and if you don't object to a film delivering a simplistic environmental message with all the subtlety of a Captain Planet cartoon, then you just might enjoy this addled update of Robert Wise's classic film. Alas, I fall into none of these categories, and therefore can value this film only for its unintended but interesting commentary on the ways that human society, and science fiction, have changed in the last fifty years.

The first film was made during heady years for humanity: we had just mastered atomic energy, we were on the verge of conquering space, and we could readily imagine that these giant leaps forward might attract the respect and attention of advanced alien beings. That is precisely what brings the first Klaatu to the planet Earth: as an ambassador from alien civilizations who fear that humans will take their atomic bombs into outer space to wreak havoc upon their neighbors, he must warn us that they have set up a system of robot enforcers, represented by his companion Gort, which will instantly destroy our world should we engage in such shenanigans. A half century later, our achievements with atomic power and space travel no longer seem so impressive, we are much more inclined to be self-critical, and hence we are prepared to accept that aliens might regard human beings not as dangerous rivals but more as annoying vermin, senselessly ravaging our pricelessly verdant planet. No longer a menace to the universe, humans now are only a menace to our own environment, which is much more important to aliens than the intelligent beings that inhabit it. Think about it: in this film, aliens have been carefully monitoring Earth not because they have any interest in human accomplishments, but only because they are fretting that this trivial species might be doing too much damage to one of the few worlds around that is capable of sustaining life.

Our diminished sense of self-esteem is also conveyed by the different nature of this born-again environmentalist Klaatu. As brilliantly portrayed by Michael Rennie, the original Klaatu did have a flying saucer and a robotic cohort with awesome abilities, but he was otherwise entirely and appealingly just like us: a human being vulnerable to bullets, fearful of losing his own life, and able to influence others solely through the power of his words. Knowing little about the human race, he seeks to live among them and humbly seeks advice and information from a child; repeated efforts to portray him as a Christ figure suggest that he is not only godlike, but very human as well. Today, schooled by superhero movies into believing that advanced aliens must have powers far beyond those of mortal men, we are unsurprised to see Klaatu remade in the image of Superman as the master of an array of inexplicable magical powers that render him virtually invulnerable to harm and erode much of the film's sense of suspense. Would you like to keep him a captive and interrogate him? He will touch the lie detector and turn it into a mind-control device enabling him to obtain the information he needs to escape, and he can disable all the guards by blasting numbing energy into their earphones. Would you like to shoot him down with armed-to-the-teeth military helicopters? He will hold out his hands, zap the helicopters with strange rays, and make them collide and explode. This Klaatu, then, cannot be killed and brought back to life, depriving this remake of the original film's most striking sequence and providing this film's Helen with no occasion to deliver the evocatively cryptic command, "Klaatu barada nikto."

Reeves's Klaatu further demonstrates his superiority to mere humans with his omniscience — he contacts scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) because he is somehow aware that she has taken his miraculous healing salve — and his disregard for our laws — while Rennie's Klaatu bartered diamonds for cash so he could properly pay to see a movie, Reeves simply touches a vending machine so he can get a free tuna salad sandwich. Most damningly, as someone whose mission is to protect the Earth, not its intelligent inhabitants, this Klaatu displays complete contempt for human lives; true, after he runs over a police officer with a car activated by his touch, he immediately revives him, presumably to avoid upsetting Helen's stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), but he performs no such magic to revive Helen's colleague Michael Granier (Jon Hamm) or the pilots of those helicopters. And while in a nod to the original film he does briefly ask to speak to all of the world's leaders, he completely abandons the idea once Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) tells him it can't be done and instead decides that he might as well just start slaughtering the whole human race. Hey, why bother trying to persuade people to save the planet when you can solve the problem by simply wiping them off the face of the Earth? A last-minute conversion to loving people as much as trees notwithstanding, Reeves's Klaatu is so relentlessly unsympathetic as to fatally undermine the impact of his environmental message; I mean, why should anyone care about what this creep thinks about our behavior?

A major part of the problem, of course, is the crucial miscasting of the consistently inept Keanu Reeves in the role of Klaatu. Always wearing an impeccably tailored suit, Reeves reminds us of his similar attire in Johnny Mnemonic (1995), which I previously would have nominated as his most wooden performance. In this film, however, I think Reeves achieves a new all-time low. A key moment is the scene which convinces Klaatu to change his mind and save humanity from destruction: Benson's stepson meets her at his father's grave, finally recognizes that she is a good person who loved his father just as much as he did, and tearfully embraces her. In a long reaction shot, we see that Reeves's face is not only utterly motionless, but that he is actually struggling to keep his face absolutely stiff. Does Reeves actually believe that such voluntary paralysis of the facial muscles is the best way to convey how moved he is by this tender reconciliation? Or, knowing that he really can't persuasively show any emotions, has he resolved that his best shot is to not even try? In any event, when he subsequently states that "There's another side to you. I feel it now," all a filmgoer can say is, sorry, Mr. Reeves, but you haven't shown me that you feel anything at all.

Thus, while the original film concluded with a long, moving speech by Klaatu in which he summed up his message, the makers of this film, if they even considered including such a scene, must have recognized that Reeves was completely incapable of pulling it off. So it is that this Klaatu leaves Earth without saying a single word, without even saying goodbye to Helen and Jacob, and his advice to humanity comes out only in scattered snippets of conversation, which are ineffective due to the manner of Reeves's delivery. Consider what he says to console Jacob about the death of his father: "Nothing ever truly dies. The universe wastes nothing. Everything is simply transformed." That's a nice statement that might have had some real impact if it hadn't been recited in a dull monotone. So, to provide an emotional underpinning to their film, writer David Scarpa and director Scott Derrickson are obliged to rely upon images: the alien spaceships are shining blue-and-white spheres, representing planets like Earth, and the film begins and concludes with expansive visions of the real thing as seen from outer space. Surprisingly, except for brief scenes of several animals approaching the blue spheres, the filmmakers otherwise do nothing else to stir our appreciation for the natural wonders of Earth; for heaven's sake, the scenes of marvelous plants and animals that conclude the farcical The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) (review) do a much better job of celebrating the miracle of life on Earth.

In ways other than its environmental message, the story of The Day the Earth Stood Still has been revised to achieve political correctness. The woman who befriends Klaatu can no longer be a mere secretary, so Helen Benson has been upgraded to the status of a professor of astrobiology at Princeton University, no less, one of a handful of experts summoned by the government to deal with the impending arrival of a visitor from space. As in the previous film, the United States military is largely portrayed in a negative light; again, a trigger-happy soldier guns down Klaatu when he emerges from his spaceship, and again, the military persists in pointless efforts to damage his spaceship and his robot; but now, since we now realize that, hey, soldiers are sensitive people too, and since the film was, after all, made with the cooperation of the United States Department of Defense and U.S. Army, the woman in control of military operations eventually recognizes the error of her belligerent ways and dispatches Helen on a mission to achieve a peaceful settlement with the alien. Other changes are predictable but nonetheless irksome: by shifting the locale of the alien landing from Washington D.C. to New York City, this becomes yet another film that is endeavoring to add some unmerited resonance to its catastrophic events by reminding us of September 11, 2001. The original Klaatu was first impressed with human civilization when he was taken to the Lincoln Memorial, read a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, and commented, "Those are great words" — yet not only is he now unable to visit the Lincoln Memorial, but what would this Klaatu know about "great words" anyway? So this film's comparable scene instead has Klaatu listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and comment, "It's beautiful." I have to believe that the film's repeated references to humanity's need to "change" represent a borrowing from the campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama, even though environmentalism has never been one of his major themes. And while Helen's more complex family dynamics might be regarded as only a sign of the times — she married an African-American widower with a young son who was then killed in Iraq — I suspect it was rather contrived to justify casting the adorable African-American Jaden Smith as the child of a woman who, as the potential if not actual romantic companion to Reeves, absolutely had to be, even in this day and age, a Caucasian.

The credits of the film also demand some attention. The story that inspired the first film, Harry Bates's "Farewell to the Master" (1940) is not even mentioned, probably because the only remaining trace of Bates's work is an alien visitor named Klaatu with a robot companion; even the story's death and rebirth of Klaatu, as noted, has been omitted. (And of course, no filmmaker would ever touch Bates's concluding indication that the robot, not the human, was the real master of the mission.) The original screenplay by Edmund H. North is credited, since he did add the crucial idea that Klaatu would have an ominous message to deliver to humanity, and since the film fitfully attempts to emulate some of his most effective scenes, like Klaatu and the boy visiting the graveyard of the boy's father and Klaatu communicating with the renowned Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) by correcting a problem on his chalkboard. Yet for a variety of reasons, the latter is one of the film's most risible sequences. In the first place, while Sam Jaffe's Barnhardt, modeled on Albert Einstein, was implicitly a physicist, Cleese's version, in order for him to be a colleague of astrobiologist Helen Benson, has been transformed into a biologist, who in fact won the Nobel Prize for his research into "biological altruism." Yet the biologists I know of rarely spend much time working with mathematical formulas. Further, the writing on his chalkboard features the phrase "event horizon," a concept from relativistic physics, not biology. As if to convey someone's recognition that this is all nonsensical, the board even includes some crude graffiti; I mean, it's true that by Googling one can turn up the names of scientists named Calderon and Hiscock that Barnhardt was conceivably referencing, but to me, the phrase "Calderon + Hiscock" represents the sort of thing that one would find scribbled on a bathroom wall. (No, the film's credits include no one named Calderon, but there are plenty of people with that name currently working in Hollywood who might have been the butt of the joke.) Overall, while Cleese plays it straight and delivers a credible performance as the distinguished scientist, one cannot help suspecting that the casting was intended to suggest that this film was not so much a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still as a Monty Python parody of it.

