December 29, 2008

Movie Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

thedaytheearthstoodstill3_largeIn 1940 Harry Bates published a short story called Farewell to the Master. It told the story of an alien visitor to Earth who is seriously wounded through an unfortunate misunderstanding. The story follows attempts by the visitor's guardian to bring the alien back. It is an interesting story that does not play out in the expected fashion. It was such an interesting tale that it became the seed for what would become The Day the Earth Stood Still, a feature film directed by Robert Wise and released in 1951. That film has stood the test of time as a classic tale keying in on the fears of the threat of nuclear war of the time, yet still feels relevant today. Now we are face to face with a new take on the classic tale and the big question is whether or not it stands up to what has come before. The short answer is no, it does not, not by a long shot.

thedaytheearthstoodstillpic5I have long been someone who would never write off a remake out of hand. Why should I? Sure, lately they have been, more or less, studio cash grabs banking on name recognition or trading on cult status, or Americanizing foreign language titles, and very rarely for the sake of art or any need for an update. Wow, putting it that way sort of puts it in a different perspective. Still, you never know when you may get another Thing, The Ring, The Departed, or The Maltese Falcon.

However, when this was announced I was a little apprehensive, but hopeful. The story seems open enough to allow an updating to be relevant in today's world. So off I went, into the cold darkness of the theater hoping for the best while expecting, well, something less than the best. It appears that during the update process, screenwriter David Scarpa (The Last Castle) forgot to inject any real meaning into it. Yes, there is an attempt to lecture the audience on being better people but it is not put into context within the film that holds any water. On top of that, this tale takes itself so seriously that the plot seems to tread water, change the titular Earth to Plot and you may have had a better title. There is no sense of wonder or joy in this movie. The original had the child character looking at the world with fresh eyes, helping give Klaatu some perspective on the world. This time around it is more sermonizing without any type of wonder or forward motion (and no, I do not count all the running as forward motion).

thedaytheearthstoodstillpic1This version of the story implies that the aliens have been coming to Earth for years and have been among us for quite some time, studying and watching. I am reminded of Spielberg's update of The War of the Worlds (an infinitely better film) that featured aliens that have been here longer than anyone realized, evidenced by an elderly Chinese man who turns out to be an alien living among us for the past 70-years. However, it is not until now that they have revealed themselves, or rather himself. A glowing orb (no longer a saucer) arrives in Central Park and a man emerges, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), along with a large synthetic being that the military dubs G.O.R.T. (no longer a pre-existing name used by Klaatu).

To help try to figure out the nature of the orb and the beings it transports the military collects a number of doctors and scientists including Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Helen realizes something is up and flees with the blank slate that is Keanu, I mean Klaatu. They are pursued by the military as other orbs appear around the world. Klaatu explains that there are few worlds capable of supporting life and the way humanity is heading, well people cannot be allowed to destroy one of them.

thedaytheearthstoodstillpic11Klaatu's mission is different in 2008 than it was in 1951, rather than delivering a warning, he is here to deliver an ultimatum that cannot possibly be reached. It is up to Helen and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) to convince Klaatu otherwise and call of the hit on humanity. Would you like one guess as to what happens? It involves Bach and the love of a stepmother for her stepson. You know, everything can be healed by love.

The whole thing rings hollow. None of the characters appear to possess any real intelligence,a t least not when judging them based on David Scarpa's dialogue. Klaatu seems more than willing to go forward with the destruction of humanity, and while it does prove to be a neat visual effect, what happens if a mind is changed? Will the human race be able to recover from such destruction on a worldwide scale? Not to mention the loss of life that must have already occurred. So it goes when the film wants to make a message at the expense of story, generally resulting in neither one delivering on its intended goal.

While the story is not up to snuff, the film is not incompetently made. The effects generally look like effects, but they do their job. The performances are generally adequate, although Kathy Bates' Secretary of Defense seems mightily out of place. Jennifer Connelly turns in a decent performance, she can carry so much emotion in a single expression that she, more often than not, puts the entire emotional burden on her back. Then there is Keanu, legendary for his wooden acting. Here his performing style is put to fine use, although it may be a bit more detached than usual, even for him.

Bottomline. Well made does not equal good. The tech side is fine, but this is not a good movie. The cause can be primarily attributed to a script that forgot to give its characters brains and forgot to marry a message with a plot. Fortunately, the 1951 film is still there to be enjoyed.

Not Recommended.


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