Theatrical Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still

The world is taken aback with the discovery an alien who has come to the planet. This alien named Klaatu has come with the idea of saving the Earth, not the people on it, but the planet from the people on it, with the rationale that the Earth is one of the few planets that can support a variety of lifeforms, and that it will be destroyed in it’s own time by it’s dominant lifeform. Klaatu lands in Central Park in New York City and is immediately intercepted by all manners of scientists, military and police, but one scientist stands apart from everyone else, Dr. Helen Benson an astrophysicist, who believes in Klaatu and wants to have the chance to show him that humanity can change. But looming in the background, is Klaatu’s gigantic protector, ready to strike…

And with that, you have the basic premise of The Day The Earth Stood Still, the re-make of the 1951 movie of the same name originally directed by Robert Wise. This new version is directed by Scott Derrickson who very much impressed me previously with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Now, I’m not one of these guys who’s going to cry foul about remaking a classic like the original, in fact I’ll go so far as to say that considering the changes in technology, both in filmmaking and in our culture, this could be served well be a remake. And there are aspects to this film that are very well done with that, for instance, the fear that would go with this event is way more palpable here than it was in the original, as is all of the measures that are being taken to look into this. Where it veers horribly from the original though is in it’s final solution, basically looking to appeal more to the heart than intellectually, and though the original may be more simplistic in some ways, one thing that should be admired about it is that it was a more cerebral film for the time.

How does it veer? Mostly with the changes brought about with the Helen Benson character, who has been decided to be the heart of the film. At the start, we’re shown that she has a strained relationship with her son, who’s father was killed in the war. And then when she’s brought on board with a team of scientific experts, the focus of the film shifts solely to her- with the camera going for as many Jennifer Connelly close-ups as it can get, and the other players looking to her more with all of the answers. Later, as she’s on the run with Klaatu and her son, the relationship with the son comes to a head and then Klaatu sees that the potential for change is there in humanity…

… oh, please…

This change with the Helen Benson character smacks more of movie marketing and trying to get the female audience to care about the characters more than anything else, and as such, there really is no cerebral message to the film. A better solution, would’ve been to have had more of multi-cultural mix of the scientific experts be the ones to help Klaatu along the way rather than confined down to one person, and by what it does, it presents as it’s solution in the end as the all-tto familiar and none-to-true of “love conquers all.” It’s not at all believable in the end… and it’s a shame, because the pieces are here to be true to the original solution of the first film.

That main piece being one sole scene, done as a nod to the original, and featuring John Cleese in the role of the scientist Professor Barnhardt. It’s a great scene, with a great deal of weight as performed by Cleese, but in the end, it’s more of a throwaway here as opposed to what it should’ve been, just as it was in the original, the impetus to solving the problem.

Instead, we’ve forced on us this one character and her son, who’s relationship is forced (and also helps to serve some of the political commentary to the film- making me also wonder what this movie would be like if it had been made say two years from now instead), it’s never really believable- Jaden Smith plays the son (he’s the real life son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) and he’s just annoying as hell in the film. And on top of that being forced and unbelievable, so is Connelly as an astrophysicist, especially considering how important a player she’s deemed to be by the authority figures early on.

So wither Keanu Reeves as Klaatu? Well, again, I’m not going to fall in the traditional internet “hate” of Reeves, I actually like him my own self and I think he does a great job here… now with that said, he still wouldn’t have been my first choice in casting Klaatu. Recently, I watched the original movie again and along with that, a featurette on the making of the film. Now in the original, there were two actors being discussed to play Klaatu, Claude Rains and Spencer Tracy, both pretty big stars at the time. Rains fell through, and so the choice was going to be Tracy, who really wanted to do the movie. Then, studio head Darryl Zanuck got struck by the notion that when Klaatu takes off his space helmet, the audience was going to see Spencer Tracy and as such, not really have any mystery about it- then Zanuck was off to England and while there, that’s where he saw Michael Rennie and was struck with the idea that this guy should be Klaatu, and so he was… Now it was Rennie’s first movie part, and while I wouldn’t have gone with a total unknown as Klaatu, I would’ve gone with someone who was less a household name, as Keanu Reeves is, and my personal choice would’ve been Ralph Fiennes in the part. Still though, I don’t have any problems with Keanu Reeves here.

No, my biggest problem is with the casting of Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith and the importance that they’re given in the remake. Oh sure, the Helen Benson character and her son in the original are also quite important to that film, but not in the same way and not to the sacrifice of the cerebral quality to the original.

There’s still stuff here though that I think is pretty cool, that would’ve been even cooler had the focus not changed from head to heart. Changing that, changes the ideas behind the film considerably. And with a movie like The Day The Earth Stood Still and the high regard that people have for the original, this hurts it tremendously and as such, this remake is more a blown opportunity than the chance to make something that could’ve stood right on a par with the original.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

14. December 2008 by Darren Goodhart
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