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The Day The Earth Stood Still

December 15, 2008
The Day The Earth Stood Still. Isn’t that a great title? Like the very best B Movies (Build My Gallows High, for example, another corking moniker) it is simultaneously memorable, arresting, and classy. With great good fortune, too, thank the Almighty Spirit, it also happens to be a beautifully constructed copper-bottomed masterpiece; not just a great sf movie, but a great film. Heck, it’s simply very very good cinema.

A flying saucer lands on the Ellipse in President’s Park, Washington DC. A spaceman emerges and declares he has come on a mission of goodwill. After aggression from his audience of soldiers and politicians, capture and misunderstanding, escape and interaction, the spaceman, Klaatu, addresses the people of Earth; they can either abandon warfare and peacefully join other worlds, or be destroyed, adding that “The decision rests with you.” He then enters the spaceship and departs.

It is a stark, stern and stylish movie, but one with a tiny kernel of hope buried away, expressing a serious intent regarding international relations. Released during the Cold War, it proves that the best science fiction, like the best horror, should be taken seriously, because just once in a very long while it has something to say.

I am, of course, talking about Robert Wise’s 1951 film.

And so, dear viewer, take a breath, because, yes, the deep malaise that has infected Hollywood for so long now, and which seems unwilling to shift, has struck again. The Remake. The bloody pointless, WTF!, how-did-this-get-through-development, unwanted, unnecessary remake.

The story is essentially the same; wiser visitors come to earth with the best intentions, and are rebuffed with violence. But deep within we – humans – show we might just have what it takes to save ourselves. And so the loftier beings leave, trusting we’ll do what’s right. This essential belief remains, then, so what, exactly is the difference? It is, of course, everything else. Majestic, iconic black and white (the saucer sat so strikingly in front of Washington’s famous buildings) is replaced with seamless, faultless, yet garish and clinically cold CGI; Michael Rennie’s perfectly handsome and erudite Klaatu is swapped for shop-dummy dumbness in the shape of Keanu Reeves, doing that bland doll-like non-acting thing to such an extreme that you begin to think it might even be a welcome stab at self-parody (it’s not, he’s just an emotionless plank); 8ft tall robot Gort is replaced by a ten metre high special effect that’s bled in from the forthcoming Watchmen film, a black comic book superhero made, bafflingly, of billions of nanobugs, that separate out to destroy anything in their path; and the message, as if you hadn’t already guessed, is no longer an anti-war theme, but an ecological one. Well, of course it is, did you expect anything else?

Surprisingly, it starts off with a great deal of promise. Super scientist Helen Benson (lovely Jennifer Connelly) is whisked away to New York along with a cohort of similarly qualified geeks, military hardnuts and shadowy government types, ostensibly to observe what they believe is an impending meteor strike. When the onrushing object slows, halts, and then carefully lands in Central Park, it seems that something truly extraordinary is about to happen. This first 15 minutes is genuinely well executed, and Connelly is terrific, but when the mysterious Klaatu (Reeves) arrives, the whole exercise just falls apart.

That quickly. Really.

Reeves has been rubbish before, of course. Much Ado, A Walk in the Clouds, Johnny Mnemonic (obviously), but once in a while his woeful limitations actually work in his favour. Young, dumb and full of cum he may have been in Point Break, but fuck, didn’t it work? A walking automaton he most assuredly was in The Matrix, but it fitted to perfection. Here, when his interrogator asks him if he’s human, and Keanu replies in a flat monotone, the thought rushes through your mind that that may just have been the most redundant enquiry of all time. He’s awful, dead from the neck up; a mannequin with its name above the title. I’m sure there have been worse performances in the hundred or so movies I’ve seen this year, but I can’t think of any off-hand. Even Mark Wahlberg in The Happening had more expression, and that’s saying something.

The film cannot recover from this, of course. Even adding a cameo from John Cleese as a Nobel Prize winning author doesn’t help, because instead of a much-needed explosion of erratic humour, Cleese decides, fatally, to play it deadpan. Disaster.

And then, there’s the ending. In the 1951 classic, we have a truly great speech. Here, we have a noisy, bruising climax of special effects and…and…that’s it. the legacy of careful heartfelt concern and peaceful philosophising is eschewed for chaos and spectacular destruction. This is not a remake, it’s an abomination.

Hollywood, you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The art of cinema grows more insular every day, and the threat of self-destruction can no longer be tolerated. There must be integrity for all, or nothing is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act without creativity. Your ancestors knew this when they made great films in the past. We, the cinema-going public, have long accepted this principle. But things are changing, and you have decided not to act responsibly. The result is, we live in fear, we are no longer secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggressive marketing and poor thought-free product. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection in the past, but we had a system, and it worked. It is a grave concern of ours how you run your output now, if you threaten to extend your continued destruction against past classics, this legacy of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: think more and contribute, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2009 2:10 pm

    I love your blog and I think you would appreciate my sense of humor. If I link to your blog on my blog is there any way you could return the favor? I think we could both get more exposure!

    Check it out:

    Thanks so much

  2. January 16, 2009 11:18 am

    Sounds good to me, Scott!

  3. January 18, 2009 8:13 am

    Enjoy your blog.

    I also had high hopes for the film, given the title and Jennifer Connolly. Sadly, no. I thought you were generous to give it one star.


  1. The Day the Earth Stood Still - Book & Reader Forums

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