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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 26, 2008

  • Movies review

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    The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) Review

    “If the Earth dies, you die. If the human race dies, the Earth survives.”

    By now, many of you will have seen Scott Derrickson's remake of Robert Wise's 1951 classic sci-fi brainstorm The Day The Earth Stood Still. And, even if you haven't, you can't have missed the sudden Klaatu/Gort festival that we have had running on the site lately - with reviews for the awesome BD release of the original and for its ground-breaking score alongside the music composed for the remake by Tyler Bates. The story is a fine, intelligent and profound one and the type of statement that the genre rarely makes without sappy Hollywoodised sermonising, or a tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. Even with a history steeped in banal and unnecessary remakes, Tinseltown appeared to tread on a lot of toes when it green-lit this project, yet I believe that, in this film's case, it is slightly unfair to regard the original as being “untouchable”. Many of those classic fifties fantasies have already been remade and met with either instant recognition for inspired updating - Philip Kaufman's 1978 take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers fits that bill - or acquired a devout cult and critical following as the years have gone by - John Carpenter's The Thing - and, if anything, Wise's film is perhaps the easiest and most relevant of the lot to bring into our generation, since our generation has arguably put the world in a worse condition than it has ever been before.

    Klaatu's 1951 warning has gone totally unheeded.

    So, scooting forward to our present predicament - global warming, genetic modification, super-viruses, the Large Hadron Collider (!) - we find that we need another word in our collective shell-like. Only this time, in David (The Last Castle) Scarpa's screenplay, the visiting alien messenger has no time for sentiment, no time for discussion. His mission is a little bit different and it appears that our time has now definitely run out. Our tampering with the ecology - not our own technologically progressed aggression towards one another this time out - is at the crux of Klaatu's intentions. After a peculiar prologue set on an ice mountain in 1928, in which Keanu Reeves' bearded explorer encounters a ball of glowing crystal, Klaatu (also Reeves), in his vast, spherical dimension-ship arrives amidst mass panic in Central Park and, surrounded by impotent scientists, astro-physicists , like Jennifer Connelly's militarily seconded Helen, biologists, particle analysts and, ahem, industrial engineers, he is promptly shot by a nervous bootneck and whisked off for surgery and interrogation by the US Government. But no self-respecting alien official is going to stand for such indignity for long and, sooner than you can say the full title of the film, Klaatu, along with Helen, is on the run and discovering little facets about humanity that might, just might persuade him that we should be given yet another chance to get our house in order.

    The story, with a few tweaks here and there - several of which are quite audacious, yet subtly told - follows the original's pattern quite faithfully for the most part. Gort is now actually christened as such by the military mob who attempt to use a diamond drill on his ultra-smooth hide - well, to be more precise, it's now G.O.R.T. which now stands for Genetically Organised Robotic Technology. This does take away some of his mystery and wonder, though. We never needed to question what made Lock Martin tick in his creased silver suit back in 1951, but now we get insight into what lurks beneath the omnipotent one's steel skin. It is also revealed that there are many such orb-vessels dotted around the planet, and their mission, which is a definite deviation from the path we are familiar with, is only made clear later in the movie. The famous command-line of “Klaatu Barada Nikto”, though, is now so deeply submerged in a cacophony of sound effects and scoring that you will have trouble hearing it - and this is something that will, undoubtedly, get right up the noses of the fans. Like the use of the Theremin on the soundtrack - the very instrument that under composer Bernard Herrmann's skilful instruction first time around became the sound of sci-fi - is also deeply buried by the music around it, making that two of the original's vital ingredients that have been badly disrespected by Derrickson and Co. The sense of wonder and suspense has also been sadly vetoed. A clutch of scenes rivet - the initial arrival and Gort's pro-active defence mechanism, a meeting between Klaatu and another of his kind, a bizarre smash 'n' revive sequence involving a state trooper - but mostly, the film just ticks over, ramping-up the aura of something big being about to happen, but failing miserably about making us actually give a damn. Somewhat tritely, the whole alien-invasion situation seems to allow Scarpa and Derrickson the chance to pay lip service to the economical disaster ransacking the world at the moment, with footage and rolling news headlines about stock market crashes and mass looting. In contemporising the story they seem determined to avoid referencing the likes of Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Iraq, though, ramming home the point that this version is about our destruction of nature and not each other.

