The Day the Plot Stood Still

Sci-fi remake misses the point, and that's a Klaatu Barada no-no

Flying saucers just aren't that scary anymore. Especially after Ed Wood and Mars Attacks, it's hard to take a threat from a giant Frisbee all that seriously. So what's an update of the iconic 1951 sci-fi flick, The Day the Earth Stood Still, to do? In an extremely bold move, the filmmakers have gone with giant...globes. Because nothing's more threatening than a big, swirling green-and-blue ball, right? Right?

The first one that arrives is even less scary than that, because it's a good deal smaller than a human being and encased in ice. It's discovered in 1928 by an unnamed arctic explorer (Keanu Reeves, bearded) on a soundstage lightly covered with fake snow, and since Keanu isn't the sharpest tool in the tent, he pulls out a pickaxe and promptly tries to smash the thing. A few moments later, he's lying on the ground, the ball has disappeared, there's a scar on his hand, and a prelude that is both unnecessary and unconvincing is mercifully over.

Keanu returns in our near future—one in which Kathy Bates has become our secretary of Defense, though Putin is still in charge of Russia. This time, he is supposedly an alien being called Klaatu that has spawned itself from the arctic explorer's DNA, while traveling across space inside one of the aforementioned giant globes, wearing an organic spacesuit made of placental tissue (you read that right) which allows him to literally be "born again" in Earth's atmosphere. And yes, casting Keanu Reeves as an alien visitor unfamiliar with a human body and confused by human emotions is akin to casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as a killer cyborg—a near-perfect use of a limited-range actor who packs weirdly powerful charisma when used in just the right fashion.

Details

Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by David Scarpa, based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North. Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith and Kathy Bates.

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As in the first movie (though not Harry Bates' pulp short story "Farewell to the Master," from which this remake takes practically nothing), Klaatu's arrival on Earth is so frightening that a government sniper takes a preemptive shot at him, after which he's taken to a secure location. Klaatu wants to address the United Nations, but no one will let him. Only the widowed Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), who had been reaching out to him when the bullet hit, has faith that making friends with the alien might be in the best interests of humanity, and she helps him to escape. But she may not be correct: Unlike Michael Rennie's mostly benevolent Klaatu in the original, version 2.0 is pissed at humanity for trashing the planet and comes prepared to wipe us all out.

That Klaatu arrives at this conclusion following a conversation with another alien named Wu (James Hong), who has been on Earth for 70 years, is puzzling, especially since Wu loves Earth and wants to stay here, yet still thinks humans should be destroyed. Then again, after seven decades, Wu's favorite food is McDonald's, so perhaps senility has begun to set in. Later, Klaatu starts to have doubts about his snap decision after he sees people crying. Was he really unaware of such a thing before? If so, he's way too dumb to be passing cosmic judgment.

The problem with this new The Day the Earth Stood Still isn't so much in the execution of director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who pulls off quite a few compelling sequences and, best of all, doesn't screw around too much with Klaatu's giant robot Gort. Retaining his iconically simple shape, with the addition of only a great deal more height and the roving red eye of a Cylon Centurion, Gort is still awesome...at least until he suddenly turns into a cloud of tiny robot insects that arbitrarily eat whatever the plot calls for. He does utter the classic "Klaatu Barada Nikto" line, but to a different end.

No, the problem here is that there are none of the big ideas that have kept the 1951 film in the public consciousness (it's actually quite boring in parts that don't deal directly with the message). Directed by Robert Wise, the original Day was both a condemnation of Cold War military paranoia and an allegorical Christ tale, with Klaatu dying for our sins before being resurrected and ascending into the heavens, warning that he'll be back with the apocalypse if humanity doesn't shape up. There are plenty of ways to bring similar themes into play today: Klaatu as Bush figure, perhaps, invading because of our weapons of mass destruction? Instead, it's never clear quite what the alien's problem is. Humans are rendering the planet uninhabitable, he initially says. Fair enough—that makes him an eco-warrior. But why then do his judgments in the film's second half center on humans being hateful and warlike? Isn't the extermination of a population just a tad warlike in itself? And if he wants to go to the U.N., and is essentially omnipotent, how come he never does?

Meanwhile, the casting of Will Smith's son Jaden as Helen's stepson plays like a colossal (and really lame) in-joke. Trained to shoot aliens by hours of playing Halo online, he constantly repeats the mantra, "If my dad were here, he'd fight!" The theme of the movie is that we're supposed to be better than that, but it's debatable whether this is a better film than Independence Day, so begging the comparison is a bad idea. But at least it's an idea.

 
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