Klaatu has a bad day.
Number One at the box-office over the weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a great study in all the things that can go wrong with a movie. The plot’s all haywire and the casting’s rotten and the dialogue’s stupid and the camerawork’s ugly and the CGI sucks. It’s right over the line into Mystery Science Theater territory, so if you’ve got any witty friends, I recommend you round them up and hit a matinee this week. Very solid and sustained laughs to be had mocking The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film’s editor has thoughtfully included long, boring stretches during which you and your pals can practice your rapid-fire jokester one-up-manship and not miss a thing.
If you’re wondering why this movie’s making money, you just haven’t been paying attention lately. In this, the Great Cinematic Famine of ’08, a film doesn’t have to be any good to make money. It just has to be a genre film in which stuff happens. There’s nothing else to see now but kid’s movies (Bolt, Madagascar 2), earnest Oscar-bait (Milk, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Australia), and the occasional Holocaust flick (The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Oh, and Gran Torino, in which Clint Eastwood plays a crusty old codger overcoming his racial prejudice, if you’re into that sort of thing. And just look at what’s looming up this week: The Tale of Despereaux (animated mouse movie), Seven Pounds (suicidal Will Smith drama) Yes Man (grimly formulaic Jim Carrey comedy), and The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke’s masochistic jamboree). That choking sensation you’re feeling is a sudden panicky urge to see The Day the Earth Stood Still.
So, about this remake of the 1951 Robert Wise sci-fi classic: the old one featured Michael Rennie in the form-fitting silver ensemble as Klaatu, urbane ambassador from outer space. Keanu Reeves plays Klaatu this time around, and it’ll give you an idea of the overall quality of the film that he’s giving a better performance that most of the other actors. That immobile block-like head, that blank stare, that monotone voice, they all seem to fit the role of a space alien who’s been placed in a human body he doesn’t quite know how to operate. And there are a few scenes in the middle of the movie that are almost effective, when Keanu’s autistic acting style pays off. It’s when he’s being given a polygraph test, God knows why, and he somehow or other “reverses the charges,” so to speak—none of the technology’s any too clear in this film—and fries the brain of the guy conducting the test. That’s when things begin to look up a bit. He does it so stolidly it’s kind of relaxing to watch.
Klaatu’s mission on earth has been adjusted, in the remake, for the sake of topicality. Last time around it featured Klaatu and Gort (the big metal guy) coming to Earth to tell us Cold Warriors to stop being so warlike or they’d kill us all. This time it’s Klaatu and Gort (now a bigger metal guy) arriving to tell us they’ve come to save the earth from further environmental damage and are therefore going to kill us all, presumably in order to save the whales and the many other worthwhile species like molerats and stinkweed. Nothing could be fairer than that, so Klaatu proceeds on his sensible mission with a pleasant lack of interest in humanity.
You realize they almost had a decent idea of how to approach this material and just lacked the courage to go for it. They could’ve done the whole thing from Klaatu’s point of view—him flying in, willing to deal at first but then the stupid locals start shooting, and Gort flips out and lasers them, and the whole mission’s shot to hell. Then getting captured and escaping and winding up stuck with some shrill human female and her annoying kid, all the time thinking, if I can just wrap this up and get back to my nice quiet pad on civilized planet Zargon…
The whole movie could’ve been about Klaatu, the stoic alien hero who’s destroyed by the surprisingly resourceful human devils. They were halfway there. There’s a scene when Klaatu meets a fellow alien at a McDonad’s and sees the danger of “going native.” This alien is in the body of a sad-face old Asian man (played by James Hong) who’s been stationed as a spy among the Earthlings for seventy years. Tragically, he’s developed an affection for these inferior beings and plans to die with them when their species is destroyed. He tells Klaatu that “there is another side” to humanity, meaning there’s a lovable side. But it would’ve been so great if he’d really meant to warn Klaatu that there’s a weird fascination to these evil mutant primates that draws you in if you hang around them for too long, and somehow, Klaatu didn’t get the hint. Ah, the missed opportunities in the script development process.
Jennifer Connolly plays Helen Benson, a top-scientist babe who is completely unconvincing trying to talk astrobiology, or whatever her field is supposed to be. She’s charged with persuading Klaatu that humanity can change. Her strategy is to shriek, “We can change!”
When that doesn’t work, she takes Klaatu to see a super-genius played by John Cleese, who’s got one of those ten-foot-long equations on a chalkboard that Klaatu corrects for him. (Like Einstein in The Far Side, Klaatu proves that time is actually money.) This Cleesian scientist is playing Bach on CD, and hyper-evolved Klaatu digs Bach’s music and begins to think maybe humanity has hidden depths. If it had been that hack Brahms playing, it would’ve been all over for humanity right there.
But ultimately, persuading Klaatu will depend on Helen’s stepson (played by Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s demonic spawn), a truly horrifying child who needs his ass kicked all over the map. I don’t know if you know any hip trendster types with children, but their sons all look like this kid: disturbingly beautiful, sullen little princelings with lush mops of hair. Poor Klaatu! If he could just avert his gaze from this little monster, and detach himself from the clearly anorexic Helen who stares at him with her crazy hungry eyes! If only Gort would start shooting again! If only director Scott Derrickson could shoot in the first place!! Argh!!
Anyway, stuff happens. It’s either this or Transporter 3.
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