The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

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The 1951 original film, updated here by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), has been an acknowledged classic for fifty years. While naturally limited to the technical capabilities of the past, the 1951 Day instead leans on good old-fashioned story and fear to instill itself into the viewers’ hearts. Any modern remake has two giant challenges: One, to benefit from and/or improve upon the merits of the original, and two, to overcome the greater sophistication of modern-day audiences. 1950’s movies seem so hokey because they were written for audiences unfamiliar with concepts and ideas we take for granted to day — gravity and molecular interactions and the rigors of space travel — and they could not predict some of the innovations we enjoy on a daily basis.

Where 2008’s Day missteps is only in trying to remain true to the source material. Certainly, gender roles and technology and so forth are updated, as of course are the effects (very impressive in IMAX). We have our visitor in human form, Klaatu (with a lengthy explanation as to how that’s feasible, an unnecessary step in older films), his defensive robot GORT, and his determination that Earth people are not worthy of continued existence and therefore let’s get with the extermination. (Non-human species are as always unconsidered.) In 1951, Klaatu’s people were afraid of our burgeoning nuclear capacity threatening their world; in 2008 his space consortium seeks to protect one of the few M-class planets in the galaxy from our voracious, global-warming, oil-spilling selves. Sure, both films are didactic — humans have a great capacity to do harm — but this one is more judgmental and less fearful. Granted, I agree with the message — we do need to stop what we are doing to our planet, for if we do not, where will we live, what will we eat or breathe? But I do not believe Klaatu manages to actually convey this message to his intended audience (the characters or the theatergoers).

My companion and I had some discussion about the unlikelihood of the government’s response or methods (I came down on the side of “yes, it’s a bit over the top but it serves the story”), but we agreed that the pro-environmental message was about three times ten to the seventh power more effective and entertaining than The Happening. As a nonhuman inhabiting a human body, Keanu Reeves’ impassive, vaguely perturbed countenance is a perfect fit for Klaatu. Jennifer Connelly, eyes perpetually rimmed with the threat of phoenix tears, gives us an astrobiologist with a needlessly complex backstory with her stepson Jaden Smith. They are the heart of the film, but we need the heart to come from humanity, not just one exquistitely lovely girl. Some characters with the potential to round out Klaatu’s impression of the human race include polygraph guy David Richmond-Peck and scientist John Cleese, but their potential is wasted on the screenplay making obligatory pit stops in Preview Clipsville and Obligatory Original Plot nod, respectively. Kathy Bates wields her battle-axe with as much swing as they will let her, but she is given little chance to really improve upon her one-dimensional character.

We left the theatre feeling that we had spent a satisfying evening at the movies, but in retrospect I wish the screenwriters had tweaked the story’s sophistication as much as they did the technical effects. See it in IMAX if you can — you’re paying for the spectacle more than anything else anyway.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/12/08
Time in minutes 103
Director Scott Derrickson
Studio 20th Century Fox