December 18, 2008

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (PG-13)
An alien comes to Earth to deliver a message (“smell you later, humans” being the gist of that message) in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a fun-looking but ultimately underwhelming remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic.

You know who makes a great alien? An actor who is really good at not emoting. I’m pretty sure those preceding two sentences represent the thought process by which Keanu Reeves was cast as Klaatu, the alien who pays a visit to Earth, this time landing in Central Park instead of in front of the White House. Not that his decision to visit New York City first attracts any less attention. Once the government spots some suspicious object moving at a high rate of speed, it gathers up a group of scientists to comment on the object and what it might do to Earth. One of those is Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist who frankly does not need this kind of drama. She’s busy raising — alone — her 8-year-old stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), the son of her dead husband. Jacob is not so impressed by Helen and has all sorts of fun anger issues, resulting in a constant weary look of aggravation on Helen’s face that parents and stepparents will probably recognize as the “I need a drink” look. After the Feds whisk her away to an undisclosed location and she learns that a meteor might soon end all life on Earth, she calls Jacob for an emotional “I love you very much”-type exchange. But, in a rare moment of realistic kid behavior in movies, this jaded young man isn’t having any of it.

But Helen is a good soldier for science, so even though she is her stepson’s last remaining parental figure, she boards a helicopter to New York so that she’ll be near ground zero of the meteor-hitting-Earth event and able to deal with the aftermath. (Since the consensus seems to be that the incoming object has the potential to flatten all life on Earth, I’m not sure I understand why the government puts its biggest brains right in the kill zone. But this is only one of many points in this movie that make little to no sense.) The glowing space-traveling thing does not dinosaur us into fossils for some future school children to ooo over. Instead, it slowly lands and out pops a glowy humanoid blob. Who some member of law enforcement promptly shoots.

Yay humans!

Luckily Helen and the other scientists are within “charge the paddles, stat” distance of the glowy blob. They remove the bullet and watch as the blob morphs into Klaatu, a 30-something human male who can helpfully speak English and demands to speak to the United Nations. Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) is all, whoa, there, Mr. Guest of U.S. Protective Custody; talking to other nations is not how we do business. Jackson tells Helen to sedate him so they can introduce Klaatu to the comforts of some place like scenic Guantanamo, but Helen injects Klaatu with saline solution and tells him to run. Which he eventually does, leading to the scenes of Helen, Jacob and Klaatu on the lam while the rest of the world flips out about the whole alien invasion thing.
It’s hard not to talk about this movie without spoiling some of it — the original movie and its ending are so much a part of the foundations of modern science fiction stories (I remember one Twilight Zone episode whose punchline was that humans assumed a visiting alien had The Day the Earth Stood Still intentions when in fact they were the opposite). And, in particular, it’s hard not to talk about this movie’s ending because it’s one of the most problematic parts of the movie.

Whereas the 1951 original had as its human problem atomic power and the threat posed by the Cold War, this version uses our destruction of the environment. But its solution is nonsensical and weak and really kind of a letdown after the way it builds the threat that Klaatu poses to humanity. I was, for a while, buying this movie and its sillier plot points as big-budget goofy fun, but the ending pushes the lack of believability about how the story develops to a place where you can’t just swat it away like so many microscopic, matter-eating machine bugs (which show up a little bit too late to be as terrifying as they could have been).

This tepid-porridge ending is also when the acting, which had been good enough, starts to slide. I liked the somewhat antagonistic relationship between Connelly and Smith. Both are solid enough actors that even in this kind of movie, which does not spend a lot of time on character development, they’re able to give us the rough outlines of interesting people. But then Reeves, who up until this point had done such a good job not emoting, is toward the movie’s end required to feel things. And while he awkwardly shoots emotion pellets at the other actors, Smith and Connelly, for expediency more than anything else, have a sudden and unearned change in their relationship. Watching this movie’s final act is like watching some retro-cool flying saucer toy decompose into a puddle of goo. C

Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence. Directed by Scott Derrickson and written by David Scarpa (from the screenplay by Edmund H. North), The Day the Earth Stood Still is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.