Main Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Scott Derrickson
I have just spent a rather uncomfortable few hours sequestered with a special agent from the FBI. Apparently, I was the inadvertent cause of an international incident. The escapee giant balloon of me in costume for my new live TV special West Side Christmas Story, that was supposed to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, drifted into restricted air space where it was mistaken for an incoming North Korean ICBM and shot down by the Air Force someplace over Buffalo. It was last seen crashing into the St. Lawrence River where it was promptly swept over Niagara Falls and torn to pieces on the rocks below, traumatizing a group of Taiwanese tourists on the Maid of the Mist. Now I am not an expert in North Korean artillery, but I am fairly certain that they do not dress their ordnance in tuxedo halters and tap pants.
The whole palaver made me late for this afternoon’s dress rehearsal and I nearly missed my marks in my big leg lamp ballet. I made up for it by absolutely nailing my big comic number, Gee Officer Santa, in which I and a number of very talented chorus boys tap through the aisles of Higbee’s department store through crowds of shoppers, surly elves, and all the way to Santa’s throne where an off-duty police officer playing Santa pushes me down a rather steep plastic slide. Alan Swann is playing Santa, so production assistants are having to check continuously for hidden flasks on set to keep him from being too much of a method actor. All and all, the show is progressing nicely, and we should be ready for filming and broadcast this next week.
As I am still in New York until after we finish up the project, I decided to unwind this evening with a New York based film. I was a bit lonely as Normy has remained at Casa Maine working on a new arrangement of Schubert lieder for some group called Pentatonix so I skyped him in and we decided to watch the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still together on one of the streaming channels. I think he fell asleep fifteen minutes into it, but I stayed awake until the bitter end. I’m not sure it was the best use of my time.
The original film version of this story, from 1951 and starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, is a minor classic, and was one of the first films to make genre story telling a metaphor for current events, using science fiction to comment on the cold war. The remake tries to do the same thing using environmental degradation as the existential threat but, despite grandiose production values and a lovely color palette, it is not as successful as its older predecessor. Perhaps it’s the replacement of the leads by Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, pretty people but neither known for giving the most nuanced of performances in genre films.
After a brief prologue set a century ago in the Himalayas featuring Reeves as an early mountaineer, it’s early 21st century America and we meet the recently widowed astrobiologist Helen Benson (Connelly) who has been left to mother an African-American step-son (Jaden Smith, beginning his career as the weakest link in major motion pictures) when she is suddenly summoned by armed federal forces and transported to a nearby military base with other science types. It turns out a UFO is headed directly for earth, making a lovely three-point landing in Central Park. An alien emerges peacefully, but is shot by an overzealous soldier, making a giant robot that accompanies him very angry. It emits some sort of sonic EMP that shuts down New York. The injured alien, Klaatu (Reeves again – something about cloning from a DNA sample from that mountaineer) is saved by a combination of surgery and alien wizardry and delivers a ‘Take me to your leader’ speech. A no nonsense secretary of defense (Kathy Bates) refuses this request and soon Klaatu escapes his confinement and is on the run with Connelly, Smith, and their friend Dr. Granier (Jon Hamm). It turns out that Klaatu is a representative of alien races that do not like what humans have been doing to their planet and are determined to save the planet through the destruction of humanity. The giant robot is actually a collection of nanotechnology insectoids that can sweep the planet clean, allowing earth to go on about its business without us. It’s up to Dr. Benson to convince Klaatu that this isn’t necessarily a wise decision and that there is good in humankind and its intentions. This leads, of course, to vehicle chases, a wise old Chinese man (James Hong), noble sacrifice, and John Cleese.
Director Scott Derrickson, working from a screenplay by David Scarpa (based on the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and the story from which that film was taken), keeps things moving along at a rollicking pace. Anytime the viewer is about to ask a question about the complete lack of logic or physics on display, we’re off to the races again, sort of like a two-hour theme park ride. There’s just enough cheap moralizing about the nobility of humanity to leaven the thrills and make people think they’ve seen something relatively important by the time the end credits roll, but when you think back on it, none of it makes much sense (unlike the original which was very clear in its story telling and in the points it was trying to make). The Day the Earth Stood Still was a financial success in its original release, likely due more to its sci-fi trappings than to its actual content. I can’t imagine families sitting down to re-watch this one over and over again the way they might Star Wars.
The performances are lackluster at best. Reeves continues his streak of being the leading man the camera loves but who cannot deliver dialog with any conviction. The physicality of his Klaatu is magnificent and we can believe that this is an alien being inhabiting a human body (although nowhere near as good as Jeff Bridges in Starman from thirty some years ago), but then he opens his mouth and starts to declaim. Jennifer Connelly seems to be sleepwalking. This may be her acting choice in terms of playing grief as her character contends with the recent death of her husband, but the result is boring to watch. The less said about Jaden Smith, one of the worst examples of Hollywood nepotism, the better. Kathy Bates brings some spark to her scenes but doesn’t really come across as the career politician type she’s supposed to be and I could not figure out what John Cleese was doing in the film at all. He’s playing so against type that it’s jarring when he shows up. At least it’s just an extended cameo towards the end of the film.
The photography and special effects are lovely and the CGI which allows giant robotic things and swarms of nanites to do things like eat sports arenas is spot on. The Day the Earth Stood Still always looks good, even when it becomes overly bombastic. Ultimately, I have to say that if you want a good evening of film, check out the original. This one is, unfortunately, too full of the sound and fury for my taste.
Floating blue spheres. Video game playing. External placenta goo. Glowing robotic eye. Gratuitous panicking population news clips. Alien mind control. Traitorous child.