    It is easy and forever fashionable to knock Keanu Reeves, but the simple fact of the matter is that he remains a very bankable star. His cool (for which many may read “blank”) looks are not so much those of a bewildered air-head, but symptomatic of a severe lack of expression that, for want of a better word, is perfect for this particular role. He may have been preposterous as Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Dracula, but few could argue that he has the whole nouveau Messiah thing in the bag. His iconic triplet of Neo turns were immediately influential upon his take as Klaatu. The icy sense of the bigger picture glistens in those eyes and in a voice that has, in the past, veered quite spectacularly all over the show, but now seems just right for an entity speaking out of a mouth in a stolen body it is thoroughly unsure of how to operate. Someone else remarked, quite brilliantly, that if anyone could portray a man for whom the English language and the simple mechanics of being human seemed utterly alien and make it completely convincing, then it would be Reeves. There is a certain similarity between himself and his former incarnation played by British stage actor Michael Rennie, too. Both have that pale complexion and dark hair combo. Both have a deportment suggestive of “otherworldliness”, and both mask the inner urgency of their task with unbelievable outward calm. But you only have to listen to them speak to hear the chalk and cheese attitude of the pair. Rennie is surprisingly warm and charming considering his stoical nature. Reeves is on auto-pilot, sounding more like a transmitter relaying messages from another galaxy. The crucial scene in the cemetery, when the kids in both films show their respective Klaatu the graves of their fathers reveals the cruel extent of the modern take's lack of emotion. Rennie, although underplaying the moment, really appears shell-shocked by the pride and respect that young Billy shows for the sacrifice that his father and the massed ranks of the fallen have made. When he looks around at the thousands of other such graves at Arlington, his newfound gateway into the human soul is rendered totally transparent by his incredulous expression. It's only brief and never over-elaborately done, but Rennie totally nails it. Reeves, on the other hand, may as well be waiting fourth in line at a supermarket checkout for all the depth that he allows to flicker across his eyes. “Look dour, Keanu,” Derrickson must have said. “Uh ... you mean serious?” replies a confused Reeves, his dumbfounded expression obviously pleasing his director enough to cut and print the shot at the end of the day - the Day That Keanu's Face Stood Still.

    Different take on the material, different take on the character. Sure, I understand that. But the revelation about Mankind being worth saving is exactly the same and this new Klaatu comes to the same conclusion as his ancestor, but with absolutely zero of the same gravity or impact.

    Jennifer Connelly has come a long, long way since she tussled with David Bowie's Goblin King in Labyrinth, that's for sure. Her maturity in even the lousiest dross such as Dark Water has become something totally dependable. Now I'm on record as having taken the micky out of her looks - those wayward eyebrows and profuse facial whiskerage in certain earlier movies - but I will state, quite sincerely here and now, that she looks absolutely amazing in TDTESS. Connelly possesses a radiance that is, at times, powerfully distracting and I can't be the only one to have noticed the mesmerising similarity that those swirling orbs of extraterrestrial energy have to her very own hypnotically green eyes. Whilst her plight is never more than one-note, as written, she also tries to imbue Helen with a cold determination to understand what is happening and an instinctive attitude of rule-breaking. We can even buy her as an astro-physicist. But, as determined as she is, there is no escaping the fact that Helen is provided with only the scantiest of motivation and a background that would have left acres of wasteland on the back of a postage stamp. And the moment when she leaves Jacob in the car in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night as strange lights fly over the trees and her alien friend goes for a walk in the spooky woods, just beggars belief. “Don't open the door to anyone but me, okay?” With a massive manhunt going on, the threat of extinction looming and a huge robot who may, at any time, decide to come looking for his mate, I wouldn't let any kid in my care out of my sight, no matter how irritating they may be.

    But there are some interesting new angles and ideas to be found, even if they don't all work out as well as the makers intended.

    Klaatu's Messiah-like return from the dead has been bestowed a spin of sorts, but it is one that smacks of Scarpa literally trying to wrangle a variance out of his script just for the sake of it. Perhaps it is sheer blind luck then, that Klaatu's “gift” is actually quite a cool device ... but it is still a shame that, poetically, its development can be seen coming a mile away. There is a nice reappraisal of how this spaceman makes the transition from his own kind to a form more conducive to our own frightened sensibilities. His organic spacesuit being made of something akin to whale blubber crossed with a tailor-made placenta is certainly a novel type of chrysalis in which our Klaatu morphs into, ahem, our Keanu. The initial surgery sequence - done by doctors and technicians who remain resolutely professional whilst still clearly reeling from the bizarre task that they are undertaking - is actually very well done. A later interrogation scene that Klaatu effortlessly reverses is also good stuff, but once he has gone renegade and begins to experience the outside world and the general population, things take a decidedly downward turn - and one that the film struggles to recover from. Derrickson and Scarpa waste little time in thrusting Klaatu and Helen together and whilst the chemistry between Reeves and Connelly - frosted and strange as it unreservedly is - is still quite affecting, the scenario becomes horribly contrived. The escape from the train station is pathetic and the discussion in the car as they, along with Jacob, travel out of the city is simply ludicrous. Thus, the relationship between our two main protagonists suffers in spite of the conviction that the actors supply to their respective roles - and the one that exists between Klaatu and Jacob is staggeringly inept. Only after having journeyed through most of a night with a few curious stop-offs along the way does Jacob think to ask Helen who this strange guy is. Too much is taken for granted. That Patricia Neal's fifties Helen was able to entrust her own son with this total stranger was infinitely more believable because of Rennie's calming influence and the instant rapport between him and the child. This version conveniently forgets about natural fears and suspicions just because it is in a hurry to get from plot point to plot point.

