The Day the Earth Stood Still
2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
"Klaatu Barada Nikto..."
Those words, uttered by British actor Michael Rennie in the 1951 science fiction classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still," remain one of the most instantly recognizable movie catch phrases. The fact that the fabled phrase is garbled and has been rendered unintelligible in the 2008 remake sums up the new version's overall effect. The remake has enough stunning special effects to occupy the eye, but not enough plot to placate the mind. In an attempt to be separate itself from the original, yet pay homage to a movie that defined a genre, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" winds up resembling a film version of a comic book. The script is dumbed down, and instead of characters from the fourth dimension, we get a stiff, one dimensional Keanu Reeves in the title role.
The original film played into America's fears of a doomsday cold war with Communist Russia (then the U.S.S.R.). Michael Rennie played Klaatu, an alien emissary from the United Federation of Planets sent to earth with a warning: stop your flirtation with atomic energy or you'll be "eliminated." Klaatu is shot by a soldier before he can deliver the message to the United Nations. Gort, a metallic robot built to protect Klaatu, demonstrates his superior technological power by liquefying the Army's guns and tanks, then mysteriously shuts down, keeping everyone on the planet wondering when the silver sentinel will wake from his slumber and strike again. Klaatu is taken to a hospital under heavy guard, but is eager to learn more about the human race and to find out for himself if we're worth saving. He escapes, assumes the name "Mr. Carpenter," then takes a room in a boarding house run by working mom Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) who has a young, inquisitive son, Bobby (Billy Gray). "Carpenter" attempts to keep his identity a secret, but his ignorance of earth customs (and being observed going into his spaceship), leads to his being chased down and killed by the Army. Gort exacts his revenge and reanimates Klaatu, who warns earth to stop the violence or risk retribution: "The decision rests with you."
Instead of atomic energy, the cause for concern this time around is the earth itself, which is dying from our abuse and neglect. Instead of a flying saucer, Klaatu emanates from a luminescent blue ball that looks as if it belongs getting kicked around a public school playground in the Bronx. As in the original, Klaatu is shot just as he is about to make contact with the scientists assembled at the landing site. The act of unprovoked violence activates mile-high robot Gort, who aggressively seeks retribution until he's stopped by Klaatu. While recovering from his injuries, Klaatu is questioned Regina Jackson, the Secretary of Defense (an overbearing and annoying Kathy Bates). Jackson believes Klaatu is part of an invasion force. She later changes her mind (aha, a true politician), convincing herself that Klaatu is an intergalactic Noah sent to gather us up two by two. (Here's some Hollywood irony for you. As a favor to Jonathan Harris, who co-starred with Michael Rennie in the "Harry Lime" adventure series from 1959-65, Rennie played a character called "The Keeper" on Harris' hokey Sci Fi TV series "Lost In Space" in 1966. The Keeper, who collected animals from around the universe, was a veiled version of Klaatu.)
So what makes the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" so different from the original? Aside from the spaceship to glowing ball upgrade and nuclear threat to environmental disaster switch, an important subplot is the modernized Helen/Jacob/Klaatu dynamic. "Father Knows Best" kid actor Billy Gray portrayed Bobby in the original as a wide-eyed, gee willickers, wholesome 50s kid who liked baseball, respected his mom and was fascinated with Mr. Carpenter, the mysterious border. The remake calls for the old stepson disobeys the step mom because daddy's dead conflict, but it's a nice twist having Jacob dislike, distrust, and betray Klaatu. It's also interesting that the writers chose the more hip name Jacob over Bobby, which would have made the kid sound like one of the Brady Bunch. The conflict between Jacob and Klaatu ultimately doesn't deliver because Reeves' Klaatu is hollow emotionally, so he's oblivious to Jacob's bad intentions, but it does set up a tense scene in which Helen is literally yanked from where she stands, which forces Jacob to rely on Klaatu for his survival. Another new development is Klaatu and Gort's ability to let out a high pitched squeal that brings humans to their knees. No word on how dogs react to it, however.
