Keanu Reeves as Klaatu
Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Helen Benson
Kathy Bates as Regina Jackson
Jaden Smith as Jacob Benson
John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt
Jon Hamm as Michael Granier
Kyle Chandler as John Driscoll
Robert Knepper as Colonel
James Hong as Mr. Wu
John Rothman as Dr. Myron
Sunita Prasad as Rouhani
Juan Riedinger as William Kwan
Sam Gilroy as Tom
Tanya Champoux as Isabel
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Despite the generally weak acting, this modern remake is as effective and thoughtful at capturing the global zeitgeist and how the world today might react to an alien invasion as the original was in its time.
The world panics when a giant glowing globe lands in the middle of New York’s Central Park and its two inhabitants emerge as harbingers for the end of human life on earth. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is a peace-seeking being who looks like us and tries to reason with the inhabitants of earth, while his companion, a giant robot named GORT, is prepared to defend his master and start the ball rolling on earth’s eventual doom.
When it comes to alien invasion and apocalyptic end-of-the-earth flicks, you really have to go back to the source material, and that’s exactly what this new version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does, bringing the concepts from the 1951 sci-fi classic fully into the 21st Century, showing that despite Klaatu’s earlier warning, we still haven’t changed and we’re still not taking the threat of our own destruction very seriously.
In this case, that revelation comes in the form of a giant glowing globe that lands in Central Park, forcing the government to assemble its military forces and some of the country’s foremost scientists to approach it. (Next year’s animated comedy “Monsters vs. Aliens” features a hilarious sequence which will be even funnier once you see this.) An enigmatic featureless creature emerges and is promptly shot, but before they take him away for an alien autopsy, a menacing giant robot exits the globe to guard it. The original creature morphs into a humanoid called Klaatu, who escapes custody after being probed and tested, seeking the help of Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an “astrobiologist” he meets in captivity. Klaatu’s mission is to find good in the species before eradicating them from the planet to start afresh, and Helen and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) become humankind’s last chance for salvation.
Director Scott Derrickson actually does a better job within the sci-fi genre than he did with supernatural courtroom concoction of “Exorcism of Emily Rose,” creating a well-crafted film that maintains the feel of foreboding from the original movie without losing sight of how the world has changed. You can tell the filmmakers really understand the central premise behind the original alien invasion movie, one that avoided all the big-scale destruction of “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds” in favor of thoughtful exploration into why aliens might land on earth and pose a threat. Even so, they’ve found a satisfactory blend of CG FX moments and dramatic scenes of human interaction.
The results are extremely relevant and timely, possibly even as much or more than it was 57 years ago. These days, humans aren’t just destroying each other with violence and warfare, but also destroying the earth through pollution, yet those ecological issues are handled far more subtly than “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The Happening.” There’s an eerie amount of forethought to what’s going on in the world today from the stock market crashing as soon as the alien appear to having a female Secretary of Defense played by Kathy Bates. In some ways, they’ve created an amalgam of every single sci-fi film released by 20th Century Fox with eerie similarities to “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” showing how far the influence of the original movie has extended. Watching the world come to the realization there’s life out there and the world might be ending works as well here as it does in the original.
Derrickson proved his ability to work with strong dramatic actors in “Exorcism” and while this has a similarly solid cast, including a few Oscar winners, none of them really seem to be doing their best work or trying very hard. Both Jennifer Connelly and Keanu Reeves are doing exactly the same thing we’ve seen them both do in so many other movies. Playing Klaatu might command the type of stiff and emotionless performance Reeves does without effort, but it’s hard not to think he’s just playing a cross between Neo and Hugo Weaving’s Mr. Smith from his “Matrix” movies. Kathy Bates has generally done better work and isn’t very convincing as the military leader and neither is Jaden Smith, who’s there to drive home the film’s most blatant and obvious theme by playing the son of a soldier introduced while he’s playing a violent video game to foreshadow his aggressive nature towards Klaatu. The scenes between Reeves and Smith are very weak and could very well be what kills this movie for some, even if this type of character interaction is taken directly from the original movie.
That’s not to say this version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is all talking but it’s closer to the feel of the original sci-fi movie than any of the movies it influenced and inspired. What keeps the movie from getting dragged down in exposition are the impressive set pieces involving the military trying to impede Klaatu’s protector, a giant robot known as GORT, which are done extremely well. The military’s meddling with the invaders eventually unleashes a growing wave of alien robotic termites. The idea might sound very silly on paper, but they actually create an impressive amount of destruction for some of the movie’s biggest FX sequences. (In one scene, they level a football stadium outside of New York in a matter of seconds without taking into consideration that there’s probably another one being built directly next door.) The CG is generally good although a few of the birds and other real world creatures in a scene where more globes appear worldwide look fake enough to be bothersome.
The deeply cynical might not take any of this very seriously, especially some of the sillier technobabble and the concept of one human making a difference–how is Helen always there in the first place and why can’t moviemakers find other targets besides New York City for once? Even so, true science fiction fans, those who understand that the very roots of the genre explore the very real horrors facing us, should appreciate what Derrickson has done with the original premise to make it just as timely.
The Bottom Line:
The weaker acting performances keep it from ever reaching the level of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters” or even his “War of the Worlds” remake, but if you’re a fan of intelligent science fiction, this modern remake of a sci-fi classic actually works in its thoughtful exploration of how today’s society might react to an alien invasion. Then again, if you’re expecting “Independence Day 2,” you might want to stay home, because this is not that movie.