    Visually, the film just loves its central image of the vast cosmic marble. But the glowing orb concept is nothing unique at all. We had this sort of thing in John Carpenter's Starman which, in fact, ripped it off from the little-seen indie sci-fi flick Wavelength, and everything from Star Trek and Buck Rogers to Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and The Fifth Element has featured an intergalactic face-off with a spherical ball of initially non-negotiable energy. But it is certainly darned pretty to look at, even if a lot of us “saucer-junkies” would have preferred another in the long line of spinning-top vessels. Swirling waves of greens and blues spiral around its hidden cortex and the unmistakable sense of something mesmerising and all-powerful permeates every scene in which it is featured. But it is Gort who steals the show. Sadly, he steals it very early on and then, even worse, actually appears to give it back again. Boasting a massively improved destructive capability - like a tsunami on legs - this height-enhanced symbol of celestial zero-tolerance cuts one mighty figure indeed. Initial fears that Derrickson was going to go in a totally radical new direction with the giant - such as that notorious four-legged version - are, thankfully, allayed. He is bigger all right, but that same helmet, that same visor and that same Cylon-reminiscent laser eye are in full traditional effect. His first appearance, matching the scene in the original movie almost to the letter, is marvellous. Even though we know - or think we know exactly what he is going to do - there is genuine fear and awe when his gargantuan frame suddenly looms out of the eerie mist and light show that has descended in Central Park. A later scene involving him taking on and taking down a couple of fighter drones dispatched to level him could have been terrific, but is virtually thrown away in a matter of seconds, denying us some fun Independence Day firepower-riffs. It is good to see that gorgeous red laser flashing out across New York, though. Derrickson's determination to expand on Gort and make him much, well, more than his black-and-white predecessor results in something that is visually arresting - and makes for a few grand-scale money shots to be sure - but it is not in-keeping with the shape, design and iconic status of the robot's character. Ultimately, when this colossal chrome space copper gets the bit between his visor, the build-up may be phenomenal - soldiers and political yes-men scurrying about in total panic as the monolithic monster “goes live” and the music drives needles of sweaty anticipation into your skin - but the pay-off is not at all what you may have been looking forward to. In fact, despite far more destruction taking place, it is performed in such a disappointingly redressed manner that you may end up pining for even the likes of a Toho Studios man-in-a-suit to smash his way through some miniature sets, such is the lack of satisfaction to be had from his swarming tempest of “little Gorts”.

    More problems arise when it comes to the supporting cast. For a kick-off, we have critically acclaimed Kathy Bates as the US Secretary For Defence and a right old balls-up she makes of it, too. If Reeves can convince us that he is an alien trapped inside a human body, Bates has no such luck convincing us that she can speak for the world (well, the President) and her prim and proper manner with knee-jerk militaristic and gung-ho reactions is simply woeful. Her delivery of defence jargon - satellites, drones and airspace - smacks of painstaking rehearsal and comes across as completely unnatural to her. For some reason she reminds of me of Ros, the slug-like Scare Floor manager in Pixar's Monsters Inc. Strutting about command centres and issuing War On Terror-style ultimatums just does not become her and this role could well be her own nadir.

    And then we have someone that many people have loved complaining about - the whining, arrogant teenage rebel Jacob, who is the somewhat ungrateful son that Helen has taken on since his soldier father died, played by Jaden (son of Will) Smith. And the truth is, he is a pain in the ass, but, then again, this is exactly what the script demands of him and we shouldn't criticise him for performing the part with accuracy. However, his character is irritating and completely lacks credibility. His snidey comments are too informed and contrived to be coming from the lips of a lost and haunted kid, his perpetual barbs in Helen's direction somewhat misguided and lacking the gravity of the point that David Scarpa is trying to make about human emotions, their desperations, hang-ups and ability to “change”. The older version made much more sense regarding such themes as loss and regret than this retooling, which mistakes heavy-handedness for soulful sentiment.

