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

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Review #714 of 365
Movie Review of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) [PG-13] 103 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $12.00
Where Viewed: United Artists Colorado Center 9 & IMAX, Denver, CO
When Seen: 12 December 2008 @ 12:01 am
DVD Release Date: Unscheduled (please check back)
After the Credits: Nothing
Unsung Member of the Crew: Molecular Animations -- Drew Berry

Soundtrack: Download now from The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra - Bernard Herrmann - The Essential Film Music Collection - or - order the CD below

Directed by: Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose )
Screenplay by: David Scarba (The Last Castle) • Edmund H. North (1951 screenplay) (Meteor)

Based on the Novella The Day the Earth Stood Still by Harry Bates

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Keanu Reeves (Street Kings) • Jennifer Connelly (Reservation Road) • Kathy Bates (P.S., I Love You) • Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) • John Cleese (Igor) • Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") • Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights")

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Honestly, I thought it was a brilliant idea to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original chilling sci-fi film from 1951 expressed themes that seem all the more relevant today. The basics of that film were that an alien named Klaatu lands in Washington, D.C. protected by a giant robot named Gort. No sooner does he emerge from the ship bearing a gift of peace is he shot by a trigger-happy soldier. His mission is to warn all earthlings that if they attempt to expand their war-like ways beyond the earth, they shall meet with universal opposition and watch as their planet is reduced to cinders—the irony being, of course, that we were just then in 1951 fully capable of reducing our planet to cinders without any outside help. The world to day is still run by war mongers—at least until 20 Jan 2008—but we face increasing doom from our own negligence in respecting the planet—sorry to say. So, it seemed that an update, no doubt better effects (who can forget the strings visibly holding up Patricia Neal as Gort carries her into the ship in the original); and, perhaps, more depth to the story would make for an awesome movie. Unfortunately, there were some very bad and disappointing choices made by screenwriter David Scarba that turn the film into an ominous but unfulfilling film rather than the wake-up call reminder that it should have. If the original was supposed to be 'strike one' then this film should have been 'strike two' realizing there would be no more chances. The film does deliver the second strike, but it's process and ending are so meandering as to make one weary and eager for it to be over rather than providing greater clarity and insight.

To begin, and the ending won't be given away except in the spoiler, the film starts off with references to alien visitors in the past a miraculous glowing orb in the mountains of India. Then it quickly turns to the arrival of a fast moving asteroid heading straight toward Manhattan and a ridiculous collection of scientists and other people essential for handling the consequences of an asteroid collision. Among these is Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astro biologist with a step-son named Jacob (Jaden Smith). She's all emotional as only Jennifer Connelly can be, about leaving her son who's nothing but horrid to her with a neighbor as she's whisked off to some secret government lair. After much consideration, the intelligence of the group places themselves on a helicopter outside Manhattan awaiting the impact. But the impact never happens. The asteroid turns out to be a gigantic glowing sphere—a remarkable special effect achievement in and of itself and a far cry from the silver saucer of the original film. They land, gear up, and approach the sphere.

The best things about the film are the special effects, the plan for earth, Gort, and the performance by Keanu Reeves.
A being emerges and is quickly shot, just as in the original—proving that our movie military has learned nothing from the original. No sooner is he shot than the giant Gort emerges—this time a CGI character roughly 5 times bigger than the original and far more stacked. This Gort takes to shutting down all weaponry and eliminating threats. The being is taken to the secret lair and there a physician removes his outer casing that they suspect is a placental living space suit—pretty ingenious idea I thought. DNA sample reveals him to be of human DNA. The Secretary of Defense, Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) is briefed as to their findings, all the while, the developing being is maturing into an adult at warp speed. She wants to see him and discovers he speaks English—of course, don't all aliens?. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is having trouble adjusting to this body. Their conversation boils down to him hoping to have a discussion with all the world leaders about his visit, she wanting to know why he came to our planet, him observing, "Your planet?", and her then deciding he's a threat and needs to be sedated and moved to a more secure area for questioning. This turns out to be a bad plan for Helen pretends to inject him with sedative and he eventually escapes from the lie detector interrogation room using his power of electrical forces. When the two are re-united, he finally explains that "If the earth dies, you [humans] die, if you [humans] die, the earth survives." In a nutshell the purpose of his visit is revealed and then confirmed by an alien who's been living on earth for 70 years.

Ok, so after that, the film involves figuring out how he plans to save the earth, and then watching him execute his plan all the while the terrible little boy, Jacob, does everything thing he can to prove that we humans don't deserve a second chance. And that, my feeling is, represents the first fundamental difference between the two films, and one of this version's fatal flaws. In the original, Bobby Benson (Billy Gray), Helen's son, is the character that gives Klaatu hope for humans by treating him so kindly and spending quality time with him—to the point of raising the suspicion of Helen's (Patricia Neal) boyfriend as to what might be Klaatu's motives with her son. But this is 2008, and apparently little kids are jaded warmongers just like their governments. This kid literally goes out of his way to do everything he can to get Klaatu killed—something he says he wishes for on more than one occasion. Why the xenophobia in an 11 year old? He's supposedly bitter because he dad was killed in the war in Iraq abandoning him with this scientist of a step mom. The character is terrible and totally unrealistic. Moreover, he has an instantaneous change of heart ¾ of the way through the film that's a baffling as the character is incongruous. It's not nice to criticize a child actor, but it's very doubtful this kid would get roles were it not for his famous parents Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Suffice it to say, he could benefit from 10 years of acting classes. He's got the hair of Shirley Temple and the gumption of Jodie Foster, but 0% of their acting instincts. In contrast, compare his work in this to similarly aged Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel-Osment. To be fair, both of the latter two had far deeper résumés than young Jaden Smith by the time they did their first major motion pictures. But, again, his character and his performance make the first major difference and weakness of the film especially when compared to the original—ironic, but true.

