Brother from another planet
- Scott R. Garceau () - December 14, 2008 - 12:00am

I hate to be the one who always delivers the bad news, but The Day the Earth Stood Still is an oddly inert, inferior remake of the 1951 classic science fiction parable starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. The fact that it stars Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, the visitor from another world here to tell Earthlings to get their act together, is not what makes it so inert, though he doesn’t bring much life to the party. Nor can Jennifer Connelly be blamed; as a concerned astro-biologist with an African-American stepson (played by Jaden Smith — Will Smith’s kid — and boy, is his character annoying), she struggles to be the glue connecting the three main characters. It’s just not enough glue.

Picture yourself as a Hollywood executive in 2007. You’re all set to remake a sci-fi classic, one directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), no less. And not only that, Al Gore has made the movie’s ecological doomsday-clock message perfectly bankable! Now all you need is an A-list (or at least box-office-worthy) cast and a December release — Hey, can you smell Oscar?

No, but I definitely could smell something else while watching The Day the Earth Stood Still. It wasn’t the plush, comfy seats at the awesome IMAX Theater in SM Mall of Asia, which are guaranteed to make any movie-going experience special. No, it was more likely the scent of déjà vu — the feeling that we’ve seen the apocalyptic elements of this movie before, many times before, in fact, from Independence Day to The Day After Tomorrow (come to think of it, the common thread of these apocalypto flicks seems to be the word “Day” in the title).

Picture that same Hollywood exec, dreaming of a green Christmas, stroking his chin and thinking, “Hmm, there’s gotta be a way to make this 1951 script here a little more, uh, exciting — you know, let’s blow up some stuff, destroy monuments, churches, football stadiums, stuff like that. That will put asses in seats! Not this namby-pamby, talky-talky script here about non-violence...”

And so the “message” movie of 2008 becomes yet another explosion-packed CGI artist’s wet dream: See St. Patrick’s Cathedral blown to bits! See Central Park more laden with trash and debris than usual! We have total control, guys!

Full disclosure here. A couple years back, I thought a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was long overdue, and set down to writing an adaptation. But like Charlie Kaufman, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I did, however, clearly see Ralph Fiennes in the role of the patrician, yet infinitely wise and patient Klaatu. He’s British like Rennie, and has just the right amount of reserve mixed with a modicum of empathy to play Klaatu. More importantly, he would have given the remake a certain gravity that Keanu sorely lacks.

A credible job is done by Kathy Bates as a war-freak US Defense Secretary (picture Donald Rumsfeld in drag) who slowly comes to realize the futility of battling a superior technological force — but her boss won’t listen. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) She manages to bring some roundness to what could have been a one-dimensional contrabida role.

And Keanu? Well, Keanu is a box office star. And he’s often good in unexpected roles. Here, he just seems more flat and robotic than usual. Surly. A bit annoyed at times, maybe. Not infinitely patient or wise. Here, wearing a suit through much of the movie, he’s in blank “Mr. Anderson”/Johnny Mnemonic mode. I have been informed that Keanu is, offscreen, a very intelligent guy. It’s just that, as an actor, he seems incapable of projecting much intelligence. And “projecting intelligence,” for a lot of roles, is synonymous with acting.

Oscar winner J-Con, on the other hand, puts up a good fight, trying to act concerned about a) the fate of the planet, b) her extra-terrestrial companion, and c) her bratty step-kid who keeps trying to turn Klaatu over to the cops. The woefully skinny actress brings some feminine sympathy to the role, something Keanu’s cold-fish take on Klaatu sorely needs.

But here’s the real problem: the 1951 movie was a surprisingly intelligent parable about how it takes an outsider to point out the wayward path of mankind. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! KEY PLOT DETAILS FOLLOW!) Klaatu, with the help of the sentinel robot Gort, gently but firmly informs the human race that Planet Earth is essential to the universe — but people are not. (This is what Greenpeace has been saying all along, by the way.) So Klaatu manages to convince Earthlings of this through a subtle but overwhelming display of force — he makes the planet stop spinning on its axis, briefly. Electromagnetic power ceases. All electricity on the planet (except for planes in mid-flight and hospital surgery) suddenly goes dead. Put it in today’s terms: No Internet! No iPods! People get the message.

Now imagine that 2007 Hollywood executive once again: “What? We’re gonna show cars… stalled in the street? That’s it? That’s supposed to be our big finish? Uh-uh, hombre, that ain’t gonna put asses in seats in 2008.”

So our remake takes on more of a boom-boom, CGI turn, with lots of helicopters, tanks, soldiers and innocent civilians getting vaporized. It becomes Independence Day Redux with tons of apocalyptic mayhem, the very thing the original movie was supposed to be warning us against. And it somehow manages to sidestep the very lesson implicit in the movie’s title.

Oh, well. Interestingly, the original 1951 film caught a lot of flak from, of all things, Catholic groups who protested the implicit Christ-like properties of Klaatu. They didn’t like the idea of an extraterrestrial resembling, even remotely, the King of Kings. They noted Klaatu is persecuted by soldiers, same as Christ, and that he comes bearing a “message” for the human race, much as Jesus did. Hiding among humans, Klaatu adopts the name John Carpenter (Jesus was a carpenter before becoming the messiah); in one scene he visits a famous Einstein-like physicist and corrects his equations on a blackboard, much as the young Jesus lectured the rabbis in the temple. And then there’s the resurrection thing. Was all this Jesus parallel stuff too much for Hollywood, despite earning huge box office with Mel Gibson’s The Passion? In any case, the Jesus message barely even registers in the remake.

What we’re left with is a blizzard of special effects (after a promisingly character-driven first hour) and a cipher-like Klaatu who, after seeing much of Manhattan laid waste by nano-tech insects (which, I assure you, was not in the original), simply wanders back to his spaceship (here transported from the original movie’s President’s Park, Washington, DC, to, oddly, Central Park). And then, faster than you can say “Klaatu barada nikto,” the movie’s just over, and you’re left still digging away at your popcorn box.

There is a brief attempt at getting an environmental message across, delivered chiefly by John Cleese, who pops up as the Nobel-winning scientist whose calculations are corrected by Klaatu. He points out that mankind is “at a precipice,” and this is the exact moment when humans may find the will to actually change. The thought-provoking moment is tossed off, left there to sit on your cerebral cortex for a few seconds, before the copters come once again and explosions ensue, zapping away any further rumination.

Message? Hey, it’s Christmas. Who needs a message?

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