STARRING: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong

2008, 103 Minutes, Directed by:
Scott Derrickson

Despite what contrarian ‘Fifties movie buffs of the sort who insist that Attack of the Giant Leeches (Bernard L. Kowalski, 1959) is in fact better than Star Wars: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977) might believe, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of remakes.

After all, the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably better than its 1956 predecessor and the same goes for John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Besides, most audiences weaned on the modern production values found in special effects blockbusters such as, er, Star Wars will probably find the original 1951 Black & White Day the Earth Stood Still to be pretty staid and inaccessible. And when one thinks about it, there is something worthwhile in the original story that warrants a retelling . . .

With this in mind we found this 2008 updating of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves to be a more passable time at the cinemas than most critics (who have a knee-jerk reaction against remakes of all stripes in any case) will make you want to believe. That doesn’t mean that this Day is good. Just not quite as bad as you’d expect.

To recap: a wooden as always Keanu Reeves is Klaatu, an alien emissary from a civilization much more technologically advanced than our own. Klaatu lands his spaceship (a swirling giant orb in this version and not an old-fashioned flying saucer like in the original) slap-bang in the middle of Central Park. Like in the original movie, he immediately gets shot by the U.S. military for his trouble.

[WARNING: Spoilers!] All of which brings us to the reason why he is here: mankind’s violent and destructive nature. This isn’t an alien invasion (not exactly). Klaatu is here to save the Earth . . . but from us, from mankind.

"If Jennifer Connelly and Bach won’t convince you that humankind is worth saving, then nothing will . . ."

Employing what would be typically alien logic Klaatu’s aliens have decided that even though humankind may have dreamt up quantum physics and Bach there is no reason why we should enjoy preference over all the other species of animals on the planet. After all, you can convincingly argue that mankind are nothing but “hairless apes” as Howard the Duck always maintained in the comics. And mankind has been cruel and destructive not merely towards other species, but towards its own kind too. After being refused to address the UN like in the, yes, original and held against his will by a paranoid U.S. military, Klaatu initiates a process whereby all life on Earth will be destroyed. The planet will then later be re-inhabited by as many animal species that Klaatu could squeeze into his interstellar arks across the globe. Yup, it seems as if the Japanese’s whale hunting has finally caught up with us although one wonders how Klaatu might have reacted if the U.S. military have carted him off to Guantanamo Bay instead . . .

It seems that livable planets are actually in short supply, and that the aliens represented by Klaatu can’t let us make a mess of things. If we can’t take good care of the planet, then they will find someone who will – all of which makes them a bit like intergalactic real estate developers when one thinks about it. Luckily for us, Klaatu isn’t a real-life developer because then we would have been truly screwed. Instead – after hanging out with actress Jennifer Connelly (as the scientist who “rescues” him from distrustful U.S. authorities) and listening to some classical music – Klaatu decides that humanity is worthwhile saving after all. He has a point: if Jennifer Connelly and The Goldberg Variations don’t convince you that humankind is worth having around, then nothing probably will.

Hope we didn’t spoil anything there plot-wise. [End spoilers!] The problem is that despite the inventive way this remake does inject some special effects and action into the story framework provided by the somewhat well-mannered original movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still is pretty predictable even if you haven’t seen the 1950s movie. Much of the blame can be laid at the various trailers and other promotional material for the film, but the biggest problem is modern Hollywood screenwriting conventions. Most of The Day the Earth Stood Still will seem over-familiar to anyone who has seen anything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Abyss to Independence Day and K-PAX. (You can add Sphere and X-Files to the list too.)

The reason why the ‘Fifties The Day the Earth Stood Still is so fondly remembered nowadays is because it was probably one of two science fiction movies from that entire decade that didn’t have an alien invasion (read: Red Scare paranoia) as its main theme. (The other movie was It Came From Outer Space.) Made in a time when the Cold War was just heating up it had the message that humanity must change its ways or destroy itself in the process. Now as the ice caps are heating up too, this remake comes with a similar message. Humanity must change in order to survive. Sadly it is still a timely message, but it isn’t a particularly fresh one anymore. The Day the Earth Stood Still is the third major Hollywood movie dealing with the destructive effects of man’s behavior on the environment this year alone, the others of course being WALL-E and The Happening.

Clichéd it might be though, this we found enough Hard Sci-Fi touches in Day the Earth Stood Still not to write it off completely. Maybe the problem is that we have so few genuine science fiction big screen movies being made nowadays that we actually found our pulse quickening at the prospect of alien first contact as intimated in the movie. (It was somehow more thrilling than having magic trolls pitch up in our back garden if you know what we mean.)

Also on the plus side is the fact that it is a very sincere version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. There is little that feels cynical about the whole enterprise. Even casting the inexpressive Keanu Reeves as Klaatu is brilliant in the same way it was to cast Arnie as an emotionless machine way back then in the very first Terminator movie. Reeves has always acted like an alien uncomfortable with his human host body . . .

Sci-fi purists may fume, but the fact remains that mainstream audiences will more likely warm to this remake than the original movie. More open-minded sci-fi fans tired of the countless fantasy movies being churned out by Hollywood right now should give it a try. It might prove to be a welcome diversion. Its typical Hollywoodness may grate on the nerves occasionally (can anyone explain why exactly Will Smith’s kid is in this movie?), but it really isn’t all that bad . . .


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