I never understood the knee-jerk disdain for remakes. As far as I’m concerned, a remake is no more invalid than an adaptation of a book or a play, it’s simply another interpretation of a body of work that people are already familiar with. But the remake always gets the shortest end of the stick, and as people tend to be working from nostalgia goggles rather than understanding that this is simply another form of adaptation, remakes tend to see a lot of vitriol. At least, I must assume this is at least part of the reason why The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) is currently hovering around a 22% tomatometer and falling. I have to assume a lot of this is kneejerking, especially in a world where the likes of Hulk hover around 60% and Twilight is sitting pretty around 45%. Come on, guys.
I am familiar with the original 1951 version, and strange as it might sound the new one actually gave me a new appreciation for it. Does the new one succeed? In some ways, no, but that’s not to say that there aren’t any successes. I think the basic new route they took, Klaatu as judge and executioner rather than simply messenger, was a smart one and at times very effective. In the 50’s we were only just starting to touch the precipice, now we’ve pretty much flown off it and are going at an intertia that we know we can’t stop, despite knowing that we’re killing ourselves in the process.
I hadn’t intended on seeing this one right off, but there’s something that goes off in my head, something visceral and primitive that must root in when my great great great ancestors were abducted by alien robots that tells me, when a movie comes about about aliens, or robots, or especially alien robots, to go see it now! And if for nothing else I can safely say that I have beheld the most assidasical, crapfuckstic theater in America. Seriously, the theater on 181st St. in Manhattan has got to be the worst theater in the city, so the fact that the movie was overlaced with the slight echo of a radio station coming from the same (shitty) sound system as the movie’s sound in addition to the fact that the film was projected onto a screen that wasn’t much bigger than a plasma flatscreen with about half the quality didn’t help matters. Hell, maybe it was these factors that distracted me from how weak the first portion of the movie is.
And the beginning really is the weakest link, followed by the ending, which I suppose is why I actually found myself somewhat impressed by the middle parts in which Jennifer Connelly’s character comes to realize Klaatu’s purpose on this Earth and subsequently takes it upon herself to change his mind. The beginning starts with a mad plethora of “Why?!”s. In the time it took for you guys to round up all of these scientists, you could have probably evacuated a fair chunk of Manhattan. Why did you not even bother? Why then did you subsequently bring in your scientists to presumably die with the Manhattanites? Somehow I doubt being above the ground in a big military helicopter is going to provide much protection from an asteroid. And why do the scientists get to go in first while the military guys run around like chickens with their heads cut off? Like yes, I realize we have a poorly-run and often times silly military, but surely they’re not that bad. Come on, guys!
Which brings us to our not-president, Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates). I had actually been wondering earlier about the lack of females in these kinds of positions in films, especially as the Secretary of Defense, and never imagined that we’d see a female one. Still, the idea seems still to be prevalent in today’s action movies that our figureheads are no longer the president: Dick Cheney-lite as the veep in The Day After Tomorrow, Jon Voight’s bad-idea-bear Secretary of Defense in Transformers, and now our first ever chick Secretary of Defense in The Day The Earth Stood Still. I wonder if in the new administration we’ll start seeing the president again? Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that we do get a president in Roland Emmerich’s upcoming 2012. And he’s black. Prophetic, or ironic? You decide.
The movie finally finds its legs once Klaatu gets out of the silly government custody. Perhaps we had a better view of ourselves in the 50’s, but it is kind of curious that the government was much more courteous to Klaatu in that version. His landing choice actually makes more sense in the remake as well; why does he land in the capital of all creation, Manhattan? It sports the UN, which is right nearby. Why did he land in DC in the original? Because… well… America is the capital of humanity? Plus then the all-American boy can take him around to all the national monuments and we can look up at the statue of honest Abe Lincoln, gee whillikers!
And here’s where the fundamental difference is; Klaatu isn’t here to get to know us, as far as he’s concerned, he already does. He’s not going to be endeared by playing baseball, or express wonderment at the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, or offer to take your boy to the movies. He’s seen what we do and what we’re capable of, and he’s not interested in sentimentality, which almost causes a ripple in the film’s logic. There’s a scene towards the middle where Klaatu meets up with a contact of his who has spent an entire human life on this planet in the form of an old Chinese man that actually addresses sentimentality as the saving grace of humanity (and we won’t go into the fact that when he’s dissing us, he’s speaking Chinese, but when he’s talking about how awesome we are they switch to English). By the logic of what he’s learned and was sent to report back on, yes, humanity is a destructive force on this planet and should be wiped out. However, as he’s spent so much time on this planet he’s gotten attached to his Earth-sprog, and chooses to die with them. Why? He can’t really explain it, and doesn’t really try to, but the basic jist he gives is that human life is a difficult thing to endure, and that is in part why humans are the way they are, and if you live as one, it’s kind of hard not to get attached to them.
Which brings us to our “luff”. So often in movies involving an alien God-being that is sent to Earth to judge us, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, even more unintentional God-characters like in The Iron Giant and Transformers, when the question as to whether humanity is worth saving and why pops up, the only thing we’ve got going for us is our luff. And these are ultimately difficult questions to answer, because in some way you have to come down on a specific meaning to life. There is a very good scene (that is way too short, in my humble opinion) between Klaatu and John Cleese’s Professor Barnhardt where the two discuss ingenuity, and humans being allowed to have the chance to allow their ingenuity to rise them above their current predicament, which seems to be the turning point for Klaatu and his views on what humanity should and should not have the right to do (There was also a missed opportunity for a very endearing math-off between Klaatu and the Professor, one of many missed opportunities). But the thing about ingenuity is it is very subjective, and it seems that from the point of view of an eco-obsessed alien the only kind of ingenuity that would be worthwhile would be the scientific variety that lifts humanity out of its current predicament. Very few people possess true ingenuity, but all, arguably, possess the ability for “luff”, and if we aren’t going for universals there’s not much we can say about the whole species.
