On The Day the Earth Stood Still

Featuring Keanu Reeves (ConstantinePoint Break, The Matrix trilogy, Speed, My Own Private Idaho, The Devil’s Advocate), and Kathy Bates (The Blind SideTitanic), The Day the Earth Stood Still is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, and is certainly not a film worth seeing again. According to station KIMT 3‘s article, “The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)“:

I work with a lot of young people.  They’re smart and have a lot on the ball but every so often I’m struck by how little they know about the world that existed before they were around.  I’m sure that’s how I seemed to older folks when I was a kid, thought probably not quite as smart.  Every generation thinks life as it is, is life how it’s always been and most of us don’t pay much attention to how it changes even as we do, let alone think about what things were like before we were born.

Take science fiction.  Today it is so mainstream and plentiful that it is impossible to imagine pop culture without it.  When I was growing up, science fiction shows on television were few and far between.  “Star Trek” became a phenomenon in syndicated reruns after its cancellation, despite only having 30 or 40 very good to great episodes, in part because there weren’t many alternatives.  Sci-fi was more common in films but largely dominated there by pure schlock.  Even on the printed page, boys and girls…well, mainly boys…of the 1970s were most likely going to cut their teeth on science fiction with stuff written by Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury 20 years before, or by Verne and Burroughs decades before that.  And even the good sci-fi that existed was often regarded by society at large as juvenile fantasies fit for only for children, not at all something mature and upstanding adults should spend their time on.

But has its rise to cultural hegemony been good for science fiction or has it robbed it of everything that made it worthwhile to begin with?  That’s the question we’ll consider with this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown as we pit “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) vs. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008).

Born into an America still grappling with this new kind of “Cold War” being waged with the Soviet Union, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) is a fable of human frailty.  An alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands his spaceship in Washington, DC, accompanied only by a powerful robot named Gort (Lock Martin).  He wants to speak to the leaders of the world but winds up getting shot.  Recovering in the hospital, Klaatu learns that political disputes will prevent him from ever getting the global audience he seeks for his message and he escapes, seeking to learn about Humanity by living among it.

Moving into a boarding house and adopting the name Carpenter, Klaatu is exposed to the petty suspicions and preoccupations of Mankind through his housemates.  But he also witnesses the more profound depths and glorious heights of life on Earth through his friendship with young Bobby (Billy Gray) and his mother, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal).  With Bobby’s help, Klaatu eventually approaches the learned Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) with the hope that if he can’t talk to the world’s political leaders, perhaps the world’s leading scientists will heed his message.

He doesn’t get the chance because the Army, with the help of Helen’s vain and avaricious wannabe fiancé (Hugh Marlowe), tracks Klaatu down and kills him.  But Klaatu had given Helen a message to Gort, which prevents the robot from seeking terrible vengeance and instead has him retrieve Klaatu’s body and restore him to life.  At that point, Klaatu is sick and tired of dealing with our nonsense and just blurts out his message.  He says the rest of the universe doesn’t give a tinker’s dam what Humanity does to itself but now that we’ve invented rockets and atomic power, they want to warn us that if we try and export our violent behavior to other worlds, Earth and everyone on it will be obliterated.  And then he flies away.  “Klaatu, out.”

Before getting into the deeper stuff, I want to acknowledge that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) is quite a well-made motion picture.  It clocks in at a brisk hour and 34 minutes and is held up nicely by Michael Rennie’s performance as an alien alternately bemused and sadden by human beings.  There’s little wasted motion in the plot and even many of the special effects still look okay, if you can ignore the fact the supposedly menacing automaton Gort looks like he’d topple over in a strong breeze.

What set it apart in 1951 and cemented its legendary status, however, was its message.  The idea of an alien judging humanity and finding us wanting, a story where the alien is the good guy and we’re the villain, might not seem that unusual today but in 1951?  In that era, many Americans would have considered introspection a character flaw.  The suggestion that our way of life isn’t important, that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between a capitalist and a communist, that human beings and our civilization aren’t the best and greatest things to ever exist?  The closest equivalent in 2016 would be a movie about an alien who comes to Earth and tells us homosexuality and transgenderism are just mental disorders, and even that’s not an exact match because a great many people would happily embrace that message.

But I think even some people who love this film don’t fully appreciate what it is saying.  Klaatu’s civilization isn’t peaceful because he and his fellow aliens are more ethically or morally advanced than humans.  The movie is entirely explicit that justice and tranquility are maintained in Klaatu’s world not because they’ve learned to be better than human beings, but because they’ve given all their power to robots like Gort to destroy anyone who gets out of line.  The message of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) is that human nature can’t be changed.  We will always be savage beasts just under the surface and the only hope for our future is to surrender our freedom and our sovereignty to an outside institution that can control us.  This movie is antidemocratic and softly but clearly misanthropic.

