Film Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still



The original 1951 "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which portrayed an ominous alien visitation, tapped into American fears of UFOs and Cold War tensions.

Nowadays, we have more to fear from CEOs and market stress, so a remake of the sci-fi classic does not seem like the brightest idea coming from Fox studio execs. The new alien invasion is dressed up in a contemporary green theme, yet the message gets delivered in a gimmicky, dated story. It's like trying to download your iPod into a gramophone. Despite the best efforts of stars Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, this new "Day" is tired and corny.

Fox's marketing has been strong, especially its TV spots, and Imax runs will only bring in more audiences, so the film could achieve potent boxoffice figures despite the anemic filmmaking.

"Day" was one of the first of those "Take me to your leader" movies where an alien spacecraft lands and a human-looking representative of an alien civilization steps out and asks to speak to world authorities. In both the original and new versions, an overeager soldier fires a bullet at the alien, which in turn engages Gort, a giant robotic bodyguard that can disengage or destroy any weapon system and eliminate all human threats.

The wounded alien (Reeves) is transferred to a medical facility where he encounters astrobiologist Helen (Connelly), the only friendly face among the humans. Escaping with ease because of his ability to disable and stun, he moves into the human population, where he again meets up with Helen, an Iraq War widow locked in a tenuous relationship with her very young stepson in dreadlocks (Jaden Smith).

It soon becomes clear that the alien, who calls himself Klaatu, has come to "save Earth," meaning to eliminate the polluting, destructive, exploiting rulers who abuse it. So while some of the dramatic tension comes from the manhunt headed by Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) to locate Klaatu, the thrust of the narrative comes from Helen's attempts to persuade Klaatu not to exterminate humankind.

Frankly, she makes a poor case. Helen and her stepson fight constantly. Human authority's only response to Klaatu is to kill him. Famine, riots and war span the globe. But Helen does introduce him to Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), a wise physicist who won a Nobel Prize for "biological altruism." (Wonder what Monty Python would have done with that phrase?) The scientist says mankind deserves a second chance because humans perform best when faced with a dire crisis.

Do you buy that? Well, Klaatu does. He also gleans a sense of human affection and empathy in the intimate dynamics between Helen and her boy. Now all he has to do is call back the billowing swarms of earth-scorching metallic locusts getting released from spaceships around the world.

The film, directed by Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") from David Scarpa's adaptation of the original screenplay, lacks big set pieces or the kind of action that drives most science fiction. People talk a lot, and soldiers rush here and there in trucks, planes and helicopters. But the story could have been knocked off in an hourlong episode of "The Twilight Zone."

But Derrickson and his team do achieve a proper sci-fi look. Landscapes take on a strange, otherworldly dimension, and most scenes take place at night or in claustrophobic quarters, thus heightening tension. Larger scenes are filled machinery and people with anxious faces. Effects surrounding Gort have comic-book shock and awe. However, the best science fiction has always been about innovative ideas and challenging issues. In this regard, the updated "The Day the Earth Stood Still" falls far short of the original.