There's also a slam-bang interrogation scene that runs the gamut from dynamic to amusing in which Klaatu zaps his interrogator, then turns the tables on him:
Interrogator: Are you aware of an impending attack on the planet Earth?
Klaatu: You should let me go.
(Klaatu then shocks the interrogator.)
Klaatu: What gate did you use to enter this place?
Interrogator: The east loading dock.
Klaatu: How do I get there?
Interrogator: One hundred yards left from the back of this building.
Klaatu: Is there a security code?
Klaatu: What size is that suit?
Interrogator: Forty-two long.
Klaatu: Take it off.
Keanu Reeves has the impossible task of trying to top Michael Rennie's iconic performance in the original. (Even Rennie couldn't do it. He was so good as Klaatu that he kept getting offers to portray similar benign and malignant aliens like Klaatu up until his unexpected emphysema-induced death in 1971.) Rennie's Klaatu was gentle and gentlemanly, with an aristocratic accent that suggested he'd been to finishing school instead of Alpha Centauri. Reeves has the disadvantage of playing a character that has to mature physically as well as emotionally during the early part of the film. His Klaatu is stiff, measured and unemotional, which plays right into Reeves limited acting range. He's good at projecting a convincing, blank, non-blinking stare that's robotic and dead as road kill and suggests only pre-programmed brain activity. You half expect him to say, "Dude, where's my robot?" As I've said before, I have a soft spot for Michael Rennie because his niece remains my favorite ex-girlfriend and best friend. A few months ago I said Reeves had better be good in the role and he is - but he's still light years away from Rennie's performance.
Jennifer Connolly is an accomplished actress, having starred in "A Beautiful Mind" and "Blood Diamond." De-glammed for the role, she sports eyebrows as thick as Groucho Marx and appears to have been a subscriber to a bread and water only diet. As Klaatu's (and earth's) guardian angel, Connelly is well intentioned, but unexciting. Although she's the film's moral compass, at times she's as mechanical and cold as Klaatu. Connelly holds her own with what she's asked to do (which isn't much), but she's scuttled by her character's analytical personality, and her awkward relationship with her late husband's son is so superficial Helen and Jacob come across as bickering strangers rather than two people needing two work out deep seeded problems. So Patricia Neal's working mom portrayal in the original easily wins the leading lady comparison contest. The whiskey-throated Neal thought the original film was a hoot, so she reportedly was on the verge of laughing most of the time, but you'd never know it on her performance. Given more of an opportunity to display wonderment, fear, and shock at what's happening, and despite the high heels, Neal comes across as the superior action hero.
Making Gort a CGI monster as tall as a three story building? Bad idea. Having him transform into a death dealing, landscape disintegrating swarm of locusts? An even worse idea. Gort should have been allowed to run amuck, squishing buildings like a galvanized Godzilla and melting tanks into Tonka Toys with his death ray vision. In the original, Gort was played by Lock Martin, a 7' 7" giant in a metal suit. The problem was Martin wasn't a well man, so he couldn't lift Michael Rennie or Patricia Neal as required, which lead to dummies or children being used as stand ins. In the scene when Gort carries Klaatu into the spaceship, Martin pushed Rennie on a dolly and the scene was shot from behind. Martin was further weakened by the lack of ventilation and the weight of the suit, so much so that in some scenes you can see his arms shaking. Martin's suit had a zipper near the neck that was visible in one scene and his knees crinkled when he walked, but the eerie Theremin soundtrack and death-dealing laser vision made Gort one of sci-fi's scariest creatures. In the remake Gort is just tall; a motionless monolith, a lost opportunity.
