Mark Reviews Movies

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, John Cleese

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sci-fi disaster images and violence)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 12/12/08


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Of course the trend with remakes of old-school science fiction is to leave well enough alone and spend most of the budget upping the ante on the special effects, so it's with a little bit of relief that I say Scott Derrickson's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still actually has half a brain in its head. Sure the story's essentially the same and the special effects budget has obviously been spent, but the tone here is also a more menacing one than Robert Wise's 1951 film, which points to a certain intelligence to which we're not typically accustomed in these kinds of projects.

It only makes sense. The undercurrent of the original was humankind's potential for destroying itself with weapons of mass destruction, a prospect viscerally frightening enough on its own to warrant an understated approach. This one's a bit different in its thematic conceit. Humankind's doomed because of its actions, but it's going to take Earth, one of the few planets, according to the extraterrestrial visitor here, in the cosmos capable of sustaining life, with it. In the grander scheme of things, then, we don't mean too much at all to the unsympathetic visitor.

In 1928 in India, a mountain climber (Keanu Reeves) happens upon a large glowing sphere, which knocks him unconscious, awakening to nothing on the side of the mountain. In the present day, Dr. Helen Benson, an astrobiologist at Princeton University, teaches classes and raises her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) on her own. Preparing dinner this night, she receives an anonymous phone call. Some people are on their way to pick her up. The matter is unknown, but she'll be prepped en route. She's whisked away to an Army facility with a collection of other scientists, where her old colleague Michael Granier (Jon Hamm) fills her in.

There's an object on a collision course with Manhattan ("Why don't we shoot down with a missile," one scientist proposes, and one almost expects the response to be, "Because that's been done too many times before."). Expecting catastrophe, the scientists arrive in Central Park to witness the spherical object, which has slowed down upon entering the atmosphere, opening to reveal a strange being. The otherworldly creature is shot (natch), defended momentarily by a giant robot from the ship, rushed to a military facility for treatment, and reveals itself to be a humanoid with a command of the English language named Klaatu (Reeves).

Why is Klaatu here? What are his intentions? These are the questions Benson and her colleagues want answered, but of course, the government, represented by Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), already have their assumptions. Clearly, Klaatu is a potential hostile, a representative from an advanced civilization, and Jackson reminds them all of the lessons in history when an advanced civilization contacts a simple one. The giant robot still stands sentinel in Central Park, and Klaatu isn't forthcoming with his motivation, requesting to speak in front of the UN so all leaders of the world can hear what he has to say.

The debate is unfortunately short-lived, and soon Benson helps Klaatu escape and ends up taking him around to other spheres that have landed around the world and determine what's to be done with those pesky humans. There's a lot of potential here to develop this initial conflict between what each group sees as good for humanity, but David Scarpa's script instead lets these early scenes serve as a mysterious, threatening buildup. It's less intellectually involving, but it gets the job done for what's to follow. What does follow are cryptic remarks (There's a play on semantics with the phrase, "I'm a friend to the Earth") and behavior from Klaatu, while the military plays around with their new robotic friend.

At times, it feels like there are two different movies here. There's the creepy speculation about Klaatu and the more special-effects oriented action with the robot (drone fighters attack it, giant walls are positioned around it, and an entire military base falls victim to its secondary, microscopic form). The material with Klaatu accomplishes what it must, and surprisingly it works in large part because of Keanu Reeves' performance. Completely emotionless, with a face that gives away absolutely nothing (Nothing too farfetched for Reeves, but it works this time around.), Reeves' Klaatu is a blank slate for us to fill in the gaps until his plan becomes clear.

The stuff with the robot, on the other hand, is clearly less important to the movie, and Scarpa seems reassert the point, giving us some fairly anticlimactic action sequences throughout. Even the large-scale destruction in the final act, which follows the rule in a movie about potential global destruction that even though the Earth itself is saved you'd better be sure to get some massive mayhem in, isn't too impressive. Also lacking is the development of Klaatu's change of perception of humanity, but, like the original, it certain preaches its final point nonetheless.

It might sound as though I'm not too enthused about The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that's right. While it's definitely lacking in certain, important areas of development, the overall atmosphere of dreadful foreboding compensates enough. The film works for what it is, and I can't necessarily fault the film too much because of it.

Copyright 2008 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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