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When Remakes are Repugnant: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

There's a good movie buried deep underneath this awful remake. Unfortunately, it's just the original.

ImageIf there’s one thing that modern Hollywood does more efficiently than anything else, it’s paring down complex moral dilemmas into easily consumed absolutes. Why agonize over the multi-layered shades of gray that color nearly every human interaction, when we can just throw some mood music and effects on a scene that conveniently tells the audience what to feel? In this way, even supposedly high-concept “message” movies can evoke emotion without once forcing the viewer into the inconvenience of having to think about what they just saw. Movies that are made like this can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you love again. But unfortunately, they are also all fucking terrible.

The recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a sterling example of this.

The story kicks into high gear right from the start. The U.S. Government gathers together a crack team of the world’s most brilliant scientists, including astro-biologist Jennifer Connelly (if this sounds absurd to you, then remind yourself that it’s still a million times more believable than her co-star as a nuclear physicist). They are told that a celestial body moving impossibly fast is due to crash into New York City imminently. A giant sphere touches down, and an alien emerges named Keanu (his name was actually something like Klatu…but I can’t bring myself to research this thing).  The military responds appropriately by shooting it immediately, and the next fifteen minutes go by exactly as you knew it would: Keanu is operated on and interrogated, yet it turns out that HE was the one in control the whole time! Keanu escapes, and convinces Connelly to guide him through the city on a mission of undetermined purpose, along with her son Jaden (Son of Wiil) Smith (more on this later).

As the world comes to grip with the sudden appearance of alien spheres all over the world, along with the disappearance of the actual sentient alien they once had in their custody, Connelly eventually learns the chilling truth of Keanu’s mission: he might be a friend to the Earth…but he is a mortal enemy of mankind. Humans have all-but destroyed the planet with their greedy and selfish ways. With only a handful of planets in the cosmos that can support life, Keanu’s race cannot allow this destruction to continue. Thus, they have come to wipe out man, so that the Earth can survive.  Can Connelly convince him that people are worth saving before all is lost?

Before I get into the myriad ways this movie is terrible, let me first spend a few words discussing the cast…specifically the choice for the tertiary lead character.  It was a wise choice for Keanu Reeves’ agent to have him take a role that calls for wooden detachment, so I’ll give him a rider here. I’ll even allow that Jennifer Connelly – as talented and pretty as she is – might not be getting as many offers as she once did, and I confess that she pulls off her role with at least marginal credibility. But it’s the casting of Jaden Smith as Connelly’s son that really gets my goat. First of all, in order to justify this pairing, an entire scene is inserted into the movie, where Connelly explains to Keanu (because he asks, of course) that the boy’s original mother died when he was a baby, she (Connelly) married the boy’s father a few years ago, and he (the father) was killed last year. If you imagine that such a storyline must come back into play later…then you’d be mistaken. Second of all, with so many actors out there desperate for a big break, why give a role to a movie star’s kid? The only reason for these things, as far as I can see, was that the role was given to him as a way to suck up to his dad. Third of all, I can’t tell if it was the boy or the material from which he worked…but this was easily the worst and most poorly conceived character in the entire movie. He spends the entire movie pouting and defying his mother, actions that at one point lead directly to said mother getting abducted by the authorities. Yet he is still supposed to be the moral center of the film; the example of humanity through which Keanu decides that mankind has “another side” that deserves a chance to show itself. If anything, if this has been real, Keanu would have killed us all much sooner, if only to be able to make that kid show some fucking respect.

If it surprises you that such an intriguing concept could result in such a terrible movie, then you obviously didn’t know that this was a remake. (If good sci-fi takes its inspiration from the problems of the world from which its written, then bad sci-fi takes its inspiration from previously made good sci-fi). In the original Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien comes to earth as before, and is shot before he can offer a gift to the human race that would help them understand alien life. This alien has come to Earth to learn about mankind, and what he sees is both disturbing (as when he views the rows of dead soldiers at Arlington Cemetery) and enlightening (as when he reads passages from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). He claims to have the power to eliminate all humans, and when asked to prove this he has his robot Gort shut down every electrical device in the world, save emergency medical equipment, thus making the Earth stand still. At the end, he delivers a speech to mankind. He tells them that the space-faring peoples of the universe are upset by mankind’s penchant for violence (and the invention of the atomic bomb especially), coupled with their first forays into space (this was 1951). In response to this extra-terrestrial danger, his people have created a race of robot enforcers with absolute power to police the situation. In other words, mankind can either learn to live peacefully, or be destroyed.  He re-enters his ship, and disappears.

Clearly, this is a movie with a worthy message. Made while the U.S. was staring down the barrel of the Cold War, with several more wars on the horizon (unbeknownst to them), the filmmakers dared to make a movie that pointed the blame for the world’s ills directly at everyone.  Violence begets violence, and if it continues, there is little hope for humanity (and, let’s be honest, if the world ever gets into a conflict where its countries use the full force of their military might, this is exactly what will happen). It’s a brave movie that asks people to change their very natures as its moral.

I bring this up because, if this message were relevant in 1951, it is sure as hell still relevant today! We might not have the “Red Menace” to contend with anymore, but instead we have a “War on Terrorism” that has already led to two actual wars and the repeal of most of our civil liberties. Our world seems to be shifting back to the days of “Good vs. Evil” (with everyone thinking themselves on the correct side) right when our collective military technology is sufficient to (almost?) literally vaporize the planet. If ever there was a time to remind people that there is still a chance to stop this progression toward violence, now would seem to be the time.

But instead of that…we get this limp and listless movie. Whereas the original features a peaceful alien who places the Earth’s fate in the hands of its inhabitants, this movie features a cold and calculating Keanu who has already condemned us to die. When the time comes for the alien to see the majesty of mankind, instead of being inspired by the magical words of a brilliant speaker, he is instead convinced merely by watching a kid cry for his dead father. Instead of ending the movie with a speech that is as much a call to action for the viewers, this movie is filled with Jennifer Connelly imploring Keanu over and over again that “we can change!”, Keanu warning her that ending this process will not come without said change taking place, then ending without asking the audience to consider anything more deep than what they’ll have to eat afterward. All in all, the result is a movie that is more spectacle than meaningful. And given the intention of the source material, it makes this mess of a movie that much more empty by comparison.