Reviewed by Henry B. Rosenbush
Hollywood has an odd habit of recycling ideas by deploying new state of the artless special effects, merged with diminishing story and character development, in favor of expensive visuals.
The latest miscalculation is a remake of the late director Robert Wise’s landmark science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (B/W-1951) from cautionary anti-nuclear message movie to an environmentally ill Save the Planet motif.
In the 1950s, aliens were usually portrayed as malevolent forces intent on conquering the earth with classic films echoing this theme in The Thing From Another Planet, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space and the low budgeted, but effective Earth versus the Flying Saucers. It Came introduced space travelers who accidentally crashed on earth and had the good sense to repair their ship and leave before the paranoid earthlings destroyed them.
Z-grade films like Teenagers from Outer Space, Invasion of the Saucer Men and Not of This Earth presented aliens as hostile visitors and rarely were humans left with choices other than to battle the invaders and kill them.
By the fifties, UFO sightings fueled the beliefs that not only were we not alone in the cosmos but earth was an ideal planet for scrutiny. The atomic age was here and with the likelihood of nuclear destruction from a war with Russia the Cold War spawned the alien invasion genre. Nigel Kneales’ The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit added a British twist on the invasion themes with intelligent scripts that still resonate strongly today.
Advanced technologies, like SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life or space-based telescopes or satellite tracking, were still in the future. As the original Day opened earth was tracking an unknown space craft moving at 4,000 miles an hour that landed on the Mall in Washington DC.
As expected, the military surrounds the saucer and when Klaatu (unknown actor Michael Rennie, dignified and Christ-like; he takes the name Carpenter, dies and is reborn) is immediately shot by a trigger-happy soldier. This provocative act introduces Gort (the 7-foot Lock Martin in a metallic suit), his 9-foot robot protector. Few scenes are as potent as the realization Gort has quietly appeared outside the flying saucer, accompanied by composer Bernard Herrmann’s use of the Theremin (named for inventor Russian Émigré Leonard Theremin), before a single focused laser melts and disintegrates all weapons of hostility.
When Klaatu is informed by a representative of the President of the United States that he cannot be allowed to leave Walter Reed Hospital to learn about the customs of earth he still escapes and, since he is in humanoid shape, quietly blends in at a boarding house where he meets widow Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray). The fatherless Bobby and Klaatu have an instant report that is made more profound by visits to famous DC landmarks, ending at Arlington Cemetery where the boy’s father is buried having died at Anzio.
Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe, channeling Einstein) is perfectly cast and Klaatu entrusts him to address the top scientists of the world to deliver a sobering message: earth is on the brink of annihilation from “the other planets” who will unleash a force that will destroy the earth. The punishment would fit the crime: extending our violent nature with nuclear missiles into space cannot and will not be allowed.
Throughout the film there is a sense of dread as Klaatu tries to stay ahead of the military until the meeting with the scientists. The addition of Helen’s self-centered fiancee Tom (Hugh “I don’t care about the world” Marlowe) who alerts the government leading to a shootout that kills Klaatu which in turn activates Gort, who alone could destroy earth.
With the famous line, “Klaatu barrada nitko” the only way to stop Gort Klaatu is reanimated in time to deliver a sobering message to the scientists that by provoking violence beyond the borders of earth we are inviting our own destruction.
The actual Day that the earth stands still is a knockout with all power on earth negated for 30 minutes, except hospitals and airplanes in flight, although it does not dissuade the military from a violent solution it alerts rational thinkers like Professor Barnhardt that the real danger is us. In the remake it is saved for the climax but to a lessor effect.
The years have been kind to the original and while a remake was inevitable the recent Scott Derrickson directed Day is an uneven film that unfortunately shows filmmakers have learned little about what made the 1951 version a classic.
Instead of nuclear themes, the uneven new edition replaces that motif with environmental issues that while relevant today are mishandled from the start. This Klaatu has come to remove the blight that is destroying the earth and that is the human race, who is destroying the planet. With the exception of a few scenes culled from the original the 2008 film is more interested in displaying all the technological changes in special effects. The new GORT is an impressive CGI robot that towers over his cousin and appears from a white fog surrounding a spherical ship, rather than flying saucer, transmits an Electromagnetic Pulse disabling everything mechanical before “Klaatu barrada nikto” is uttered to disable the robot.
When the film debuted last December I knew I would never watch it on the big screen and waited for the DVD release, which arrived Tuesday. The original is on my personal top twenty movie list along with The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Stunt Man and M*A*S*H and was a profound movie experience when I saw it in 1958, at age 5, six years after it first froze audiences with its intelligent and thoughtful screenplay by Edmund North from short story by Harry Bates, Farewell to the Master, and taut direction by Wise.
As expected, most of the elements that were so profound and memorable have been recycled, re-envisioned or removed from the new film and the new GORT, now an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology, racks up a higher body count and far more destruction in the final reel than his predecessor. GORT’s best scene comes when he destroys and underground installation leading to rapidly multiplying swarm of destructive nano insects.
There is a prologue in 1928 that only serves to explain why Klaatu will resemble Keanu Reeves sixty years later. Reeves is actually better than his two Oscar winning co-stars Jennifer Connelly and Kathy Bates. The arrival of a glowing orb that resembles a planet with light and swirling clouds lands in Manhattan rather than DC.
