Reel Opinions

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a movie that I wanted to live up to its title. I wanted the movie to stop, stand still, listen to some of its own ideas and potentially interesting dialogue. Instead, it gives us a number of special effects and action sequences that are handled well, but don't really add anything to the movie, and especially not to the story. It also gives us one of the most bizarre product placements I've seen in recent memory.

In the movie, an alien who goes by the name of Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) has come to Earth to determine if the human race is worth saving. We see in the film's opening sequence that Klaatu is an alien inhabiting a human body. Klaatu is gathering intelligence, so to speak. His mission could be either one of mercy or of destruction, if he decides that humans are too dangerous to live and are mistreating the Earth itself. To gather this information, he must speak with another alien who has assumed the form of an Asian man, and has been living amongst us for years. Klaatu is initially captured by the military, but he escapes with the aid of a woman named Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Helen obviously sees something in Klaatu's mission, and drives him to the meeting place where the fate of the entire human race will be determined. And where is that meeting place, you ask?

A McDonald's restaurant. You just can't buy product placement like that anymore. I especially loved the way the movie would occasionally cut from the aliens' conversation about humanity's future to shots of Helen's stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will), enjoying his cheeseburger and fries. This moment made me laugh a little, but there's very little joy or humor to be found here. Despite being advertised as a big action blockbuster, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a solemn and somewhat sad film about aliens who decide that we have put the Earth itself in peril. Those who have seen the original 1951 film that this movie is an update of already know this. Klaatu arrives on our planet with steely determination. He's here on a mission, and won't let anyone get in his way. He's accompanied by a giant robotic-like creature whom the military dubs G.O.R.T. It stands menacingly, guarding the giant sphere of light which crashed in New York's Central Park, and attacks anyone or anything that is aggressive toward it. The military tries to figure out what to do, while Secretary of Defense, Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) slowly puts the pieces together about the aliens' reason for being here.

All of this is quite fascinating, and leads us to believe that this will be the rare remake that treats its source material with intelligence and respect. Aside from the blatant and ridiculous product placement, there was nothing to offend, and I found myself being drawn into the story. It's in the second act that The Day the Earth Stood Still seems to lose interest in itself, and turns into a tedious chase picture with Helen, Klaatu, and little Jacob on the run, as Helen tries to convince the alien that humanity deserves a second chance. This is combined with a lot of scenes of the military trying to contain the giant G.O.R.T., and Secretary Jackson watching a bunch of monitors of news reports with growing concern. The movie never seems to want to slow down and explore its own ideas. It races full speed ahead to a climax that is so anticlimactic and abrupt, you wonder why the movie was in such a rush to get to it in the first place. It keeps on teasing us with potential. There's a scene where Helen takes Klaatu to meet a professor friend of her's (John Cleese), and the conversation between the professor and the alien is quite interesting, if not painfully short. It seems as if most of this scene was left on the cutting room floor to make room for more special effects shots.

It's always sad when a movie sells itself short, but I had a particularly empty feeling when the end credits came. A lot of this had to do with the good will it built with me during its effective first half. The arrival of the sphere of light in New York, along with the first appearance of the alien Klaatu are fascinating, and builds our hopes up with a sense of awe. That's because director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) seems to be trying to make an actual movie about Earth's first contact with a life form from another world. The fact that it ditches this approach smells of interference, either on the studio level, or somewhere in the editing room. The movie's just over 100 minutes long, but still feels like its been butchered in some way. It's not as severe as say Babylon A.D. (which was edited and cut to the point that the movie ceased to make any sense), but I constantly felt like I was missing out on something.

I'm not really sure what's to blame as to why The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't engage like it should. Whether the screenplay by David Scarpa (The Last Castle) was simply not confident enough, or if it's due to behind the scenes meddling. I suspect it's a combination of the two. This is a watchable movie that I enjoyed from time to time, but it's really quite hollow. As an effects-driven blockbuster, it doesn't stand out enough and is never exciting enough. As a serious-minded film with something to say, it's not intelligent enough. It ends up somewhere in between.

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