Day the Earth Stood Still, The (2008): Scott Derrickson’s Unnecessary Remake

As reconceived by screenwriter David Scarpa and director Scott Derrickson, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the remake of the classic 1951 sci-fi, is a disappointingly bland and boring film.

 

The goal of rooting the premise of the new narrative not in man’s violence against man, but in mankind’s destruction of the Earth’s environment might have been good and timely on paper, but the execution leaves much to be desired in all departments, helming, acting, production values, and special effects.

 

Robert Wise’s film was original, innovative, and progressive for its time in theme, characters, and visual effects.  For starters, the film saw American society (and humanity at large) from an outsider’s perspective.   As a political allegory, it commented on the era’s Cold War mentality. The 1951 picture was a groundbreaking work that has influenced generations of sci-fi enthusiasts, authors and filmmakers.

 

For those who need a reminder, Wise’s film tells the story of a benevolent, human-looking alien called Klaatu, who lands his spaceship in Washington D.C., aiming to meet with the leaders of Earth to warn them that the violence man is committing against man actually threatens the survival of other civilizations in the universe. With the help of Gort, his giant robotic bodyguard, Klaatu eludes the authorities, which attempt to capture him. He then immerses himself in human culture to gain a better understanding of a species that is committed to conflict and destruction. Klaatu befriends a widow and her son, and through their friendship he learns about humanity, ultimately challenging mankind to be the best possible version of itself.

The film was revolutionary, not only in its then-cutting edge conceptualization of aliens and spaceships and robots, but also in its audacious variation on a familiar allegory for the escalating tensions of the Cold War era. The entire canon of sci-fi fiction in the U.S. of the 1950s was constructed as to reinforce Western fears of the Eastern Bloc.  The “other” to be feared was a metaphor for Communism, but what was remarkable about the film was that it placed the responsibility of dealing with the issues on everyone–equally. The “other,” in fact, was the nature of man himself and the violence humanity was capable of.  Moreover, telling the story from the alien’s point of view was a novelty, as in most movies, Americans rarely saw themselves as the aliens.

For the new version, the filmmakers’ wish was to retell a story that will addresses current issues and conflicts, specifically, the way we now have greater capacity for self-destruction, due to the irreparable harm we are causing the environment.  In re-imagining this picture, they wanted to capture a real angst, the notion that the way we live now could have disastrous consequences for the whole planet.  The movie is meant to hold a mirror up, so to speak, to our relationship with nature, asking us to look at our impact on the planet for the survival of all species.

But theory is one thing, and execution another.  On paper, the handsome Keanu Reeves (who is Eurasian) is well cast as Klaatu, but he was either misguided by his director or simply misinterpreted his part, resulting in a detached and monotonous performance, though you can’t blame him for being asked to deliver such a routine dialogue.

 

What has happened to Jennifer Connelly  Ever since she has won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” in 2001, she has not given one decent performance (Remember “Blood Diamond, ” “Little Children”).  Essaying the role that the young Patricia Neal had played with great humanity and conviction in the 1951 film, Connelly lacks chemistry or even basic rapport with co-star Reeves; it sometimes feels as if they belong to two different movies.

Derrickson has previously helmed the proficiently made horror-thriller flick, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which found an audience.  And he brings similar thriller elements to his new film.  Occasionally, there’s a sense of danger about Klaatu as a character, because we are not sure what he’s going to do next, or how far he’s going to take things.

 

To their credit, the filmmakers have used CGI visual effects in a way that supports, but doesn’t overwhelm the narrative.  However, they don’t succeed in conveying a sense of wonderment, of awe, of danger about the possibilities (and threats) that the universe and the future hold.

 At the end of this film, you wonder what was the urgency of remaking a classic that’s much cherished by scholars and revisited by viewers today.

I have no doubts that Derrickson’s version will receive mostly negative reviews and that it will quickly die at the box-office after its opening weekend.

Cast

Klaatu – Keanu Reeves
Helen Benson – Jennifer Connelly
Regina Jackson – Kathy Bates
Jacob Benson – Jaden Smith
Professor Barnhardt – John Cleese
Michael Granier – Jon Hamm
John Driscoll – Kyle Chandler
Colonel – Robert Knepper
Mr. Wu – James Hong
Dr. Myron – John Rothman
Target Tech – Brandon T. Jackson

Credits

A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with Dune Entertainment III, of a 3 Arts Entertainment production. Produced by Gregory Goodman, Paul Harris Boardman. Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Screenplay, David Scarpa, based on the screenplay by Edmund H. North.
Camera: David Tattersall.
Editor, Wayne Wahrman; music, Tyler Bates; production designer, David Brisbin; supervising art director, Don Macaulay; set designers, Peter Ochotta, David Clarke, Sheila Millar; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), David Husby; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Dane A. Davis; visual effects supervisor, Jeffrey A. Okun; visual effects & animation, WETA Digital; visual effects, Flash Film Works, Cinesite (Europe), Cos FX Films, Hydraulx [hy*drau”lx], Digital Dimension; special effects coordinator, Tony Lazarowich; special makeup effects and practical creature effects, Mastersfx, Todd Masters; stunt coordinators, J.J. Makaro, Steve Davison; assistant director, Pete Whyte; second unit director, Jeff Habberstad; second unit camera, Thomas Yatsko; New York unit camera, Phil Pastuhov; casting, Mindy Marin, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 102 Minutes.