Blu-Ray Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Although the new The Day the Earth Stood Still wasn't embraced by movie audiences, its strong opening weekend numbers reinforced the notion that movie remakes are still a good business bet. Fox's problem is that, short of a work of genius, any revisit of Robert Wise's beloved 1951 classic is bound to be an exercise in futility. When director Scott Derrickson's remake follows screenwriter Edmund H. North's original outline it seems lazy. But most of its new ideas pale before the inspired simplicity of the original.

The key to the problem can be found in a Blu-ray extra on the genesis of the new film's alien robot. Derrickson's designers worked seemingly forever on elaborate, wholly unimpressive new designs, only to give up and acknowledge the superiority of the original's featureless metal man. At a loss for new ideas, this Day the Earth Stood Still flounders under the vague task of "doing it again, only newer and better."

The new galactic emissary Klaatu is played by star Keanu Reeves, who was reportedly the producer's preferred choice. The casting announcement was received with groans and jeers, indicating a further disconnect between the filmmakers and the public. Reeves' inexpressive acting style only makes this new Klaatu seem more of a non-character, The Dull Man Who Fell To Earth. Reeves' flat line readings repeatedly give away what should be the film's surprises:

Klaatu: "If the Earth dies, you die. If the human race dies, the Earth survives."

Klaatu's mission is rather confused. Abandoning his initial effort to address the United Nations, the man from space appears to conclude that all humans are all like his government captors. He consults with his predecessor, an alien sleeper agent (James Hong) who reports that humanity has good qualities. Ignoring that assessment, Klaatu puts into motion a genocidal Plan 9.5 From Outer Space. Klaatu acts superior, but he's really just a hanging judge who denies us puny Earthlings our day in court.

As could be predicted, the emphasis in the new Day the Earth Stood Still is on more and fancier special effects. With the idea that dramatic scenes of impending disaster and alien combat are the solution to every sci-fi problem, Day makes certain that fantastic visuals are on hand at all times. Clouds boil and the mist parts as gigantic spherical spaceships land all over the Earth. The largest touches down in Central Park, disgorging a new-model GORT robot (the name is now a Pentagon-speak acronym). GORT neutralizes our weapons and shoots out the expected energy rays from a slit in his featureless face. He later proves to be made of zillions of tiny nanobots, chromium insects that, like a plague of locusts, consume anything man-made and people themselves. That concept is fairly fresh, but neither the clouds of nano-devourers nor the robot himself are all that frightening. Robert Wise's original robot expressed perfectly the doomsday fear of its time. The new GORT lacks this poetic menace almost entirely.

Not helping is the fact that the new Day never clicks on the human level. Now a respected astro-biologist, heroine Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, who seems to get more lovely as she ages) is spirited off to help the government prepare for a disaster that turns out to be the arrival of an alien space ship. Helen bravely extends the first hand of friendship to Klaatu, but we become uncomfortable when she switches loyalties to shield the space man from his government captors. She's soon playing Soccer Mom, driving the uncommunicative Klaatu on his highly suspicious mission. During what becomes an extended chase, the spaceman gets his only glimpse of normal human life at a local McDonald's. We almost expect Keanu to narrow his eyes and remark: "Hmm. Gratuitous product placement. This planet must be destroyed."

An additional aggravation is Helen's adopted son, Jacob (Jaden Smith), an annoying jerk with a lousy attitude; we can't believe that the movie is forcing us to spend time with this brat. The new professor Barnhardt is given one brief scene to plead unconvincingly for the survival of mankind. Barhnhardt is played with sincerity by ex-Python John Cleese, who misses the chance to show Klaatu that eliminating humanity is a bad idea because we're all so lovably funny. Without people we really care about, the essentially humorless movie makes a poor case for saving the human race -- Tim Burton's enjoyably silly Mars Attacks! has more likable characters.

Most of the other humans on view are uptight secret service agents and robotic special forces too easily typed as Bad Guys. Security troops shoot down Klaatu before he can utter a word. CIA experts interrogate him as if he were a helpless Guantanamo suspect. Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) invites audience scorn for refusing to allow Klaatu to take his case to the United Nations. A security operative who panics under pressure wears a highly visible flag pin, putting the final touch on what seems a rather knee-jerk condemnation of the U.S. government.

(Major Spoiler) The Day the Earth Stood Still's aggressive ecological agenda is not very well thought out. Klaatu alters his mission at the eleventh hour, stopping the nanobot plague that threatens to eradicate the human race. He instead apparently takes away mankind's ecologically destructive energy sources, including electricity. The original Klaatu proved his powers by making the Earth "stand still" for all of thirty minutes, but this gag appears to be permanent. The movie ends before anybody has time to contemplate the coming Age of Primitivism. It looks like we'll have to do without microwave ovens and video games.

However, it soon becomes clear that Klaatu isn't doing us much of a favor. If he has the miraculous power to neutralize electricity and make oil useless for burning, why can't he just fix our environmental problems, arm the whales, and make us ride bicycles? Without mass agriculture, transportation, or communication, Klaatu's solution will starve most of the world's population to death and turn civilization back a thousand years. Klaatu is just a bully from outer space. Why doesn't he just bring us the gift of an eco-friendly energy source, like an intergalactic Prometheus?

The Day the Earth Stood Still ends up being just another threat from space, dressed up as a stern ecological sermon. Klaatu's interplanetary gangsters try to expunge us for not living up to their (debatable) higher standards. If they really respected other life forms they'd show some charity toward their unenlightened neighbors in space. Hey, Mr. Spaceman, things are tough down here too. Instead of reaching out her hand to greet Klaatu, Helen Benson should have held up a sign: "Brother, can you spare a dime -- and the Secrets of the Universe?"

Fox Home Entertainment's 3-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray of The Day the Earth Stood Still looks fine in HD, allowing us to admire the fantastic spectacle of giant buildings and other man-made structures being "erased" by swirling plague clouds. But the key imagery lacks the impact of the original simply because there are no standout designs -- the alien spaceships are just boiling gaseous globes. Much of the original's mood and menace derived from Bernard Herrmann's eerie music score, and the remake has no equivalent.

The generous extras begin with a commentary by the screenwriter, David Scarpa. A couple of deleted scene clips lead off a selection of featurettes that address the screenplay adaptation, the reworking of the Gort concept, the life-on-other-planets issue, and the environmental angle. Galleries display stills, publicity and production art, and storyboards. One Picture-in-Picture track examines props and artifacts made for Klaatu that weren't used in the film, and a second is an amusing Build Your Own Gort "interactive experience." The disc is also tricked out for D-Box motion control systems, for viewers with specially rigged theater seats!

Disc two is a digital copy of Day compatible with PCs, Macs, and iPods. The third disc makes the Special Edition even more attractive: It's the handsome Blu-ray of the original 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still that came out last Christmas.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant

April 8, 2009

The Day The Earth Stood Still