Keanu Reeves as a tree-hugging, emotionless alien? Talk about typecasting! While neither as charismatic nor debonair as Michael Rennie, the first to play intergalactic ambassador Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still's 1951 incarnation, Reeves succeeds in bringing a more threatening demeanor to this classic role.
As revered as the original Day the Earth Stood Still is, I’m surprised it has taken Hollywood nearly 60 years to remake it. It was a “message movie” that has withstood the test of time as well as, sadly, humanity’s war-faring ways. Klaatu threatened the people of Earth with annihilation if we didn’t give peace a chance. The original screenplay, written by Edmund H. North, features enduringly profound insights, but the late Robert Wise’s film is naturally dated and doesn’t spring to mind for younger moviegoers today.
While the new Day the Earth Stood Still predictably ups the visual effects, the original source material remains pleasingly intact. In fact, Klaatu’s mission is expanded upon. He has non-violent instincts and identifies himself as “a friend of the Earth,” which Helen, the scientist who greets and ultimately aids him, initially interprets to mean Klaatu bears no threat to humankind.
Helen (played with appropriate intelligence by Jennifer Connelly) is soon enlightened, however, and learns that Earth’s population has been condemned to death in order to save our dying planet. She and her patience-testing stepson (played by Jaden Smith, Will’s son) become the sole humans who can potentially convince Klaatu to change his mind.
Klaatu’s sidekick Gort is along for the remake ride, and has himself been expanded in both size — he’s now three or four stories tall as opposed to his “monstrous” 8-foot stature in 1951 — and destructive capability. The new model is also decidedly less clunky than his predecessor was, and has more versatile features, as becomes apparent during the film’s climax.
A nice character addition is that of an alien observer, Mr. Wu, who has been living among and studying human beings for 70 years and advises Klaatu. Though he only appears in one scene, Wu is poignantly played by veteran Asian-American actor James Hong (most recently heard in Kung Fu Panda). While critical of the human race and advocating for its destruction on the one hand, Wu has also seen the “other,” good side of human beings and subsequently elects to die with us rather than leave Earth with Klaatu.
Director Scott Derrickson brings to The Day the Earth Stood Still the same nuanced sense of foreboding he applied well to his 2005 feature, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. And while this film’s special effects are plentiful, Derrickson uses them more subtly than many modern big-budget filmmakers. Shots of alien “ark” spheres collecting the non-human organisms of the Earth for preservation have an unexpectedly inspirational feel to them.
It is only during the film’s finale that the filmmakers lose their footing to some degree, or perhaps the producing studio (the increasingly disreputable 20th-Century Fox) intervened to muck things up. Unlike in the original, the title’s meaning becomes clear not midway through but at film’s end. Klaatu warns Helen that humanity will have to pay a price in being saved from destruction, and that price is revealed. It is actually a bold and inspired stroke but then the film ends, abruptly and cheaply. Most of those who have seen it are likely scratching their heads, and I would agree with them that greater clarification and exploration is needed.
While many critics and moviegoers have been dissing the current Day the Earth Stood Still, I recommend it. Even with its truncated ending, the basic story is more timely now than ever. Whether we will finally put its lessons into practice remains to be seen.
UPDATE: The Day the Earth Stood Still is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.