Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Recent Watches: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

There was a time in the eighties when a number of respected directors remade classic science-fiction films from their childhoods. This is how we got John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” among others. Many of these were considered untouchable classics yet now, their remakes are equally well-regarded. Yet at no point did someone attempt to remake “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” proving some things truly are untouchable. Eventually though, Hollywood would realize the value of a recognizable name and try to cash in. A remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” rolled out in 2008, a very different era for science fiction and special effects.

Helen Benson, a highly regarded micro-biologist, is summoned by the government among with the other brightest minds of our generation. They are informed that a massive astral object is headed towards Earth and will strike New York City in a few hours. When the object arrives, it slows down and lands. A massive sphere stands in Central Park. A man emerges, shot by a nervous soldier. Soon, the visitor sheds his organic space suit and reveals his identity. His name is Klaatu and he has an important message for mankind. The government detains him, forcing the alien to escape. He teams up with Helen and they go on the road, determined to return Klaatu to his ship. Meanwhile, the military attempts to harvest Gort, the giant robot protecting the ship, with disastrous results.

Here’s the good news: 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is not an abomination. Here’s the bad news: It’s not a worthy successor to the original either. Instead, it’s overwhelmingly okay. The story is updated to modern times. The government is more aggressive in detaining Klaatu, making the alien more aggressive in response. The Christ metaphor is dropped entirely. Instead of hiding in a tenant building, Klaatu goes on the road. (This is smart as, in our post-Patriot Act world, it’s unlikely Klaatu could remain undetected while in one place.) The general outline of the plot isn’t too changed though. Klaatu still encounters a scientist, helping him solve his unsolvable equation. He still develops a relationship with Helen’s son, now a step-son from her deceased husband’s first marriage.

The remake really hammers home that last point. 2008’s Klaatu lacks the humanity of 1951’s Klaatu. Instead, the remake is largely about him learning the value of human life. He pauses at the beauty of Mozart’s music. While visiting the boy’s grave, Klaatu is moved to understanding. Instead of being a humanist drama about the good inside everyone, 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” features a cheesy subplot about a little kid teaching an alien to love.

Slow paced, thoughtful sci-fi wasn’t much in vogue in 2008. In order to match its big budget, much of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is transformed into a standard disaster flick. Gort has been given a size boost, though the design stays basically the same. Instead of just encasing him in a super-plastic, the robot is taken into custody. When threatened, Gort dissolves into a storm of nano-bots who proceed to decimate the world, breaking down our cities and structures. The hyped up destruction ties into the movie’s revised plot. Perhaps a message of nuclear disarmament wouldn’t resonate as much in 2008. Instead, Klaatu is punishing man for his mistreatment of the planet. Okay, so global warming and the abuse of the planet is a valid concern. However, this – when paired with the beefed up destruction – essentially turns “The Day the Earth Stood Still” into a standard, ecological disaster movie.

Despite putting a less interesting spin on the material, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has one or two clever moments. Klaatu’s iconic space suit is now a fleshy, bio-mechanical creation. It later slips away like fish scales. As I said, the remake is smart enough to mostly maintain Gort’s iconic design. I miss the flying saucer but the giant, shimmering orb isn’t too bad either. As for the cast, there’s some interesting moments there. Jennifer Connelly, like she always does, gives a very committed performance. Though the subplot with the boy is fairly trite, Connelly at least attempts to invest the movie with some emotions. Though Jaden Smith has become a blight on the world, he’s actually okay here. What about Keanu Reeves? When utilized well, Reeves’ limited range isn’t a problem. Playing an emotionless alien feeds into his worst tendencies as an actor. Keanu’s Klaatu is flat and overly blunt. Among the supporting cast are some notable names, like a decently bitchy Kathy Bates, a typically eccentric John Cleese, and an underutilized Jon Hamm. Hamm probably would have been way better as Klaatu but I guess he wasn’t a big enough star in 2008.

The remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” stays just on the right side of a bad remake. It doesn’t miss the point of the original because it’s approaching the material from a totally different angle. However, that other angle makes the film into a generic modern day genre flick. The remake did alright business internationally but didn’t make much of an impression at home. By and large, it’s already been forgotten. In ten years, the original is the version people will still be reaching for. [5/10]

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