I’m old enough to remember when Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still was just a movie and not an untouchable, iconic classic. Why, I’m even old enough to remember when Robert Wise had forgotten almost everything about making the film, except that there had been a great sense of haste to get it done. (After it became a classic, his memory improved and he could recall all manner of details about the film’s thematic implications. I can’t really blame him—nor, I think, would Mark Twain.) Frankly, I’ve never been quite as impressed with it as I’m supposed to be, but—much as I like horror and fantasy—science fiction has always left me a little cold.
Similarly, I have nothing against remakes; it’s just that most of them aren’t very good. There are exceptions. I can genuinely enjoy the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake of The Ladykillers (1955), for example, and I actually prefer Rouben Mamoulian’s musical Silk Stockings (1957) to its more lauded original, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). I’m pretty much alone in liking Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie (2004), a reworking of Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), but nearly everyone agrees that John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) is superior to two earlier versions of the same material.
All this brings us to the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Ye gods, does this thing stink on ice. It redefines dull mediocrity at its most expensive. It would be easy to lay much of the blame on Keanu Reeves. (I’ve been saying, “Keanu barada nikto,” ever since I saw the first trailer.) And he’s pretty lousy in the film (though Will Smith’s son, Jaden, gives him a run for his money). But there’s more than enough blame to go around. No one should get out of this boring mess unscathed.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a spaceship that comes to Earth bearing an alien, Klaatu, and his robot, Gort. In the original, they land in D.C. In the remake, it’s Central Park. (What an imaginative change!) In the old movie, Klaatu comes bearing the vaguely fascistic message, “Straighten up or face annihilation,” because Earth is threatening to spread its warring ways into space. (The film had a somewhat exaggerated notion of our technical prowess.) The threat had to do with nuclear war, though I don’t think the term is ever used. In the new version, Klaatu arrives prepared to set off the destruction of life on Earth before we render the place uninhabitable. This one’s all about global warming, but the movie is too afraid of alienating people with money in their pockets to come out and say it. But let’s face facts: Global warming is not nearly as showy and immediate as nuclear war anyway. If you’ve sat through The Day After Tomorrow (2004), you know what I mean.
It falls to Jennifer Connelly’s Helen Benson, a fussy John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt, and Helen’s obnoxious step-son, Jacob (Jaden Smith), to convince our visitor that humankind is worth giving another chance—apparently on the strength of Bach and hugging. The outcome isn’t hard to guess, but you have to slog through lots of not-very-special special effects and general tedium to get to it. (The results might have been quite different had it involved the Sex Pistols and a mosh pit.) It’s not worth the bother.
The acting is dismal. David Scarpa’s (The Last Castle) screenplay is simpleminded, dull and largely devoid of structure. In common with most recent effects-driven movies, there’s no real payoff and logic is nonexistent (the plague of rapacious robotic insects unleashed on the world can eat skyscrapers, but you’re safe under a bridge in Central Park). Things just stop when a sufficient (or excessive) running time has been achieved. Scott Derrickson’s direction is quite on par with his work on The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)—with everything that implies. The effects are the usual CGI-athon of half-assery we’ve come to expect, but maybe even a little worse. Making the robot roughly the size of the Colossus of Rhodes and buffing him up probably seemed like a good idea, and it was a nice touch that the basic design of the original was maintained. Too bad that it looks exactly like the computer-generated cartoon it is, though it’s about what the movie deserves.
In a masterstroke of silliness, 20th Century Fox is having the damned movie beamed to Alpha Centauri via satellite. Granted, it’ll take a few years to get there, but there are two upsides to consider here. First, anything that gets the film out of our solar system and into another one has much to recommend it. Second, if beings are out there to watch it, it will doubtless persuade them that the Earth is just too stupid to bother invading. On the other hand, they might feel differently about merely obliterating us. Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence.