Sunday, December 14, 2008

REVIEW: The Day the Earth Stood Still

This poorly considered remake starring Keanu Reeves should be re-titled "How to Fuck up a Classic". Sorry, but it's true. How bad is it? Well, try this on for size: The reviews are so nearly universally bad that it scores lower than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes on

So, we can take it as a non-debatable "given" that TDTESS sucks. The bigger question is why? Well, I think it's pretty damned clear. Nobody involved in the remake had the slightest understanding about what made the original a classic. They didn't understand the plot; they didn't understand the message; they didn't understand the characterization. They completely failed to grasp the slightest concept that made the original memorable.

Let's start with the characters. In the original Michael Rennie's Klaatu was thoroughly human, despite the fact that he was from outer space. He was warm, engaging; he had a sense of humor. We could easily identify with him, and through his eyes we could see ourselves in a new light, with all of our inconsistencies, petty fears, and superstitions exposed. (There are other themes revolving around Klaatu's use of the name "Carpenter", his resurrection, and the saving of humanity, which give the classic enough levels of profound meaning to keep a college philosophy class busy for weeks.) Keanu Reeves' Klaatu could have been played as ably by a cigar-store Indian. He has no depth, no subtlety, no humanity. Reeve tried so hard to be otherworldly that he and his opinions of us lost relevence. Who cares what a frackin' robot thinks?

In the original, Mrs. Benson and her son are simply ordinary people that Klaatu encounters as he's studying humanity. Why is this important? Because Mrs. Benson is not some scientist who is so thoroughly non-representative that even an alien would discount her presense, much less her claims for humanity. She and Bobby are humanity... a mother and child: caring, sensitive, inquisitive people by whom Klaatu can measure our species. How fortunate we are that he meets thm first! What a shame that the remake re-casts her as an "important" -- and therefore irrelevant -- personage.

The original's Professor Barnhardt is not awed or cowed by the presense of Klaatu. He doesn't beg for humanity. He looks Klaatu in the face as a fellow being equal in spirit, if technologically backward. In every case, the new production screws up the characterization. Hell, if I were Klaatu and were faced with this new lot of whiners, I doubt I could find a reason to save them.

And that brings us to the message. In the original, Klaatu's people couldn't give a rat's fart whether or not humanity survives on our own world. But at the time of the original movie nuclear weaponry was new and we held high hopes for our eventual colonization of space. It is the thought that we might take our violence off of this planet that gives Klaatu's people pause. They are acting to forestall a danger to themselves. Klaatu himself is a good person, and is merely delivering the message in an effective way that will get our attention while not violating his own code of non-violence. He is thoroughly genuine. And this is a message that is still appropriate in a world dominated by terrorism and anti-terrorism, nascent nuclear states and rogue nuclear powers... a world which only recently announced a renewed push to establish a base on the Moon and a human foothold on Mars.

By contrast, the new Klaatu is a hypocritical bastard that would calmly commit genocide to save "the planet". News flash to all pseudo-intellectual Al Gore wannabes that made or (God forbid!) like this movie: if we all die off, "the planet" continues. If we screw up the biosphere as much as we possibly can, then life on this ball will continue. This planet has already experienced repeated global ecocide (notably, the Permian Extinction wiped out 90-95% of all life 251 million years ago). Guess what? Life continued. There is no impact upon Klaatu's people, not even a philosophical one, even if we completely and totally screw up. As such, Klaatu's whole mission is pointless in the remake. Why should Klaatu prefer our existing species of Blue Spruce to the plant species that would succeed them when we kill ourselves off? Why should he prefer ANY species to the only intelligent one on the planet? The only possible answers to this do not do the aliens credit.

Take this exchange from the remake: the Secretary of Defense asks Klaatu, "Why have you come to our planet?" Klaatu responds, "YOUR planet?"

Well, YES. Our planet, you bug-f*cker. Who do you think it belongs to? Us, or some gussied up space-monkey who shows up to demand that we live our lives in accordance with his alien design? As you can see, the new Klaatu's motives don't pass the sniff test. He's not authentic. He's not genuine. He's not believable in any fashion. He's not a savior, he's a usurper. (To the Liberals out there: he's George Bush in Iraq.) In the original, Klaatu warns us of the consequenses of our own actions: he's there to give us fair warning. In the remake he "saves" us from a trumped-up "danger" of his own making. That's not salvation! Should a gunman be credited with "saving your life" if he decides not to administer a killing shot after he's wounded you? It's a stupid concept at its very core, yet it's the same stupid concept that Reeves & Co. think script-worthy.

There's more. I could go on about the top-heavy special effects (the original had few because they weren't needed to drive the story). I could point out that dozens of giant spheres and gargantuan robots that noisily and sloppily destroy the world (hypocritically causing great ecological stress) aren't nearly as impressive as one saucer that can do the same job quietly and efficiently. And what's the point of Dr. Wu? I could point out more, but by now you get the point. In trying to be "different", largely due to the academic ineptitude of the filmakers, the remake turns all of the original's themes on their heads. The result isn't a new and fresh update of a classic; it's an anti-classic that deserves its 22 on the Tomatometer.

We see this all the time from Hollywood. For instance, we saw it with Tom Cruise's War of the Worlds. It scores 73% on the Tomatometer, whereas the 1955 version with Gene Barry scores a more respectable 85%, the same as the 1951 version of TDTESS. Neither film is terribly true to the book, but the 1955 version at least has the excuse that the special effects describe weren't really achievable in its day. Tom Cruise doesn't even have that excuse, and his movie scores 12% lower. If you want to see WOTW achieve a better rating? Set it in Victorian England. Follow the damned book. Give us some real Tripods, and sink the bloody Thunder Child with a Heat Ray. Leave the kids and the comic relief at home. Hollywood says it would never work. I say how could you possibly know? In the last hundred years you've never tried it. Sadly, WOTW has been done wrong so many times that even a genuine masterpiece of a film would seem cliched.

All is not lost for The Day the Earth Stood Still, though. The best possible use for this abyssmal, disastrous turkey of a movie is to use it as a launching pad for a kick-ass sequel. Here's a premise: The Day the Stars Trembled. For years, in fear of our lives, we've been bicycling to work and conscientiously composting our banana peels under the watchful eye of the the GORT on each corner. Publicly we're all smiles and say "Yes, massah!" to our alien robot overlords... I mean "protectors". In the meantime there's been a massive underground movement to study, adapt, and improve upon the alien technologies. Now it's been 200 years and it's time to take our planet back. In the course of exposition, all of the eco-plot flaws of the original are exposed, and our heroes, having subdued and captured one of the aliens during the planet-wide melee, puts it to him directly: "What are you REALLY afraid of?" To which the alien answers, "Of all the animal species in all the known Galaxy, human beings are the only ones who bare their fangs when they're happy."