Klaatu provides food for thought: Hollywood studios finally find a movie worthy of an update

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008

'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

Ap Photo/20th Century Fox, Doane Gregory
Ap Photo/20th Century Fox, Doane Gregory
In this image released by 20th Century Fox, Jennifer Connelly, left, Jaden Smith and Keanu Reeves, right, are shown in a scene from "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

20th Century-Fox

1 hour, 43 minutes

Hollywood bean counters love the remake almost as much as they love the sequel. Built-in audience, ready-made story, marketing opportunities with the new and old versions of the DVD, it's like a cash machine to the studios. At least in theory.

What often happens, however, is that the money people underestimate the taste and intelligence of the viewers and wind up with a movie that pales in comparison to the original, leaving fans and critics alike disappointed and angry. In fact, I think most critics go into a screening of a remake with that attitude. "Why recreate this movie?" they ask.

In Hollywood, there's only ever one reason -- money -- but occasionally they surprise you. Though critics the world over have been lambasting this week's epic sci-fi remake of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," I think the giant chip on their collective shoulder is blinding them to what is a timely, smart, and pretty well-made cautionary tale.

The original "Day" was a science-fiction film unlike most of the time period. It doesn't take place in outer-space, there are very few special effects, and there is no villain, at least not one with a pointy goatee or a set of tentacles. Actually the villain is us, and much the same tack is taken with the current incarnation. When a glowing space orb (this is the 2008 version -- glowing orbs were difficult to come by in the 50s) lands in Central Park, the United States government reacts in its typically conflicted fashion. It calls out the scientists, and the military. Though there are no outwardly hostile actions by the strange luminous creature that emerges from the swirling sphere, some frightened reservist pops off a shot anyway, wounding the visitor, and perhaps sealing our fate.

As the story rolls along, it is revealed that the alien (actually Keanu Reeves encased in gelatinous goo) is here to save the planet -- not for us, but from us. With the help of biologist Helen Benson, played by Jennifer Connelly, Reeve's Klaatu escapes from the military and proceeds to attempt to come to an understanding of this strange destructive species that is threatening one of the few habitable planets in the galaxy.

While Klaatu is busy communing with Benson, her recalcitrant step-son Jacob and a Nobel Prize winning scientist cameo'd nicely by John Cleese, the military is busily attempting to disable or disarm Klaatu's gigantic robotic watchdog. Nicknamed G.O.R.T., (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology -- I guess the writers thought the name from the original sounded dorky so they recreated it as an acronym; probably not a bad choice) the 28-foot-tall sentinel not only protects Klaatu's ship from harm, but has another, much more terrifying purpose as well, one which I won't spoil here.

As Cleese's wise professor advises, it is only when a species is on the precipice of destruction that it can display it's true potential, but will it be too late to convince our otherworldly executioner that we, as a people, are willing to change?

I agree that many films should not be remade. "Casablanca," for example, is perfect as it is. There's nothing to add to the story. A movie like "The Day the Earth Stood Still," on the other hand is a great choice. Though the original is well-made, and had an important message to audiences of the day -- our recent entry into the nuclear age was a cause of great concern to our cosmic neighbors -- the film now feels a little dated.

The remake grafts a new global concern, ecological disaster, effortlessly onto the older framework and utilizes modern special effects to jazz up a story that would otherwise tend toward being preachy.

I can't say how the filmmakers of the original would have felt about the new story and it's flashy FX, but I have a feeling that, had they the ability, there were things they would have like to have shown that they just couldn't. In addition, the choice of Keanu Reeves as Klaatu is an inspired one. An actor of famously limited range, Reeves plays a blank slate better than just about anyone working. Just as he was perfect for "The Matrix," this role seems to have been made for him.

As a remake, I think this movie works brilliantly, but that's not to say that it's a brilliant work of art. There are certainly problems, not least of which involve the actors other than Reeves. Connelly is fine -- underused, but fine. But as Jacob, poor Jaden Smith, son of Will, is in completely over his head. In fact, his head is a big part of the problem as some smart hairdresser decided he should look more like the kid from the comic strip "Boondocks" than a regular little boy. His flouncy locks make Tom Hanks' bad hair in "The Da Vinci Code" look like a $400 John Edwards cut by comparison.

A few other characters are somewhat over-the-top when subtlety would have been more effective. On the other hand, the movie, as a whole, could have used just a little more gravitas. Often these movies are accused of being overlong, but "Day" could have used at least another half-hour to make me care a little more about characters in mortal terror, and maybe a half-hour less of Jaden Smith.

Though not excellent, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is still a very good movie with an important message: If we don't get our act together soon, the last thing the critics will have worry about is substandard remakes.

Grade: B+

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is rated PG-13 for violence and frightening sci-fi images.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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