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

Light sci-fi yarn with fine actors all around
but parsecs away from quality of the original _ 5/10

The Day the Earth Stood StillProfessor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don’t make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now.
Klaatu: Yes.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.

No, I do not feel a compulsion to stick up for Keanu Reeves as an actor. But I do tire of so many of my acquaintances and friends just doing a blanket diss of the poor guy’s acting ability… usually along with Sandra Bullock. [Just an FYI, if you want a grade-A performance from the latter, check Sandra’s work out in the 2005 Oscar-winning movie Crash. She plays the wife of the Los Angeles district attorney, who are robbed in an affluent neighborhood. Her complex, nuanced performance dealing with loneliness and fear is, well, first rate.]

Acting isn’t like singing Karaoke, or performing with one of those music synthesizers, where they enhance your voice. Granted the directors have tools that never existed in the past to make an actor’s performance more believable. But there’s still a lot of hard work and skill in playing a role convincingly, not to mention the physical demands of some parts. In this remake (of the 1951 film starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie), Reeves plays Klaatu, the alien representative who comes to earth on the lead hyper-warp-drive spaceship landing next to the Big Apple. So the acting challenges are less physical, and, ironically, for Reeves, emotionally subtle.

Naturally, the arrival of the large spherical, glowing object—which the scientists first expect to crash into Earth—causes quite a stir in the national defense establishment. The secretary of defense is played by Kathy Bates with a straight face and all the saber-rattling ‘tude she can muster. [I forget why we’re not dealing with the president on this emergency, but he’s indisposed somewhere (probably off planning a war). For a movie like this, I find you enjoy it much more if you don’t ask a lot of questions.]

Jennifer Connelly plays Helen Benson, a lead biophysics professor at Princeton… yeah, right. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but with a face and body like hers she’d spend so much time warding off men and boys there wouldn’t be any cycles left to study the microbes that can survive in deep space. Which is apparently something unique that she knows over any other professor in town, and what gets her shuffled away by the federal security police to a skunkworks dedicated to figuring out the alien’s biology and intentions.

There was a hostile military reaction to Klaatu’s initial disembarkment from the spaceship onto dry land. The spaceship, as in the original movie, is a massive sphere, like a couple of miles in diameter, from which blinding light emanates when something comes out the passageway to terra firma. And there are federal troops and SWAT team surrogates all over the place, completely disabled by the brightness; nobody can see squat. So, of course, some goombah opens fire—as I recall he was authorized to shoot —and puts a bullet into Klaatu. Nice shot. Welcome to America!

Of course, we don’t know it’s Klaatu at this point. Before the shot—and for some reason being the first in line to meet the approaching alien— Helen Benson not only is not blinded by the light, her eyes are wide open and we sense something of a spiritual connection between the two beings. Then the shot, alien blood splatters on her bio-suit visor, and Helen, distraught, goes to the supine alien, holding him/it in her arms. Others scoop him/it up, and, without many apparent decontamination processes, the next scenes show the being being resuscitated via alien tech. It’s then confined for questioning by Kathy Bates, et al.

This is the point we learn he is indeed an alien, name of Klaatu. And he is understandably pissed that the first point of contact results in gunplay at his expense. Sure he has superior technology, but it’s bad etiquette… and the shabby welcome-committee treatment even influences some decisions the alien leadership (Klaatu is one of the key leaders, an emissary with clout) have to make regarding the earthlings. While the other key scientists around Helen—which are played, for no apparent reason, by accomplished actors and stars (particularly, Jon Hamm and Kyle Chandler)—share her “go slow, be nice” approach to the strange new bipod on the block, the Kathy Bates warheads are menacing nitwits.

Klaatu wants to go address world leaders at the United Nations. Bates: “Sorry, Charlie, you’re stuck here in the basement with fat-ass ol’ me and these obedient-but-not-particularly-bright security people, until we get some answers, dammit!” So Klaatu is thinking, “First the earthlings shoot me, next the military and police-state types confine me, and to add insult to injury, I have to hang out with Kathy Bates as opposed to Jennifer Connelly. Yechh. Tell you what, I’m leaving.”

And so he does. Aided by a brief conspiracy of information from Helen in the basement, Klaatu flies the coop, causing a lot of the would be confiners, though unfortunately few with a high pay grade, some major discomfort, even death. And the plot begins in earnest. Klaatu and Helen manage to hook up on the outside, where—when she’s not dodging the advances of horny biophysics students and putting in her two cents on alien genetic tendencies—she’s a mom… well, a widow step-mom for “the kid” (Jacob, played to snot-nosed, obnoxious perfection by Jaden Smith).

Again, this is another point where it’s best not to ask any discerning questions, such as why the child is black, whether those glorious locks of hair mean the kid is a girl, why the kid addresses his step-mom insolently as “Helen” and won’t mind her, whether he’s as IQ-challenged as the military-intelligence establishment for wanting to fight and kill the aliens without any knowledge whatsoever. Further, Jacob does have a role later in the chase when Klaatu is having misgivings about whether there may be some reason to extend humanity’s life line.

In a way this is a highly instructive movie, especially for children. It shows how government employees in the military industrial complex act like complete bozos when faced with new and potentially life-threatening problems. Most of the employees are following orders, but the leaders are so completely lamebrained they ignore every single fact of reality about the alien capabilities multiple times. The big protective robot Gort vaporizes every human-flown and drone aircraft in a nanosecond. So what does Secretary of Defense Kathy Bates do? She authorizes—and her commanders and sergeants lick their chops to be part of the exercise—repeated military assaults on Gort and the spaceship. Zaporama!

The topper is where (somehow) the brilliant military minds assemble a giant trash compacter and “stealthily” inch these 10-story-tall panels in a triangle around Gort… while he isn’t looking. Sure enough, Gort pretends that he’s taking a nap, and the panels move in place, interlock, then close to move the big robot near a grain-silo-sized specially constructed observation laboratory. Keep in mind the Pentagon has created all these contraptions in three days, the time it would take to build a modest parade float. But even if everything could be built that fast, why do they think Gort is going to roll over and play dead?

It’s so blatantly obvious that the aliens have overwhelming technology and power, one would think humans would at least try talking! Nope. So when Klaatu informs Helen—while they’re on the lam—that humans are acting self-destructively and killing the galactic oasis of Earth, what he’s seen lately is not only are the humans malevolent, they are irremediably stupid. Helen learns that Klaatu’s mission—if he fails to gain world-leadership commitment to be better—is to put the race out of its misery. So you can see the odds are very long for Helen’s ability to convince Klaatu to spare our species.

So what happens? Well, can’t tell ya. But I truly like Keanu’s performance as Klaatu. He presents exactly the right balance between a highly intelligent being and a creature inhabiting an automaton’s body. The real problem is Keanu is stuck in a movie that doesn’t rise above plausible or serious. I think back on the 1951 version, which I saw probably a year ago. Even though the special effects were cheesy, the human behavior seemed much more reasonable given the lack of knowledge back then. The new version cleaves to the 1951 film, even though we know so much more than we did in the 1950s. What was reasonable for government officials then is incomprehensible today… I hope.

It’s a fun movie still, maybe because I have a thing for Jennifer Connelly, no matter what sorts of feeble projects her agent sticks her with.

Flash: Original = 10x Better than the Remake

From Netflix I received the original 1951 movie today. I must have previously had it mixed up with another film. It is an exceptional work of fiction that connects on a human level—even on a cinematic excellence level (and the appropriateness of the special effects)—having a meaningful, plausible, conceptual plot. It even has lines like…

Klaatu: I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.

George Barley: Why doesn’t the government do something, that’s what I’d like to know.
Mr. Krull: What can they do, they’re only people just like us.
George Barley: People my foot, they’re Democrats.

Even the production values are better in the original than the remake. From the movement of tanks and jeeps and military, to the sets, to the intelligence of the dialog, everything makes sense. If you want a refreshingly serious movie—okay, toward the end, the special effects are cheesy—rent the original. It’s more explicitlly about war and peace, the humans are marginally less stupid, and you will care. Plus, (Academy Award winning) Patricia Neal is plenty hot: Klaatu Morado Nichtu. Klaatu Morado Nichtu. Plus, it’s a libertarian movie for sure:

Coda: Klaatu’s ode to the nonaggression principle (!!)

Totally missing from the remake, Klaatu’s speech to the assembled scientific community:

Klaatu: I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more… profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

It’s staggering how much quality of ethics and intellect has been lost as demonstrated by the recent movie vis a vis the classic. Absolutely staggering.

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