Indeed, turning to the question of the science underlying this film, it does have about as much logic as imagined giant blancmanges from outer space striving to turn all of Earth's tennis players into Scotsmen in order to win Wimbledon. After all, since these aliens display virtually unlimited powers, one has to assume that they would have the ability to transform lifeless planets into habitable worlds instead of slaughtering all species threatening worlds of that kind which developed naturally; if you can construct nanomachines capable of rapidly disintegrating metal and killing people, couldn't you also construct nanomachines that could rapidly terraform a planet? In addition, if the alien's purpose is, as Klaatu reports, to exterminate humans in order to preserve Earth's other species, one has to assume that the nanomachines are carefully programmed to destroy people and their artifacts and to leave the rest of Earth's biosphere untouched; why, then, was it necessary to send spheres all over the world to collect samples of Earth's other species in a presumed effort to function, as Jackson speculates, as an "ark" to save specimens from a coming "flood"? And if these aliens already had an agent disguised as a human living on Earth for the past seventy years (Mr. Wu, portrayed by James Hong), why did they need to dispatch another representative in the first place? And if the alien had already been provided with a human body thanks to previously harvested human DNA, why on Earth did they need to enclose him in something resembling placental tissue so that, as Benson posits, he could be "born on Earth"? Really, one has to wonder exactly what the film's "Astrobiology Advisor" did to merit recognition.

Still, when every major film nowadays involves the collective efforts of an army of talented people, there are bound to be at least a few things to appreciate. As mentioned, there are no complaints to offer about the special effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still, especially its version of the robot Gort (closely modeled on the original, but now three times as tall and expertly rendered) and the miniscule, metallic, endlessly replicating insects that are unleashed to doom the human race. (Also, the name Gort is now ingeniously explained as an Army-devised acronym for "Genetically Organized Robotic Technology.") And in addition to the contents of Professor Barnhardt's chalkboard, there are other touches of wry humor. Early in the film, Klaatu drives past a store named "Dr. Ray's Electronics," a phrase that epitomizes the sorts of gee-whiz manipulations of energy that will characterize his exploits on Earth. And when discussing what we should do about the alien visitor, little Jacob Benson twice comments that we should simply kill him, because "That's what dad would have done." Now, since Jacob's father was actually an engineer who, as Helen notes, went to Iraq to build instead of kill, these comments must refer to Jaden Smith's real-life father, actor Will Smith, who first emerged as a superstar by doing exactly that, memorably kicking some alien butt in an earlier film about alien invaders, Independence Day (1996).

Finally, in spite of its flaws, The Day the Earth Stood Still does serve to underline an important point I have recently touched upon elsewhere: that whenever Hollywood is running out of ideas (which is to say, all of the time), filmmakers turn for inspiration to the science fiction films of the 1950s — which remains the genre's defining, and most creative, era, filled with films that may seem crude and cheap to contemporary audiences but nevertheless reward repeated viewing. In my tenure as a film reviewer for Locus Online, I have already reviewed four recent attempts to update and improve upon films from this decade (The War of the Worlds [review], The Invasion, [review], Journey to the Center of the Earth [review], and this one) and at least two more are slowly making their way to theatres (When Worlds Collide [IMDb] and Forbidden Planet [IMDb], both now projected for release in 2010). The results of these efforts may be dire, but by borrowing their titles and plots, filmmakers are at least reminding a new generation of viewers about some classic films they may never have heard of. So, as the only imaginable silver lining to detect on this dark cloud of a film, one hopes that the enormous hoopla surrounding its release will impel some people to seek out and watch the original film, which will always remain one of the genre's masterpieces — no matter what others might do to tarnish its good name.

© 2008 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.