Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day Keanu Stood Still

It's been awhile since I posted regular movie reviews here at the Pop Culture America blogsite. There are so many big films due this Holiday season, the ninety minutes per week of Pop Culture America Primetime just won't suffice for me to weigh in on them all. Or even most of them.

So look for more movie reviews in the weeks to come right here. We'll start with ...

The Day The Earth Stood Still (d. Scott Derrickson)

Oops. Wrong poster. That's an ad for the original 1951 film, directed by Robert Wise and starring Michael Rennie. Wait a sec ... I've got the current film's promotional material somewhere in here ...

There we go. But as long as we have them both, take a look at these two images. The first is typical fifties sci-fi luridity, with the planet menaced by a huge alien hand, an enigmatic space-suited figure in a vaguely fascistic pose, and. of course, the half-clad damsel in the clutches of an unstoppable (and probably salacious) android. And they all tower over a half-seen crowd of ineffectual humans.

It doesn't take a government scientist in a white lab coat to figure out what's being sold there.

Now check out the modern image. What's it selling? I'd say it's promising Keanu Reeves, some kind of vaguely Close Encounters-esque mystery and the title of the film. Oh, for a dash of cold war showmanship!

The interesting thing is that neither film fully delivers on its promise. The original Day the Earth Stood Still stands out from its fifties sci-fi brethren as one of the few genre movies that was not about straightforward alien menaces and weird creatures who were after our women. It was a thoughtful meditation on a newly nuclearized world, utilizing an alien's perspective to help us see ourselves a little more clearly. The original is still watched and considered a classic to this day (it ranks on the list of the 250 Greatest Films of All Time, placing 199th, as of this writing).

And it's that relative seriousness of intent and tone that help sink the newly released remake. Ironically, one of the sillier films of the era -- The Beginning of the End, say, or Them! -- would have been a better candidate for a modern reworking.

What is it that modern film making can bring to this story that the producers and directors of fifty-seven years ago could not? Obviously, modern technology has given us the capability of adding incredible special effects and digital imagery that the Robert Wises of the world couldn't have dreamed of in their day. Any new remake's biggest selling point will be the massive improvement in the visualization of action, aliens, spaceships, and the like.

But The Day the Earth Stood Still was never about any of those things. The ship lands, the robot stands inert, and Michael Rennie walks around having long conversations with Patricia Neal and her son. No great special effects required.

The new film adheres fairly faithfully to the original story: an alien lands (in New York's Central Park, not Washington) and tries to deliver a message while passing judgment on the fitness of the inhabitants of the earth to continue to exist. He meets a sympathetic scientist (Jennifer Connelly) and her bratty step-son (Jaden Smith) and gradually realizes that there may be more to us humans than he originally thought. Which is odd because he's supposed to be super-intelligent and we're told that he knows "everything about us." Except that we get sad when someone dies. That didn't make it into the brief somehow.

Keanu Reeves is Klaatu, the alien in question, and if ever there was an actor born to play an emotionless non-human, it's the erstwhile star of The Lake House. He makes detached, ominous pronouncements and turns technology back on its users in a perfectly adequate, if uninspired, manner. But he could never make me believe that he was either hyper-smart or capable of the emotional growth the story requires.

Hollywood loves to cast women with model-level looks as pointy-headed scientists (Liv Tyler, Denise Richards), and as far as that goes, Jennifer Connelly is one of the more convincing, which is to say she's more convincing than Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones. Tale that for what it's worth. She is suitably earnest, though she takes way more lip from her snotty kid then she oughta.

Filling out the rest of the cast are excellent performers like Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm and the indispensable John Cleese, all of whom are woefully underutilized. Cleese in particular comes close to pushing the film toward the philosophical heights to which it seems to aspire, only to be shoved aside and forgotten.

The updated special effects look just fine, in that fakey, nothing is real, everything exists in the studio mainframe, kind of way. The alien's ships are no longer classic fifties flying saucers; now they're amorphous balls of clouds. They look like snow globes having a particularly bad day. And their main function seems to be to sit around in the park and not be flying saucers. Updating!

The legendary robot Gort becomes a stationary pile of little nano-bugs that chew up semi trucks and football stadiums. It's the movie's most effective attempt at developing some kind of action momentum. And it falls way short.

Finally, The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) never makes its intentions clear. It appears to be an allegory about environmental concerns, but it could just as easily be about war, or overpopulation or any number of other things. By not picking a side, I'm sure it made the marketing department happy, but it suffers from cowardice onscreen.

Most of these updates are unnecessary, especially in an era where the original is as near as the local library. Or the next Sci-Fi marathon on TCM. The Day The Earth Stood Still is worse than just unnecessary.

It's unfortunate.

1 1/2 stars.

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