In this age of remakes, it’s getting harder and harder for me to write reviews because, usually, I haven’t seen the movie on which the remake was based. That’s a roundabout way of saying that when I went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still this afternoon, my impressions weren’t tainted by having seen the original.
The plot is fairly predictable (doubly so since the movie is so famous): aliens come to Earth to save it from destruction by humans, and they’re perfectly willing to wipe us out in order to do it. The duty of messenger falls upon Klaatu (played by Keanu Reeves), a creature in human form with unusual powers. He has come to pass judgment on humanity, and not surprisingly, ends up in government custody, where his lousy treatment probably doesn’t do much to get us off on the right interstellar foot. Also mixed up in this are Dr. Helen Branson (played by Jennifer Connely), an astrobiologist (extra points to this movie, by the way, for actually using the term astrobiologist, although she never really does anything astrobiological) and her snotty little pain-in-the-ass stepson Jacob, who spends three quarters of the moive doing nothing but getting in the way and aggravating my homicidal tendencies. There’s some other stuff (including John Cleese in a rare but decent straight role), but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything.
From the start, I was rather impressed by The Day the Earth Stood Still. It opens with Dr. Branson lecturing her students on astrobiology, and the movie gets even more extra points by mentioning Deinococcus Radiodurans (the nasty little bacterium that likes to multiply in the radioactive wastewater from nuclear reactors) and Jupiter’s moon Callisto. There are other examples of such unusual scientific accuracy. This is not the hacked-together pseudoscience you’ll find in a movie like Resident Evil (or even Sunshine to some extent). It’s not perfect, and the scientific validity starts to degenerate towards the end, but all in all, this film’s science is more impressive than most of what you’ll find out there.
Then there’s the human side of things. The stark portrayal of the Eichmann-esque soulless bureaucrats who represent the government made my bile rise, in a good way. I’d like to think that if an alien landed in the United States, we wouldn’t treat it as government property, lock it up, and cut bits out of it, but I’m not that native. And, with the aforementioned pain-in-the-ass stepson, the film also does a good job portraying modern xenophobia, although the message is frequently brought home with sledgehammer obviousness, and is watered down by the fact that the irritating little kid gives up his irritating ways by the end of the film. In the end, the neat happy-ending quality of it kind of diminishes the main message: that humans are selfish and evil and horrible, and that if we don’t make a lot of changes very fast, we’re probably going to drive ourselves to extinction.
Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.
There are a few scenes in particular that really grab my attention, and it might be worth seeing the movie just for them. For example, when we first meet John Cleese’s character (who is given pitifully little screen time), he comes upon Klaatu, who is busily erasing and correcting his calculations on a blackboard. He stands next to Klaatu, and there’s a really great moment of silent mathematical communication, an unspoken argument followed by Dr. Barnhard’s (John Cleese’s) realization of who Klaatu is. It was artfully done and subtler than what I’m used to these days, and I loved it.
My other favorite scene takes place towards the end of the movie. The humans (not surprisingly) antagonize Gort (whose name the filmmakers explain through a really shitty reverse acronym, by the way), who suddenly bursts into a swarm of microscopic metal insects who proceed to multiply and start eating everything. And I do mean everything. They swarm over the surface of the earth, eating ever human and manmade object in their path. It’s grim but oddly satisfying to watch all of our meager achievements collapse and evaporate in a swarm of nanomachines, and it’s a nice reminder that we are a temporary fleck of fungus on the surface of a grain of sand in the far corner of nowhere. These two scenes are almost strong enough to hold up the whole movie.
Spoilers end here.
I said almost strong enough. But, for all its good scenes, there are bad ones, too. A lot of the movie feels camp and uninteresting, and there are some scenes that could have been cut or shortened. And there is, of course, the aforementioned happy ending, and a long parade of rather blatant morals that culminate in said ending.
All in all, though, I liked The Day The Earth Stood Still. It managed to be fairly moving and thought-provoking without descending too far into the realm of clichés. The movie was pretty immersive on the whole, and Keanu Reeves was in great form again. It’s not quite the performance he gave in A Scanner Darkly, but it’s still pretty damn good, considering. And, as I said earlier, the movie gets a lot of extra points for actually making an effort to get the science right. There’s something slightly off about the whole film, but I’d say it’s decent enough to see on the big screen, or at least to rent when it comes out.
* * * * * * ` . . . (6.5/10 asterisks)