Off-Season Reviews: the Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

There’s nothing like tinkering with a classic. Tonight’s movie, the remake of 1951’s the Day the Earth Stood Still, decides to infuse its already revered plot with bits and pieces of other sci-fi flicks. Some classic – the opening nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, some nerd fodder – an implanted microchip bringing to mind the X-Files’ conspiracy theories, and some less than classic – the government enlisting a team of interdisciplinary scientists a la Species. (At least they left out the empath!)

Naturally, the film changes bits and pieces of its predecessor. Some parts it does well: the pre-credit sequence where Keanu Reeves finds an alien transmitter while mountain climbing in India, and has his DNA stolen. This device, surprisingly underplayed for a big budget (wannabe) Hollywood blockbuster, is later used to explain why Klaatu looks human. His knowledge of English is also explained away by his hacking of our satellites.

All very neat.

Unfortunately the film overlies on CGI effects. Now I’ve complained about CGI before, and, on a whole, stand behind my beliefs that computer effects are most convincing when used passively. Such as Eli Roth’s brilliant use of it to in the background of Hostel’s train-ride sequences. Versus Tim Burton’s disastrous CGI blood in Sweeny Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Making Klaatu’s spaceship a 15 stories tall black orb does nothing to inspire awe. In either us, the audience, or the actors who just looked bored. And when interplanetary revenge robot Gort shows up minutes later, again too tall, not to mention foolishly made out of nanorobots, I can’t imagine anyone felt worried.

The original Gort was imposing because his costume made movement difficult, if not impossible. The whole “talk softly and carry a big stick” sort of thing. You were worried about what it might do. Now it springs into action whenever Klaatu is injured, blaring a John Wiese soundtrack along the way.

As bad as the CGI is, though, it is still a red herring. It’s not the reason this movie pales besides its predecessor.

The film fails for two reasons: one intentional, and the other, sadly, unavoidable.

The first, unavoidable, failing is the remake’s lack of resonance. The original the Day the Earth Stood Still is remembered so fondly because it was one of the first overtly political sci-fi films. Speaking out, as it did, against the atomic bomb and the on-going nuclear proliferation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

This version has no such context to draw upon. The original was made in 1951, a mere six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the way the world fought. Before, death was more or less personal. You’d be shot, stabbed, gassed, all individual ends. Even being bombed was rather personal, as those bombs’ explosive power was “weak” enough to merely destroy a small group of people.

The atomic bomb changed all that. Now you could be vaporized so completely that all that will be left of you is your shadow; which will literally be burnt into the concrete. Entire cities melted off the map. (Also, the birth of giant reptiles.)

All of this would be swimming in your head when you watched the first one in 1951. This remake doesn’t have that overlying threat. As we’ve become accustomed to the forever looming danger, the “give peace a chance” message just seems quaint. The remake’s threat is allegedly the human race’s complete and total disregard for the Earth. “Allegedly” because said threat is never symbolized properly, or at all.

All we get is Klaatu explaining, “The Earth dies, [then] you die. You die, the Earth survives.” Klaatu’s condemnation explains nothing – how are we killing the planet? Is it pollution? Overconsumption of resources? Overpopulation?

Even more befuddling is the movie’s title. Originally, the titular day is the lynchpin; the point where Klaatu shuts down all the world’s machinery as a ultimatum: stop acting foolish, or else. We can immobilize your everything, not just your defenses, at will.

A display that worked perfectly the first time around. After seeing the world stand still, mankind changed its tune. In the update, the world stops after the aliens’ attack has stopped. Klaatu changes his mind, and then the world finds its moment of peace. Muddying the whole point; a message picture bereft of message.


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