    That weasely action-man heartthrob from Peter Jackson's King Kong, Kyle Chandler, here essays some suited, security-cleared “Top Man” but he does so with all the stock characterisation of a Fed from some eighties TV show. So, thankfully, to compensate for these under-achieving performances, we are allowed two distressingly short walk-on parts that do hit the right notes. First of all is veteran character actor, James Hong (Blade Runner's eyeball-merchant and mystical bad boy in Big Trouble In Little China) who crops up in an admittedly shrewd role that has been created especially for this version. I won't say too much about this, but it is one of the few intelligent new moves that the film makes - and Hong is exceptional in such a brief role. The second, and strangest, is John Cleese reprising the equation-challenging Professor Bernhard from the original. Criminally underused, Cleese is on fine form in an uncharacteristic straight role. That famed blackboard maths conundrum has an added lift to by having both Bernhard and Klaatu working simultaneously at it and you can't help wishing that a lot more time - conversational time, that is - was allowed between the two. “I have so many questions to ask you,” says Cleese's jaw-dropped boffin when he meets the alien and, as far as I am concerned, the film would have been improved had he had the chance to ask a few of them. Cleese is definitely an oddball choice, though. Perhaps Billy Connelly was too busy, or something. Or else too many Connellys in the credits would have been confusing. Or maybe they'd just seen that execrable new X-Files movie, eh?

    For such a large-scale sci-fi remake, you would have thought that a multitude of sins would have been dressed up with the obligatory CG cavalcades, but Derrickson's film is actually, and refreshingly, free from such shallow eye-candy. Naturally, the original movie was more talky than laser-beamy and its focus remained wisely (or should that be Wisely) upon the relationships formed between the characters and the serious thrust that the narrative was intent on taking. It didn't need showboating scenes of mass destruction or big robot rampages to stir the senses and get pulses racing. Likewise, Derrickson does not go overboard on the special effects. What we do is certainly good enough to entertain, although the button marked ENTHRALL is only tentatively pressed a couple of times. The final act's Aphid Reign could so easily have become almost an entire film's worth of action in another director's hands and I feel that Derrickson walks a very fine line between sensible restraint and not actually delivering enough. Personally, I think I would have liked more excitement and effects. If you can't improve the story or the tone of the original - again like The Thing or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - then you may as well heave in something that the makers couldn't have done back then. Now, don't get me wrong here. When The Haunting (also, incidentally, directed by Robert Wise) was remade by Jan De Bont, he went too far (much too far) in this direction and hurled everything he could across the screen ... and, of course, turned in a travesty. Well, I still think that Derrickson could have found some middle ground. As it stands right now, his movie is lacking the razzmatazz that Wise's original hinted-at without the need to actually show. TDTESS 2008-style needed to show it if it couldn't fully retain the emotional core of the story.

    I've already covered Tyler Bates' score for the film in its own separate review. The thing to remember, however, is that although it makes for a thoroughly disappointing and depressing listen on CD, it does fit the film, itself, much better. However, with the stark, cold and implacable imagery on offer, Bates' music only serves to reinforce the clinically frigid nature of the tale and, as a consequence, only aids in severing viewer empathy with the scenario.

    Whilst this may not be the total disaster that many people have claimed, I can't honestly that it is the version that we deserved after all these years. Cold, aloof and totally un-endearing, What Klaatu Did Next is only a quarter of the film it could have been. “We won't mess with Gort ... erm, in the first half, anyway. And our plot will be eminently relevant to today's concerns.”

    Hmmm ... not very exciting, though, is it? Nor does it actually say anything important about the human condition, spirit or capacity for change - all things that it deliberately set out to do.

    Therefore, it is difficult to recommend The Day The Earth Stood Still without some Gort-sized reservations. The material was sustainable and tailor-made for this era, yet it allows itself to wither away to an anti-climax that provokes yawns and not the crucial debate that the original did.


    Verdict

    Questions, ideas and concepts abound in Derrickson's remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but there is precious little reward for having our grey matter stimulated. The first act - wonky introductions aside - actually works pretty well and the grand landing is suitably weird, dramatic and frightening. But once Keanu's Klaatu goes on the lam, what seemed so charming, noir-ish and even believable in Wise's hands back in 1951, starts to come adrift. The problem is that we just don't care enough about anybody. The sheer weight of military and bureaucratic pomposity is too much for the genuine good folk to compete with and you end up willing Gort to go lay waste to everybody ... but starting, and preferably taking his time, with Kathy Bates in what can only be described as her career nose-dive.

    Reeves looks the part, but delivers precious little of the gravitas. Gort is spectacular whilst he still looks like Gort and Connelly is just plain gorgeous and, in a purely shallow and superficial way, perhaps enough of a reason to stick with this until the end.

    The message may have been noble, but the execution lacks style, wit, intelligence and even, for the most part, atmosphere. Sadly, when this could have been another “classic” remake in its own right, The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) simply ends up being boring and forgettable.

    And there's talk of another Forbidden Planet, as well, isn't there?


    The Rundown


    7
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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