And weirdly, the people behind the remake got that exactly right.  They just got everything else horribly wrong.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008) is a motion picture that disdains Humanity just as much as the original, but betrays its own message with a toxic brew of sentimentality, stupidity and plain old sucking.  It begins with a flashback to 1928, as an explorer (Keanu Reeves) in the frozen mountains of India encounters a glowing sphere.  The explorer appears to be either extremely drunk or the recent recipient of a lobotomy because he regards this unearthly visitor with all the wonder and amazement of a guy picking out paint samples with his wife.

Flashforward to the present as exobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Benson) is torn away from her annoying stepson (Jaden Smith) to serve on an emergency response team.  An object is heading toward the planet at incredible speeds, disabling our efforts to shoot it down, only to quietly land in New York City’s Central Park.  From out of the giant glowing sphere comes an alien named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) and a giant robot, who really illustrates how much CGI has improved since 2008.  Seriously, this thing almost looks as bad as the special effects on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” back in the 1990s.

Klaatu gets shot and after he gets patched up, government agents take him away for interrogation.  He’s hooked up to a lie detector and left completely alone with the guy who will ask him questions.  There are no guards.  No one is watching.  And while there are cameras literally everywhere else, there are NO cameras where Klaatu is being questioned.  If human beings really were that dumb, we’d deserve to be destroyed.

Klaatu escapes, joins up with Helen and her increasingly irritating stepson and kind of just wanders the Tri-State area like Caine from “Kung Fu.”  He said he had a message when he first arrived but seemingly forgets all about it until Helen hauls him to meet Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), at which point the movie cuts completely away so the audience can’t hear what it is.  Klaatu meets up with another alien who has been living on Earth for 70 years, who says Mankind is beyond saving.  Eventually, and long after any viewer with half-a-brain has figured it out, Klaatu spills the beans.  Planets that can support complex life like Earth are rare and aliens are not going to stand by and watch human beings mess it up, so they’re going to destroy all life on Earth.

Why does that message need to be delivered to anyone?  If you think Humanity needs to be wiped out, why not just do it?  Isn’t telling us you’re going to kill us all before you kill us all nothing but a huge dick move?  And if the problem is that people are going to destroy all life on Earth, how are you going to stop us by DESTROYING ALL LIFE ON EARTH?  That’s like trying to prevent someone from drunk driving by getting them too drunk to drive.

And best of all, at no point in the entire film is there even a vague allusion to what human being are doing that is so wrong.  There’s an implication that it has something to do with the environment but is it global warming?  Overpopulation?  Resource depletion?  The ozone hole?  No explanation and no explanation for why the aliens want to destroy us now.  Why not 10 years ago or 20 years in the future?

And while the original ended with Klaatu deciding he wants to get the hell away from us, remake-Klaatu decides to spare Earth from destruction.  Why?  Again, no real explanation.  He apparently just hung around with Helen and her incredibly aggravating stepson until he was visited off screen by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come and learned the true meaning of not destroying billions of people.

Besides the message being a complete muddle, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008) is a badly put together piece of cinema.  It takes for-freaking-ever for the story to get going.  Keanu Reeves playing someone who appears human but actually isn’t would seem like perfect casting, but he might as well be a cigar store Indian for everything he contributes to the film.  There are fewer black people in this movie than there were in 1951.  The military is so much stupider than the original, they might as well be six-year-olds playing at being soldiers.  Every second Jaden Smith is on screen, you want to punch him in his little face.  One of the big action scenes involves Gort destroying a bunch of drones.  The other concerns a giant gray cloud.  Kathy Bates is playing a Hillary Clinton analog.  About the only enjoyable thing in the whole production is watching Jon Hamm and Kyle Chandler to see who will outlast the other in a battle of “TV stars Hollywood doesn’t think are good enough to be movie stars, so you know they’re going to get killed off.”

Spoiler alert!  Hamm wins.

The 2008 remake has everything the 1951 original could only hope for.  Legitimate movie stars in the cast.  A massive budget.  A huge advertising campaign to get people to watch it.  A public primed and ready to accept an intelligent critique of the human condition.  And it utterly fails on every level.  “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008) is a badly made botch that not only has nothing to say, it can’t even come up with a half decent question to ask.

