By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Considering “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I am transported back to Dr. Halberstodt’s “Reviewing Remakes” course at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College, 1968. “Beware your prejudice,” he warned in his Viennese accent. “If blessed with a long career, you will see a favorite film remade two or three times. But for the new generation, it is the first time.”
Thus, exercising due tolerance, it turns out the one remake I most dreaded the prospect of ever reviewing is not so terrible after all. Instead of screaming sacrilege, I am inclined to note that, while nowhere near as accomplished as the 1951 classic, director Scott Derrickson’s rendition entertainingly disseminates its cautionary message.
Whereas the dire admonition of the original alien emissary, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), concerned the Cold War and our possible nuclear annihilation, with this go-round global warming is the sin that’s prompted the spaceman’s visit. Another difference, this Klaatu, moodily emoted by Keanu Reeves, is hardly the optimistic mensch his predecessor was.
Of course we Earthlings aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy with welcome. So, as is usually the case in science fiction films dealing with interplanetary visitors, we try to kill him. That failing, we’re content to capture the being. Leading the exercise in paranoia is Kathy Bates as Regina Jackson, the pushiest secretary of state you’re ever liable to see…maybe.
But while the reactionary Madame Secretary rants about what happens to the less intelligent civilization when world’s collide, Klaatu gains an ally from among the scientists that have been gathered. She is super biologist Dr. Helen Benson, played by Jennifer Connelly. After a flourish of Houdini-like derring-do, it’s two for the road.
Motivated by scientific curiosity, sheer humanitarianism and just maybe a little something else, Dr. Benson is a quick study. So the gal is a bit taken aback when she at last figures out the E.T.’s plan. The ensuing dialogue about the good and the bad, the Yin and Yang of the human species, has its fascination.
Racing against the clock, the army in hot pursuit, Helen makes like Daniel Webster in his disputation with the Devil. And just to add a bit more stress to the scenario, stepson Jacob, portrayed by Jaden Smith, has by now come along for the ride. An adversarial little tyke, just why he’s become that way forms the film’s rather unnecessary subtext.
OK, so the first movie had a kid. But he was important to the story. While young Smith is touching, other reincarnations are more gratifying. Like John Cleese’s revival of Professor Barnhardt as yet another someone who might grok Klaatu’s meaning. The dueling blackboard equation scene, though by now a cliché, is nonetheless winning.
While belabored comparisons are as unfair to remakes as they are to second wives, it is nevertheless crucial to also note here the differences in technique. Mr. Derrickson pulls out all CGI stops and throws every cutting edge switch. You expect no less from what is essentially a contemporary action flick. Anticipate the usual tension and rigmarole.
But it was the simplicity of filmmaker Robert Wise’s master copy that made it such a watershed effort. Sci-fi was the stepchild of literature, and more often than not the films fashioned from its metaphor-rich pages were wrought as B efforts…quick moneymakers cobbled together at little expense. Yet in this case the stars aligned to defy the stereotype.
Its style and purpose wove together seamlessly, not unlike the purity of construct manifested in the omnipotent robot that accompanies Klaatu to Earth. Working on an array of emotions, its poignant and artistically nuanced message grew dramatically self-evident. Yes, the new permutation makes its point, but with a lot more moving parts.
Yet in all fairness, judged as a product of its times, take two of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is careful to keep the heresy at a minimum. A direct copy, like Gus Van Sant’s 1998, shot-for-shot, color photostat of “Psycho” (1960), while of moderate academic interest, would have resulted in a far more controversial enterprise.
The actors here manage to acquit themselves nicely despite the competing light and laser show. Tied down and hooked up to a lie detector, when Keanu Reeves’s uber-stoical space invader answers a question with, “You should let me go,” there’s no mistaking that this dude is holding all the cards. Miss Connelly is empathetic as Mother Earth defender.
But in conclusion I defer to the six boys a few rows in front of me at the Rialto. Proof of Dr. Halberstodt’s wisdom, they watched with rapt attention. ‘Twas their world’s survival at stake, not 1951’s. Sure, I hoped they would at some time see the original. But for now, it’s enough that this “The Day the Earth Stood Still” might move them to see the light.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation release directed by Scott Derrickson and stars Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith. Running time: 103 minutes
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