The Day the Earth Stood Still: Alienating

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Keanu Reeves in Scott Derrickson's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still

In 1951 a flying saucer plopped down on Washington's Mall. It carried two passengers, an alien called Klaatu (Michael Rennie), who had obviously visited us before, there being no other explanation for his perfect Oxonian accent, and a robot named Gort, who was played by a giant whose day job was doorman at Grauman's Chinese theater. The visitors represented an alliance of outer space planets and they were on a mission: to warn us earthlings to mend our warlike ways. Klaatu wanted to convene a conference of intellectuals and statesmen and to demonstrate the superior powers of the aliens by bringing all the Earth's mechanized powers to a halt for a few minutes. If that warning didn't take, he mentioned the possibility of burning Earth "to a crisp" in order to preserve intergalactic peace.

There was common agreement, especially among the young, that Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still was a really neat movie. And so it remains, for a lot of reasons: its timing, at the onset of the atomic age and the cold war; the clear identification of Klaatu as a Christ figure (his earth name is John Carpenter — or "JC" if you care to parse those initials — and his surname refers us to Jesus's occupation); the fact that its success helped initiate what amounted to a new and potent movie genre — sci-fi — and, above all, the way it keeps faith with its roots in parable, telling a simple story in powerful terms, stressing a firm, easy-to-read moral and keeping the special effects to an almost homemade level. It is, in my opinion, one of the most lovable and watchable movies of the postwar era. (See the Top 10 1950s sci-fi movies.)

Now, 57 years later, someone has had the not inherently bad idea of remaking the movie. The nukes continue to proliferate and we've added the potential for ecological suicide to our arsenals of self-destructiveness, so why not redraw Day's moral for a new generation? Unfortunately, the new director is a dope named Scott Derrickson, who has teamed with a morally deaf screenwriter named David Scarpa, and they have made what must be the worst major release in what may be the most disastrous year in recent Hollywood history.

Most basically, these aliens are not here to give us a last peaceful warning. Their trigger fingers are beyond itchy and they launch a major assault on the world's capitals, a concatenation of been-there, done-that special effects that first deadens the senses and then, mercifully, induces narcolepsy. The aliens don't really give a chance to respond to their warnings. As a matter of fact, since their alternative to our threatening behavior appears to be even more menacing — it consists of swarms of metallic insects gnawing nastily away at any human flesh in its path — it makes as much sense to resist the invaders as it does to heed them. You couldn't possibly be any worse off.

Then, too, they've screwed around with Klaatu, played now by Keanu Reeves, stripping him of all Christ-like attributes and turning him into a zombie-like figure, awash in ambiguity; once he gets to meet a few humans he see that they're really not such bad sorts after all. The guy was never a ton of fun, but formerly he was at least a figure of moral weight and — especially rare in popular entertainments — a believably brainy one, a kind of public intellectual before that egregious term was invented. Now he's pretty much a drip.

I could go on — pseudo-scientific investigations of Klaatu that produce more glop than useful information, a failure even to reference the earlier film's famous catch phrase ("Klaatu Barada Nickto," which essentially means, "Cool it, Gort" and which was on every 12-year-old's lips a little more than a half century ago), a cross-species romance between Klaatu and an earth woman (Jennifer Connelly) that was once rather touching and now registers somewhere between fatuous and nonexistent. But why bother? Suffice it to say that these morons have, quite simply, turned The Day the Earth Stood Still on its head and what's falling out of its pockets in that upended state is a stream of junk. It does not have the charm of what little boys sometimes carry around with them, but rather the nasty glitter of inept box office calculation. I suppose that doesn't make a lot of difference — the tradition of stupid remakes is a long and undistinguished one. But some of us do have good movie memories and strong affection for the indelible impressions left on us by the populist triumphs of the past. For us, and for everyone who'd like to join us, Twentieth Century Fox has put out a nice two-disc DVD of the Robert Wise original. It cost less than two tickets to this travesty and I urge it upon you. It's the best Christmas afternoon pastime I can imagine.

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