The idea of having Reeves hatched from a placenta-like space suit is a plus. The time he spends "acclimating" to his new body is not because it allows Kathy Bates to bulldog her way across the screen and make the action stand still. I'll admit it - I cursed out loud when I saw Bates' name in the credits. I always confuse her with the more talented and infinitely more graceful Kathy Baker. (They're both Kathy's okay?) Having Reeves questionable talents on board is daunting enough; giving Bates the opportunity to display her overrated, overbearing buzz-killing abilities is another. Bloated, blustery and bullying, Bates is a bitchy battleship, bossing and beating everything and everyone in her path when she's on screen. In some scenes she doesn't even bother to interact with the other actors and even steps on their lines. She just bellows, berates, and bye-bye. There's no moderation. She's an obnoxious, unbearable puffed up windbag with the mannerisms of John Candy in drag. I know the role of Regina Jackson was written that way, but I've yet to see Bates give a performance where she wasn't annoying, abnormal, or alien. Maybe she should've played Gort.
I don't like child actors (except for breakfast), and Jaden Smith's bratty performance is child abuse. Smith is the sainted son of superstar Will Smith and Jada Pinkett (see if you can spot their cameo appearance), which kind of makes him nouveau riche Hollywood royalty, but doesn't excuse his ineptitude or give him the right to stink up the screen. Smith pouts, sputters, and mumbles his way through his lines. With his generous Jeri curls and puppy dog eyes, Smith is going to be a stunning photo op when he gets older. But in the pure talent department, Billy Gray wins the moppet comparison showdown big time.
In a plot twist borrowed from "Men in Black," veteran character actor James Hong (vicious villain David Lo Pan in "Big Trouble in Little China") plays Mr. Wu, an alien who's been living on earth masquerading as a human. (Why are all Asian badmen these days named Wu?) Wu meets Klaatu at McDonald's to give him his report on mankind and his opinion that we're worth saving. (Maybe one of Mickey D's apple pies would have helped.) The scene also borrows from "The Hunt for Red October," with Klaatu and Wu speaking in Chinese (subtitles are provided). The dialogue switches to English so we don't have to strain our eyes, but you get the feeling the characters are still conversing in a foreign tongue. The scene and the character of Wu are a pleasant addition to the original script. Too bad the originality isn't sustained.
Hong only appears in one scene, as does John Cleese, who takes over the quirky role of Dr, Barnhardt, the brilliant scientist first assayed by Sam Jaffe (Dr. Zorba in "Ben Casey"). Cleese gave a credible dramatic account of himself as a liberal-minded but tough sheriff in "Silverado," but he's too zany here, too scattered, and speaks as if he's trying to break a record for most vowels uttered in a minute. It's impossible to take him seriously. In the original, the conversation between Jaffe's professor Barnhardt and Klaatu was conducted as if the two were intellectual equals, or at least were operating within the same mental universe. Cleese is so A.D.D.'ed and unhinged that Klaatu should've been pressing the "destroy the earth" button with the speed of light.
The remake also suffers from a few continuity problems...When Klaatu's gunshot wound begins to bleed, he pulls back his jacket to reveal to the audience that he's bleeding on the left side of his chest. When he applies the magic placenta goop to repair himself, he dabs it on the surgery scar on the right side of his chest. Hmmm. Bates' Regina Jackson certainly seems convinced of her own omnipotent powers and self-importance, but the Vice President or the President couldn't put in a cameo with an alien wandering around Central Park? And who's the genius that decided to leave a potentially dangerous emissary from another planet all alone in a room to be interrogated by someone who looks like Woody Allen's weakling cousin? They placed guards down the hall, but not inside the room? As for the film's timeless phrase, "Klaatu barada nickto," see if you can figure out when it's uttered. Can you imagine Dirty Harry without "Make my day," or Arnold without "I'll be bock (back)?" There are better ways to be differentiate the new model from the original than by cutting out or garbling the film's most legendary line.
The remake also undercuts any attempt to build tension by altering the original's soundtrack. Granted Theremin "music" may be a bit dated, but when you hear its eerie sound effects, in the original your body gets the chills.
It's the special effects that make the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" worth a little time travel. The script is slapdash and has plenty of holes, but it's hard to live up to the perfection of the original. Reeve is no Rennie; but he's spooky enough to make you believe he's not from East L.A.