It is clear early the two movies will never cross paths except in a few scenes. Professor Barnhardt (a brief but nice cameo by Monty Python alum John Cleese) and the famous blackboard scene is so brief and awkward that it defies logic as to why it was included. In the original it was a “calling card” when Klaatu changes an equation that has errors whereas here there is no explanation as to its relevance.
The new DVD foolishly includes the original version, sans extras found on the recent 2-disc set that included features with surviving principals including Wise, who has since died, Patricia Neal (Connelly’s role here) and full grown child actor Billy Gray.
A major flaw is the casting of Jaden Smith, as Helen’s black stepson. He is a combination of Tom and Mrs. Barley (Aunt Bea: Frances Bavier) from the first film. He is rude, disrespectful and selfish. Whenever he is on screen, which is too often, the film takes a decidedly racist and xenophobic direction for which it cannot escape. In fact, it is Smith, as Jacob, who espouses how the alien should be killed and how his late father, a building contractor not a soldier, who died in Iraq, would have fought the invaders.
Even a late reel turnabout, after Jacob calls the authorities on Klaatu, who saves the boy from death, strains credulity and does not endear him in the least. In the original, Billy Gray was a sweet kid who although frightened when he realizes Mr. Carpenter is Klaatu still likes the alien with whom he has bonded. Jacob exhibits a disdain for adults going as far as calling his stepmother by her first name. His dialogue consists of “He’s one of them. We should stop him” or “We should kill him.” His disregard for the rest of the world’s fate is consistent with his over-the-top perf and should illicit audience alienation rather than support.
Bates plays a brass balls Secretary of Defense; we never see the president or vice president because they are secured off camera and never involved except through telephone calls to make dangerously ridiculous decisions.
Connelly is always an interesting actress and although her character is a scientist rather than secretary like Neal’s Helen she should have ditched the kid and hitched a ride on the spherical arks with all the animals and insects that are on board.
Acting honors go to James Hong, as Mr. Wu, an alien Klaatu meets in a McDonald’s – talk about obvious product placement; do aliens really enjoy fast food? – who has been on earth for seventy years and while he doesn’t believe humans are capable of changing their environmentally destructive lifestyle he nonetheless has grown to “love them.”
Reeves has the most difficult role, playing an emotionally conflicted alien who is earnest in his desire to believe humans can change. This Klaatu is capable of telekinetic powers, mind control but is not evil and he even learns to appreciate the beauty of J.S. Bach.
Real life commentators Drew Pearson and H.V. Kaltenborn played themselves in the 1951 film adding authenticity that is lacking in the new version where news reports are the usual left wing media propaganda with a government spin on the truth replacing honest journalism.
The screenplay by David Scarpa (The Last Castle), offers interesting ideas that stand still next to the action, of which there is plenty. The odd decision preventing Klaatu from speaking at the United Nations is unrealistic in light of real world terrorist-enabling nations having a voice.
Cinematographer David Tattersall, who shot the three Star Wars sequels, is up for the task and the score by Tyler Bates is good but he’s no Herrmann.
The real stars are, as expected, the WETA special effects team who earn their pay in the final reel when GORT dissolves into billions of insect designed nano-technological locusts that disintegrates soldiers, an eighteen wheeler and football stadium along with most of the supporting cast.
The only question remaining is does the earth stand still? Only if you’re checking your watch.
A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with Dune Entertainment III, of a 3 Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Gregory Goodman and Paul Harris Boardman. Directed by Scott Derrickson from a screenplay by David Scarpa, based on the screenplay by Edmund H. North from the short story by Harry Bates, Farewell to the Master.
Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), David Tattersall; editor, Wayne Wahrman; music, Tyler Bates; production designer, David Brisbin; supervising art director, Don Macaulay; set designers, Peter Ochotta, David Clarke, Sheila Millar; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), David Husby; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Dane A. Davis; visual effects supervisor, Jeffrey A. Okun; visual effects & animation, WETA Digital; visual effects, Flash Film Works, Cinesite (Europe), Cos FX Films, Hydraulx [hy*drau"lx], Digital Dimension; special effects coordinator, Tony Lazarowich; special makeup effects and practical creature effects, Mastersfx, Todd Masters; stunt coordinators, J.J. Makaro, Steve Davison; assistant director, Pete Whyte; second unit director, Jeff Habberstad; second unit camera, Thomas Yatsko; New York unit camera, Phil Pastuhov; casting, Mindy Marin, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter.
Reviewed on 20th Century Fox DVD, April 8, 2009. MPAA Rating PG-13: for some science fiction disaster images and violence. 1:44. Widescreen in 2.35:1 ratio.
Klaatu – Keanu Reeves
Helen Benson – Jennifer Connelly
Regina Jackson – Kathy Bates
Jacob Benson – Jaden Smith
Professor Barnhardt – John Cleese
Michael Granier – Jon Hamm
John Driscoll – Kyle Chandler
Colonel – Robert Knepper
Mr. Wu – James Hong
Dr. Myron – John Rothman
Target Tech – Brandon T. Jackson