The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: When biologist Dr Helen Benson is called to a national emergency, she has no idea of the scale of the problem until she comes face to face with it: Klaatu, an alien whose race has been observing Earth and finds the human race too dangerous to the planet’s health. Helen, accompanied by emotionally troubled stepson Jacob, must use every ounce of her humanity to convince Klaatu and his terrifying robot Gort that humans deserve a second chance.

I know very little about the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, other than that it featured a giant robot called Gort and that Klaatu, the alien star of the film, was also the name of the band that wrote the Carpenters’ hit Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. So I don’t have anything with which to compare Scott Derrickson’s film directly. It does, however, contain obvious parallels to recent blockbusters such as Independence Day, Armageddon, Transformers and so on.

At least, I presume this showy remake was meant to capture some of the excitement of those films. Jennifer Connelly is widowed astro-biologist Helen Benson, called from her home in which she’s struggling to get on with Jacob (Jaden Smith), who’s missing the army father who died the previous year. Helen, together with a gaggle of anonymous scientists from other fields, are called to a Top Secret NASA briefing where it is revealed that a massive foreign body is due to crash land in Manhattan, with dreadful consequences.

The scientists (rather unwisely) take helicopters to where the object is supposed to crash, but instead a bright sphere lands softly, and a gooey alien emerges and almost has time to shake hands with Dr Benson before it is shot by a loose army gun. In retaliation, an enormous robot emerges to disable the military weaponry, but the alien is taken away to be interrogated under the suspicious gaze of Secretary of Defence Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates). The alien sloughs off its outer padding and declares itself to be Klaatu, who has taken the form of Keanu Reeves (previously shown climbing a mountain in the 20s and meeting up with a little sphere) in order to communicate with the Earth.

Despite the ruthless efforts of Ms Jackson, Klaatu’s superior control over technology – with some help from a sympathetic Helen – allows him to escape and meet up with a fellow alien who has lived on Earth for over fifty years and, while holding out little hope for earthlings, likes the place enough to want to die here. This inter-alien exchange takes place in Chinese (and in McDonalds) before switching, for no good reason, to English. Meanwhile, Gort repels all attempts to attack or get beneath its skin, until the time is right and it transforms into a plague of all-devouring metal locusts. There seems little hope for humanity, unless Helen and Jacob are allowed to demonstrate that people have their good points too.

Contrasting mankind’s destructive urges with its enormous capacity to love, the story offers the opportunity for all kinds of drama and tension; but The Day the Earth Stood Still wastes every chance it has. Giving the characters no chance to establish themselves whatsoever, the film pitches us into the alien invasion, practically demanding the viewer forgive the story-telling shortcomings to appreciate the decent effects.

From there, the film becomes a wrestling match as some of the actors (Connelly, Bates) attempt to wring some emotion out of the dopey script and others don’t bother. Reeves, to be fair, plays the emotionless alien with consummate ease and whilst the viewer never remotely warms to him he is at least effective. This is more than you can say for John Cleese’s Nobel prize-winning Professor Barnhardt, who delivers a supposedly moving plea for humanity’s ability to change as though it were a mantra to send himself off to sleep with. And while there is nothing essentially wrong with Jaden Smith, the plot has him changing his mind and motivation every five minutes, and there’s little to suggest that he’ll be stealing roles from father Will in the near future.

Crucially, the film’s poor writing and shoddy plotting ensures that there is a complete lack of tension; you never really feel that the whole earth is under attack (a lorry, a signpost and some buildings round Central Park are nibbled) and you never feel that Keanu/Klaatu is responsible for what Gort does, or that he has any special connection with either Helen or Jacob that would overturn the decision he has made.

The CGI work does impress but it’s at the expense of having any recognisably human characters to empathise with, so the viewer is reduced to looking for other points of interest to pass the time (there’s an awful lot of Microsoft stuff on display, including their groovy Surface OS, and some rather prominent Citizen watches). And worse yet, the film winds up without any sort of learning, any response from the people of Earth in light of what just happened, any moral or positive humanist message. Simply the credits of crew and cast, lights up, go home.

It’s really difficult to know how The Day the Earth Stood Still was remade like this, since it should have been obvious at script stage that the film would turn out to be turgid, flat, and lacking in anything that draws the audience in or makes them feel in any way involved. One suspects that the effects guys told the producers not to worry as they had super-cool ideas about what could be done with Gort (he’s quite cool, but not overly so); these may pacify some of the audience for some of the time, but for the rest of us for the rest of the film, there’s a hole as big as space where some real characters, and a real story, need to be.

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