This is the lofty nature of this kind of speculative fiction, and this is why it so often falls short. Films like this that bring in otherworldly characters and attempt to place a tangible value on the meaning of life are tangling with issues that have lacked answers since before philosophy as a study even came to exist. If you must place value on human life, what can you say it is? Is it possible to even do so without getting super-subjective and, dare I say, sentimental? Is it fair to even assume that aliens would be moved by our kind of sentimentality? Well, yes and no; yes in that it’s safe to assume that any species that could evolve sapience would have been a social species and very likely to develop social attachments, as is the case with all of the more intelligent species on Earth, no in that it’s also fair to assume that such an advanced species would, at least on a cultural level, probably not have as much need for sentimentality as we do in our “difficult” lives and would probably much prefer empiricism.
And by God, is he God. It’s almost as though this film is trying to come up with new creative ways to outdo the original in ways that Klaatu was Jesus. You could argue it’s more overt, you could also argue it’s more subtle. In the original Klaatu calls himself “Carpenter” while he’s getting to know humanity, preaches a message of peace, not war, and is rises from death. In the new one, he walks on water and suffers from occasional stigmata when people are trying to shoot him with missiles. He also performs a Lazarus on a cop and brings him back from the dead (after killing him first, of course, traumatizing the shit out of poor Jaden). But most importantly for both of them is that they, of course, die for our sins.
Although the screenwriting mostly favors Klaatu in terms of what’s interesting and engaging, Jennifer Connelly did well with what she had as the I’m-a-scientist-at-Princeton Helen Benson, whose (step)son is now a first grade pain in the ass rather than the all-American, “fine boy” we got in the original. Jacob Benson, Jaden Smith’s character, is basically our thinly-veiled allegory as a species, which works less well than I imagine they’d have hoped as he is not so much a character as a, well, thinly-veiled allegory. He’s violent, xenophobic, and a right bitch to his stepmom, and it’s only when Klaatu shows him some mercy and helps him out that he starts to realize the error of his ways. Ah, is that more wasted opportunity I smell? Towards the end of the film Klaatu and Jacob spend some time together getting to know each other. Were but Jaden not an obnoxious little shit and the screenwriting more engaging!
But then there’s Gort. Poor Gort. In the original, by our beefy CGI-obsessed now-standards, Gort is pretty damn silly looking. I imagine by 1950’s standards he was pretty imposing, but the fact remains that even silly-looking silver platform-shoed Gort from the original was way more imposing and scary than this Gort (or should I say GORT). It was kind of impressive that this massive thirty-foot robot thing looked so unreal (and by that I mean not real at all), especially the year after a movie full of thirty foot robots that actually did look real came out, but poor Gort never looks like he’s sharing the same reality with the people in his scenes. When he steps on the ground, an environment which looks almost as fake as he does, the dirt doesn’t give like it’s being crushed under the sheer weight of this massive thing. You just never got the impression that he’s sharing the same space with the human characters. The only time you see him share a shot with any are when he’s in this deep Area 51 lab in a scene that is also strange and frustrating. And silly. Maybe we could have made him less, I dunno, huge?
And that ultimately seems to be the crux of our film and its problems, as many have pointed out before, as as with any film that deals with such heavy themes as the value of human life while trying to be a blockbuster at the same time, and the problem is there are so few universals about humans that everyone can agree on that would be interesting and relevant to Joe Schmo in the first place, so with what they had, I think they at least introduced enough of these ideas to make the movie feel engaging and thoughtful at times. There’s just such kneejerking against remakes, environmental themes and Keanu Reeves that it seems to send this movie from what normally would have been described as “mediocre” or “lost opportunity” into “horrendous” and “oh God my eyes they burn!” I think this is a movie of lots of missed opportunities, yes, but it did try to introduce some interesting dialogue that we haven’t seen in SciFi movies before, and a lot of people miss that and get angry about it, and that I don’t quite understand. It’s adaptation, it needs to adapt.
Although the way the film ends left me with little more than a good sense of “Oh my God, hello? Famine? Famine? Massive famine? 6 billion people on the planet and no automation? Famine?” Also… how? I mean… laws of physics? Nevermind. Perhaps the ending does indeed surpass the beginning for weakness. Ending, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!
And I liked Keanu. So there.
But finally, is the film’s message relevant? It’s all well and good to label humans a destructive species and claim that they are not worth sparing for the sake of a planet capable of supporting complex life, of which there are only few of the cosmos, but is this true? I’m sure a lot of people thought this was hokey and over the top, and maybe it is, but I do wish viewers wouldn’t brush that off so lightly. I do think it’s inevitable that our planet will get a good bit hotter, and that weather patterns will change as a direct result of our consumption, but is it possible for us to render the planet completely uninhabitable? Well, according to Mr. Stephen Hawking, yes, it could. We could literally chew this planet up so much that no one can use it anymore, ourselves included. So, knee-jerkers, try to jerk your knees less. Call it propaganda if you like, but remember, just because you apply that kind of terminology doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to the message.