There is a saying that bigger is not always better. I can think of few movies where that is more applicable to than the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. With its 1951 forerunner, there was a certain charm to its campiness and simplicity. Premiering as the Cold War was still relatively new, its message of peace with the threat of nuclear war looming between the United States and the Soviet Union was refreshing. Surely, this is not simply a case of being jaded by all the events since that gave me a distaste for the new version. I am also puzzled as to why anyone thought an updated version of this somewhat hokey science fiction classic was needed or wanted. As I mentioned yesterday, people who are really into cinema can readily identify the trademark phrase from the original, “Klaatu barada nikto.” I have a feeling that, for whatever reason, the cult following of the movie where that line is first said included whoever it was that was responsible for this new one. And then, incomprehensibly, not once are those words uttered.
There is more that is incomprehensible about the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it begins almost immediately. If you are familiar with the first, you will note that the second opens with the same starry background. This time, instead of cutting to the alien spacecraft landing in Washington DC, we see a person, the future Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), on a snow swept mountainside somewhere in 1928. Huh? Crawling from his tent, he makes his way a little further up the slope and encounters a white glowing orb. Like a curious teenager, he begins poking at it with his ice pick, an act which renders him unconscious. And . . . scene. Okay. . . . It next shifts to modern times and one Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) teaching a college class about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We also see space people tracking an object in the depths of our solar system that is making its way towards Earth. At first, they believe that it is a meteorite and that its collision will destroy the planet. However, as it nears it slows and lands gently in Central Park in New York City. Instead of the cheesy looking flying saucer of its predecessor, this is another glowing orb like we see in the first couple minutes but immensely bigger. Dr. Benson, along with a team of other scientists and soldiers, arrive at the landing site soon after, and in time to witness Gort (much taller this time, and a computer-generated image (CGI)) emerge. It stops as another being steps out of the orb, which is promptly shot be a nervous Nellie member of the armed forces just as it was about to make contact with Dr. Benson. This, of course, prompts Gort to begin destroying various arms and armaments gathered before it, but it is stayed by the embryonic Klaatu. I say “embryonic” because its space suit is some kind of sack that allows it to be “born” on Earth and thus human in appearance when it fully develops. As with the original, a representative from the government, Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), arrives at the facility where Klaatu is taken in order to ascertain the visitor’s intentions. This time, though, Klaatu has special alien powers, for some reason, that allow him to escape the facility after Jackson refuses to take him to her leader. Hey, that was literally said in the 1951 version! Anyway, because Klaatu had made eye contact with Dr. Benson, she decides to help him get away. She takes him, along with her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), to meet Mr. Wu (James Hong), another alien who had been hanging out on Earth for some time, apparently. It is in these scenes that we learn what is in store for the world. Again, similar to aspects of its predecessor, civilizations from beyond the stars have been observing Earth. Unlike the first, this time they have decided that humans and all we have built are the problem, and the aliens have come to obliterate it in total. In his best Noah impression (the film makes the connection too), Klaatu finds one of the other orbs, touches it, and they begin collecting animal species from around the globe. This does not seem to take long, for shortly thereafter Gort (who the military had inexplicably transported to a bunker) disintegrates into a swarm of ravenous robot bugs that are there to consume, well, everything, people included. What saves the day is the so-called bond that Klaatu develops with Dr. Benson, and he manages to stop the process . . . but not before a wide swath of destruction is wrought on the United States. Oh well, I guess.
You would think with the kind of all-star cast they collected for 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and the amount of effort they put into the CGI that they would have come up with a better offering than this malarkey. There was a lot happening in general, and most of it I found baffling. However, the aspect that I found most perplexing was Klaatu. In the original, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) acted like an alien, but was generally warm-hearted. The Keanu Reeves Klaatu was cold, even after he spent a great deal of time with Dr. Benson and her step-son. Up until the closing moments of the film, Klaatu seems content to let everyone on the planet die, including the Bensons. It was only when Jacob showed his father’s gravesite to Klaatu that the visitor from another galaxy relents. Even then he does not drop his robotic demeanor. Further, I am not entirely sure how he was able to stop the end of the world. All the way up to the climactic moment, he remained noncommittal as to his ability to put a halt to the apocalypse. Yet, because he is also apparently magical, he gets to his sphere, touches it, and is able to call off the swarm.
Speaking of the end of the world, I described Klaatu earlier as a sort of Noah, at least in how one of his missions in this version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is to collect animal specimens. I also mentioned how in the film itself, Jackson is the one who makes the comparison to the Biblical ark containing all the creatures. And what comes next? Why, the flood, what else? So, does that make the miniature bugs that inundation? Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to make the parallel between their movie and Noah obvious? After all, the flood in the Bible and the hungry robot bugs were both meant to cleanse the Earth. Please understand that none of this makes the movie good. The Scripture version comes as the result of man’s apostasy from God. The film one, while not completed, is because aliens think humans are dumb. And they are not God, no matter what they are able to do.
Sometimes remakes can be pretty good. This is especially true for science fiction pieces. A new director comes along and they are able to give some classic a fresh perspective. Also, computer graphics have gotten to the point where the lines between what is real and what is false are more blurred with each passing year. This is not the case for 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Pass.