Sunday, December 14, 2008


The landmark 1951 science fiction fable “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (**** out of ****) concerned an extraterrestrial emissary named Klaatu (Michael Rennie of TV’s “The Third Man”) who came to Washington, D.C., in a flying saucer to warn Earthlings that they must not “apply atomic energy to spaceships that will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets.” In the dreary, special effects laden remake, the intergalactic Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) shows up in a huge sphere in Manhattan’s Central Park to warn Earthlings that they have treated the planet with the same lack of respect that they treat each other and have wrought so much damage that they must be obliterated. Hmn, hasn’t Al Gore already said that without a spaceship and a monstrous robot in his recent documentary "An Inconvenient Truth?"

Environmentalists will no doubt applaud the remake for its global warming message, but popcorn-minded audiences aching for thrills and chills galore may find this high-minded but heavy-handed remake bland to the bone. Mind you, “Exorcism of Emily Rose” director Scott Derrickson and “Last Castle” scenarist David Scrapa have loaded “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (*1/2 out of ****) remake with more action than its relatively tame predecessor. Nevertheless, this superficial sci-fi saga generates little drama or suspense in what amounts to an anemic disaster movie with top-tier special effects. The 8 foot robot Gort that accompanied Klaatu now towers 28 feet tall and it boasts another weapon in it arsenal along with his molten laser beam eyeballs. The filmmakers stage several over-the-top aerial raids on the sphere that recall similar tactics in Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day." Unfortunately, these pyrotechnical displays add little substance to an already insubstantial film.

Pretty Jennifer Connelly gives the best performance, while Keanu Reeves remains as inarticulate as ever as the alien who wants to address world leaders. He was a hundred times better in last year’s shoot’em up “Street Kings.” Kathy Bates gives her best Hilary Clinton impersonation and dresses as tastefully as Sarah Palin. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” springs no surprises with its ecological message.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” contains a prologue that the original lacked. In 1928, a lone mountain climber (Keanu Reeves of “The Matrix”)in India discovers a shimmering globe in the snow and touches it. When he awakens later from the shock that the object dealt him, he finds a hole has been burnt in his glove and a tiny patch of skin has been removed. The nasty sphere came to harvest the mountain climber's DNA so that it could clone a human body. The action fast-forwards to contemporary times as a military communication satellite detects an object streaking towards Earth with a crash point 78 minutes away in Manhattan. The government assembles an elite team of scientists to deal with the aftermath of this catastrophe since they cannot prevent it. Ignorant government agents come banging on the door of Princeton astrobiologist professor Dr. Helen Benson (Oscar winning Best Actress Jennifer Connelly of “A Beautiful Mind”) and hustle her off to a helicopter and flight to New York City. Initially, the military briefing sequence reminded me more of Ronald Neame's "Meteor" (1979) Michael Bay's "Armageddon" (1998), Mimi Leder's "Deep Impact" (1998)

When Helen isn’t teaching, she is a single mom to her adorably obnoxious African-American stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith of "The Pursuit of Happyness") who hasn’t gotten over the death of his father in combat. Jacob sasses his mom, wears his hair in tassels, and hinders more than helps her later in the action. Of course, everything is forgiven in the fourth quarter when he realizes the error of his ways. Anyway, everybody reacts with shock when the alien spacecraft touches down without turning New York City in a colossal crater. Like his classic predecessor, Klaatu emerges and a trigger-happy U.S. Army soldier pumps a slug into him just as he approaches Helen in a Hazmat outfit, splattering red alien blood on her mask. About that time, a gargantuan robot named Gort emerges from the sphere and emits a laser beam blast that turns all weapons into dust. Klaatu halts Gort from further destruction and lets the authorities rush him to a top-secret surgical suite where a doctor digs out the slug. The doctor informs them all that an embryonic human is swaddled beneath layers of placenta. This human matures rapidly into Keanu Reeves, though the filmmakers neglect to bring up the fate of 1928 mountain climber. In the remake, Klaatu enjoys greater powers than his predecessor. He can use his mind to incapacitate his captors and he does so during a lie detector scene that is prominently features in the trailer. Happily, Klaatu's interrogator is the same size as the alien so Klaatu can don his suit and don and saunter off the military installation.

Since the president and vice president have been evacuated to an undisclosed location, Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates of “Primary Colors”) greets Klaatu and refuses to turn him loose despite his having done nothing wrong. Instead, the scientists rush him off for a lie-detector test, but the resourceful Klaatu engineers an easy escape and hits the road with Helen. Jacob joins them and does everything that he can to undermine his mom and Klaatu. Eventually, Helen takes Klaatu to meet Nobel Prize-winning Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese of “Monty Python” fame in a cameo) who received his accolades for biological altruism. The blackboard scene from the original is replicated here, but Klaatu’s dialogue with Barnhardt focuses on the welfare of planet Earth not the escalating arms race. According to Klaatu, there is a shortage of planets for sustaining life and humans have devastated the Earth too such a degree that they must be wiped out. Barnhardt pleads with Klaatu for the future of humanity; he argues that the brink of destruction will prompt humans to change their ways.

Meanwhile, the military abduct Gort, imprison the robot in a silo, and try to cut through its impervious biological skin with a diamond drill. They fail miserably, but the gigantic robot spawns the synthetic equivalent of locust and the locust spread in clouds to destroy mankind and man-made structures. In the original, Gort acted as a policeman for the aliens, while he can reduce himself into a swarm of locust. The military were able to encase Gort but they didn't take him off to a secret army base.

Okay, neither Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” nor Derrickson’s remake adhered to author Harry Bates’s original pulp short story “Farewell to the Master.” Of course, Wise’s “Earth Stood Still” served as a cautionary anti-Cold War tale about the paranoia of nuclear proliferation as well as an allegorical Christ tale. After all, Klaatu called himself Mr. Carpenter and rose from the dead. Derrickson’s spin has little in common aside from the bare bones basics of Edmund North’s screenplay. Keanu Reeves is ideally cast as the monosyllabic Klaatu and he knows how to deal with nosy traffic cops, but his Klaatu seems a little behind the 8-ball when he realizes that his strategy may not be best. While “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is new, this Keanu Reeves rehash is not an improved version of the timeless original.

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