There are many reasons for the temptation to remake a classic. There is the one about updating the theme to make it relevant to current events. There is the one about being able to do thematically or visually what one couldn’t have done in a previous era. There is the one about taking a known and popular quantity and cashing in on it. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is all of the above, but mostly it’s that last one. The original spoke to the paranoia of the Cold War, the threat of technology moving beyond humankind’s ability to control its own darker nature that would use it to self-destruct, and the disillusionment with government being able to make the right decisions about any of it. The remake, a pale shadow of the classic on which it is based, takes the story and goes Green with it while piling on special effects and grafting some of the original elements onto a dopey and sub-par thriller that bogs down in its own self-righteousness.
Fans of the original will recognize names and situations. They will also miss the most famous line of the original “Klaatu barada nicto” as well as the element of suspense with which the original ends, throwing the decision about what happens to the human race onto the human race itself after said race has been given fair warning about the consequences of its reckless behavior with the atom. This Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) isn’t here to offer a warning. He’s here to save the planet Earth from its dominant species, the one that’s ruining it by exploiting natural resources and poisoning the environment. Arriving on Earth in a pulsating crystal ball of sorts, he’s met with a contingent of scientists in Hazmet suits, as well as the usual assortment of military hardware. Once again, one of the soldiers gets trigger happy and Klaatu ends up with a gunshot wound. Though it starts strongly enough, with a bold re-imaging of the story that tosses in DNA analysis and a space suit that is imaginatively gloppy rather than standard-issue aluminum foil, it degenerates quickly as the story diverges more and more from the source material and its spirit, never quite getting around to building up a logical plot.
Helen Benson is no longer a widowed secretary raising her son in a boarding house, she’s a widowed astrobiologist raising a step-son (Jaden Smith) in relative isolation. Klaatu’s attempts to address the United Nations are brusquely rebuffed by the Machiavellian Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates), who is more interested in extreme interrogation of the alien than in explaining to him the difficulties of global politics played at the emotional level of a six-year-old. There is none of the delightful discovery on Klaatu’s part of how humans conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis by going incognito into that boarding house and striking up a friendship with Benson’s son. No, this Klaatu goes on the run from the get-go and Helen is in on his identity, if not his mission. A beautifully realized consideration of what being human means, good and bad, is blithely tossed aside in favor of a standard chase movie scenario and product placement that lacks any attempt at subtlety as in, do we need to know what brand of watch Helen is using to time the end of the world? On the other hand, the fate of the world being decided in a fast-food establishment that has contributed mightily to the degradation of the ecosphere that would have been almost piquant if the camera hadn’t lingered quite so insistently on the brand name gracing a paper cup.
Alien on the run from the government could just as easily be innocent fugitive on the run from the FBI. The only difference is that one has niftier special effects. Really nifty. Gort, for example, Klaatu’s robot traveling companion, is rendered with an anthropomorphic ferocity that 1950s cinema couldn’t create. He’s a titan in size with impressive metallic pectorals, but with the same iconic cyclopean eye behind a sinister visor. Planes get to crash spectacularly, and we get to see that magic medicine from another world work on Klaatu’s wound. None of that perks up a film that on top of being pedestrian and self-absorbed in its own righteousness, confuses being lugubrious with being serious. Klaatu explains at the beginning that he is having trouble adapting to his new human body, and Reeves’ performance makes it clear that he never does quite get the hang of it, but not in a good way. He’s more robotic that Gort and director Scott Derrickson calibrates everything else using that as his touchstone, flattening out even John Cleese filling in for Sam Jaffee as the smartest man on the planet.
One of the best moments in the original is when Michael Rennie as Klaatu idly picks up a music box and opens it. The look first of surprise, then of confusion, and then of pure delight perfectly encapsulated both the civilization from which he came and the one that he was visiting. There is nothing in the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL that approaches either that poetry or that insight.