The second major difference between the two films is that in the original, Klaatu uses his time among humans with the Bensons to get to know humans better. In the remake, directed by Scott Derrickson, Klaatu uses his time mostly to engage his plans. The plans, actually, make up for a larger portion of this film than the original that focused on the plans only at the very end. This causes a disconnection that's hard to rectify later, but they try it anyway. The connection / relationship between Helen and Klaatu in the original seems to evolve more organically out of his relationship with Bobby, whereas here it's like she's been pining away for an alien all her life and will do anything for the one that has suddenly and inexplicably dropped into her lap. In the original, Klaatu meets up with Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) based on his ability to solve an equation that's been bother him for months. The same occurs in the remake except that in the original, Barnhardt then arranges for Klaatu to meet with the world's scientific leaders (the politicians are fighting the cold war and won't attend); while in the remake, no such thing occurs. Guess why? I'll give you a hint. He's addicted to tv and video games, has adorable mop-top hair, and wants Klaatu dead. That's right, Jacob calls the 1-800 number on the tv and reveals their location. Bad idea for him, it ends up getting his step mom captured.

Kathy Bates is particularly wasted in her role as the Secretary of Defense. Had I written it, I would have simply made her the President. But that's not all I would have done. I would have stuck more clearly to the original text but added in the excellent concepts they developed for what's going to happen to the earth. I would have made her anxious to develop a relationship with Klaatu, but had her warmongering cabinet secretaries find her incompetent and have her sedated and taken to a remote location. I would have then enjoined her and Dr. Benson work together to convince Klaatu, along with a much more curious little boy (like the original), to stop the plan. Meanwhile, I would have ended the film with a speech similar to the original that would have served to put the icing on the cake.

The best things about the film are the special effects, the plan for earth, Gort, and the performance by, believe it or not haters, Keanu Reeves. This is the kind of role he can play in his sleep he does it so well. He has absolutely no trouble playing an alien in an alien body. He's nearly emotionless most of the time, yet you can see he wants to show them, but hasn't learned yet how. Jennifer Connelly's not so bad herself. The character's got some issues, but that's not her fault. There's interesting chemistry between the two, but a more coherent middle section of the plot might have allowed for this to develop a bit more completely. Finally, the ending is nearly as anti-climatic as Cloverfield.

… unfinished, poorly developed in spots, and diverted too much from the original without adding in its place.
The wind falls out of the sails and it's unclear that any lessons will have been learned. This is the biggest disappointment of the film. What we need right now is a true and bonafide wake-up call. In the film, Professor Barnhardt claims that human beings never change until they are forced to by dire consequences. The irony of both this film and the original being that we seem to be working inexorably toward our own assured mutual destruction, and we don't need outside forces to take care of it or speed it up. The question is why? [Note: political diatribe you may wish to skip…Why are we doing this? Why do we have forces in our population who deny global warming? What is their goal? Why do we have corrupt politicians willing to sell their political power? Why do we have CEOs of companies taking salaries 100 times larger than their lowest level workers, while flying around for free in their corporate jet, getting free trips, and so on? Why do we have companies dumping their pollution in to the air, ground, and water? Why do we have people who fight universal health care? Why do we have people who think it's fine to hunt wolves from helicopters holding public office in our nation? Why are there people who think it's fine to kill anything for sport in the first place? Why do we have people who steal and batter and murder? Why do we have companies profiting off substances they legally sell that cause: lung cancer, liver damage, drunken driving accidents, emphysema, and so on?] The answer could either be our doom or our awakening.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) disappoints based on its potential and promise. It's unfinished, poorly developed in spots, and diverted too much from the original without adding in its place. As a tool to convey a message, it certainly could have been more effective with a stronger, more pointed ending.

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Cast Members
Keanu ReevesJennifer ConnellyKathy Bates
Jaden SmithJohn CleeseJon Hamm
Kyle Chandler
Scott Derrickson
David ScarbaEdmund H. North (1951 screenplay)

Review-lite The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) [max of 150 words]
Diverting too much from the plot of the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Scott Derrickson-directed remake features Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, an alien being sent to earth on a mission to save it…from us…and finds himself torn about his task by the kindly ways of Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Jaden Smith plays her son and serves as the touchstone for all that's wrong with the world—bad character, weak performance (not to pick on the kid too much). The ending, however, is the really weak link as it fails to provide closure on the intended message.

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