Sadly, that’s not an anomaly.  As science fiction has become so popular on screen, it has lost touch with what made it interesting to people in the first place.  Sci-fi was, perhaps more than any other genre, about ideas.  Taking fantastic concepts and trying to work out how they might affect human behavior and human society.  Asking questions like “what if” or “why not” and being unafraid if the answers are something people might not want to hear.  Now science fiction is too often merely a pretext for cinema that is bigger, louder and dumber.  It’s become more relevant commercially and less relevant intellectually.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) takes this Throwdown because while it might seem dated in some places, it deserves to be preserved like a cherished heirloom.  The remake is a disposable mess you’ll feel like tossing in the trash before you’re even finished watching it.

As for sci-fi?  Things change.  Someday people will want a little more reality and a lot less fantasy.  That won’t be good for the business of science fiction.  We can only pray that it’s good for the art.

According to Roger Ebert:

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” need not have taken its title so seriously that the plot stands still along with it. There isn’t much here you won’t remember from the 1951 classic, even if you haven’t seen it. What everyone knows is that a spaceship lands on Earth, a passenger named Klaatu steps out and is shot, and then a big metal man named Gort walks out and has rays shooting from its eyes, and the Army opens fire.

That movie is at No. 202 in IMDb’s top 250. Its message, timely for the nuclear age, is that mankind would be exterminated if we didn’t stop killing one another. The message of the 2008 version is that we should have voted for Al Gore. This didn’t require Klaatu and Gort. That’s what I’m here for. Actually, Klaatu is non-partisan and doesn’t name names, but his message is clear: Planets capable of sustaining life are so rare that the aliens cannot allow us to destroy life on this one. So they’ll have to kill us.

The aliens are advanced enough to zip through the galaxy, yet have never discovered evolution, which should have reassured them life on earth would survive the death of mankind. Their space spheres have landed all over the planet, and a multitude of species have raced up and thrown themselves inside, and a Department of Defense expert intuits: “They’re arks! What comes next?” The Defense Secretary (Kathy Bates) intones: “A flood.” So this is the first sci-fi movie based on Intelligent Design, except the aliens plan to save all forms of life except the intelligent one.

All this is presented in an expensive, good-looking film that is well-made by Scott Derrickson, but to no avail. As is conventional in such films, the fate of the planet narrows down to a woman, a child and Klaatu. Jennifer Connelly plays Helen Benson, a Harvard scientist who is summoned by the government to advise on the glowing sphere in Central Park. She has to leave behind her beloved little Jacob (Jaden Smith), her late husband’s son by his first wife (more detail than we require, I think; just “her son” would have been fine). She meets Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), who looks human (and we already know why), but is a representative, or negotiator, or human-looking spokesthing or something, for the aliens.

She discovers his purpose, takes him with her in her car, flees a federal dragnet, walks in the woods, introduces him to her brilliant scientist friend (John Cleese), lets him listen to a little Bach, tells him we can change if we’re only given the chance, and expresses such love for Jacob that Klaatu is so moved, he looks on dispassionately.

That’s no big deal, because Klaatu looks on everything dispassionately. Maybe he has no passions. He becomes the first co-star in movie history to elude falling in love with Jennifer Connelly. Keanu Reeves is often low-key in his roles, but in this movie, his piano has no keys at all. He is so solemn, detached and uninvolved he makes Mr. Spock look like Hunter S. Thompson at closing time. When he arrives at a momentous decision, he announces it as if he has been rehearsing to say: “Yes, one plus one equals two. Always has, always will.”

Jennifer Connelly and Kathy Bates essentially keep the human interest afloat. Young Jaden Smith is an appealing actor, but his character Jacob could use a good spanking, what with endangering the human race with a snit fit. Nobody is better than Connelly at looking really soulful, and I am not being sarcastic, I am sincere. There are scenes here requiring both actors to be soulful, and she takes up the extra burden effortlessly.

As for Bates, she’s your go-to actress for pluck and plainspoken common sense. She announces at the outset that the president and vice president have been evacuated to an undisclosed location (not spelling out whether undisclosed to her, or by her), and they stay there for the rest of the movie, not even calling her, although the president does make an unwise call to a military man. Make of this what you will. I suspect a political undertow.

One more detail. I will not disclose how the aliens plan to exterminate human life, because it’s a neat visual. Let me just observe that the destruction of human life involves the annihilation of Shea Stadium, which doesn’t even have any humans in it at the time. And that since the destruction begins in the mountains of the Southwest, yet approaches Shea from the east, the task must be pretty well completed by the time Jennifer Connelly needs to look soulful. And that Klaatu is a cockeyed optimist if he thinks they can hide out in an underpass in the park.

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One thought on “On The Day the Earth Stood Still

  1. Pingback: On Labryinth | The Progressive Democrat

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