As I went in to see The Day The Earth Stood Still, a remake of a 1950s sci-fi classic, I was hoping that this was going to be more than a one-note environmental-message-movie with amped up special effects. The movie trailer didn’t give me much expectation of that, but I clung to my own manufactured hope. Unfortunately, the story of an alien stranger (portrayed by the appropriately wooden Keanu Reeves) who appears on Earth to warn humanity of its impending destruction for environmental negligence, gained very little from a super-duper Hollywood paint-job except for a more governmental/political backdrop, and more splashy effects. If possible, it seems like there is even less story in this current version than the original.
The adaptation of the original black and white film is pretty loose, but if memory serves, there was not a lot of story in the original, so our modern attention spans probably require a lot of gap-filling. One of the additional elements is an alien-autopsy style set of scenes where Reeves’s Klaatu character is born into human flesh. Jennifer Connelly plays Dr. Helen Benson, an astro-biologist who the government apparently requires to study whatever (or whoever) might come out of a large glowing sphere in the middle of Central Park in Manhattan. After she helps Klaatu avoid interrogation by the misguided Secretary of Defense (played by a sour-pussed Kathy Bates), the rest of the movie becomes a fugitive chase. The other major element carried over from the original is the automaton named GORT, who wordlessly reacts to violence and brings doom to the human world. Sadly missing for fans of the original were the magic words “Klaatu barada nikto”, which averted disaster when the original Helen Benson uttered them to Gort after Klaatu’s death (he didn’t die in this movie either and she never met up with GORT).
While it’s probably unfair to compare the two movies, the new version doesn’t really stand on its own. It’s almost Spielbergean how the only other focus besides the alien and his menacing robot is Helen Benson’s blended family issues (she cares for her step-son, whose father died). Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith) plays Benson’s step-son Jacob as the kind of kid I love to hate — smart-mouthed, defiant, lovably-bratty — who always cause their main-character guardians more trouble than they’re worth. While I’m generally quite annoyed by the way these families, who find themselves caught in the middle of global crises (see also the recent War of the Worlds remake featuring Tom Cruise), always need to deal with their issues in the middle of the running and fleeing. It’s like movie-makers believe that despite the fact that these kinds of events would normally scare us all s—less (and we would easily find a way to save our personal issues til the aftermath), it’s somehow supposed to humanize the story to have the characters come-to-terms as the military helicopters fly by. Come on!
The special effects were adequate for this kind of sci-fi movie, but I found that they added very little to the overall. The giant spheres had none of the threatening impact that the UFOs hovering over the cities did in Independence Day. The vaguely human shape of GORT the CGI monstrosity was more like a giant, unfinished Ken doll than the bringer of doom. The only scene that was somewhat engaging was the lie-detector scene with an ominous Reeves and his dead-pan delivery. Unfortunately, it’s rather short, and if you’ve seen the movie trailer, you’ve seen pretty much the whole thing already. It’s been quite a dry-spell for sci-fi movies this year, so this one had my anticipation despite lacklustre previews. Sadly, it lived up to those diminished expecations and no more (3 out of 5)
What if I had made The Day The Earth Stood Still?
The original had a lot more suspense to it, and I would have kept that in this remake. You weren’t really sure what Klaatu was all about for a large portion of the movie. Also, there was a bond formed early between Klaatu and Jacob that then led to his getting to know Helen as well and thus making it very personal for all those characters. In the new version, there’s really no emotional reason for Helen to help Klaatu. There’s even less reason for Jacob not to cower in fear in the presence of an alien being (except that the kid’s spunky and had a military dad — oh brother!). Along with the slow reveal of Klaatu’s identity and intentions, I would want to have greater depth built into their relationships (that’s the part that Spielberg got right — see also E.T.). The whole government analysis of first Klaatu, then GORT was a completely extraneous B story (or you could consider it the A story and the family drama the B story). Either way, it would have been more interesting if there were greater connection drawn between the two. Maybe something learned by the scientists about Klaatu (and revealed to the audience) could have made things more suspenseful as we watch him interact with the Bensons (maybe something to imply that he’s not who he says he is). Overall I would have wanted the writers to give some more thought to the story as a whole and make it more worthwhile for the audience to spend two hours with this movie.