Seeing as how we couldn’t afford to go away, even just camping, this year, we’ve returned to the once traditional Boxing Day movie outing. This year it was the re-make of ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, or as any fan of the original flick will tell you, TDTESS.
It’s an okay flick, but not in the genre benchmark category the original occupies. At least in my view. I’m an ardent fan of Michael Rennie’s work, even to the role he played on Lost In Space as the Keeper.
The movie appears, at least in the first 15 minutes or so, to stay true enough to the context of the original. Even down to the fast approaching asteroid-like object approaching Earth at colossal speed. There is a drastic difference between the 1951 version of Helen Benson and the 2008 version. 1951’s edition had lost a husband to
WW2 and was a single, stay-at-home ‘Mom’ while this years version is a top flight astro-biologist who lost a husband to Operation Enduring Freedom. A poignant statement made latter in the film between Reeves and Jaden Smith – son of Will Smith, actor, producer and director in his own right – bears this out. 1951’s Helen Benson was very much your era identifiable fragile female stereotype, prone to screaming at the drop of a hat, but stoic enough to do the hard yards when needed. The current version is very self-assured, as one might expect a learned doctor of astro-biology to be. She’s a soft touch to her step-son, Jaden Smith, who isn’t Bobby Benson, but Jacob Benson in the re-make. He’s also a troubled young man, whereas Bobby was simply a precocious boy-child of the era. Jaden Smith/Jacob Benson is extremely troubled by the death of his father in what I recall as Operation Enduring Freedom, which is inscribed on a headstone in a cemetery somewhere in New York State. From what I know of the US military’s treatment of its war dead, they’re buried at Arlington, Washington DC, not New York State, but I’ll stand to be corrected.
Which brings me to Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves in the re-make. As in the original, he’s shot exiting his spacecraft, which isn’t exactly solid, more an energy sphere. Gort appears, revealing a massively larger guardian robot than in the original, and pleasingly very much like the original in shape and action. As the movie reveals near the end, Gort is indeed the tool which Klaatu’s kind use to kerb over-enthusiastic alien jingoism. Not quite in the way we might have imagined from what little we know of Gort’s abilities circa 1951.
From that point forward, Reeve’s version of Klaatu departs from Rennie’s. He begins a departure by uttering those immortal words – ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto’ – in response to being shot, when everyone who’s ever seen the original will tell you, Klaatu says "Gort Declato Brosco". Reeve’s portrayal is cold, wooden and stilted, playing the alien messenger as completely remote and unmoved by the human species he encounters and the task he is to undertake. The re-make version of Klaatu is an executioner sent to do a job, nothing more. Rennie’s portrayal was one of a curious observer incognito and virtually unidentifiable in the general community. He was sent as a messenger with a dire warning. Reeve’s Klaatu stands out like a sore thumb and exercises superhero-like abilities to control machines and electricity. He does have an ability to bring the dead back to life, but is apparently limited. At least that part of the original carried through.
Anyone who has seen the trailers will pick up almost immediately that the movie delivers a climate change message to those who’ve been living under a rock for the last decade. We – the human species – are destroying this world we call home, and despite the fact that we acknowledge the fact, we’re not politically or ideologically brave enough to take the steps we need to take in order to save the planet we need to exist. Reeves/Klaatu makes a point of telling Helen Benson that what she regards as ‘our planet’ doesn’t belong to humanity alone, but to the Universe as a whole. As Klaatu points out, worlds where complex life forms arise, evolve and persist are rare. The community which sent him to Earth had decreed that humanity had to be exterminated, before it destroyed a fragile and rare commodity. A somewhat God-like, arbitrary decision which departs radically from the ethos of the original. In 1951, the threat was clear from both sides of the divide. Nuclear weapons were seen by many on this side of the silver screen as the ultimate end for humanity. The Edmund North screenplay took on this fear of annihilation in a flash of light by having an over-watch galactic community tap us on the shoulder, show us the stick, wag a finger and leave the outcome unspoken. In the re-make, there are no such pretences at stick-and-carrot. It’s all stick.
I’m disappointed in the re-make for a number of reasons, but principally because it departs so radically from the premise of the original. Okay, replace nuclear extinction with a climate changed and devastated planet, but the message is the same. Humanity is a collective of ignorant fuck-up merchants uncaringly blind to the impacts of it’s actions on the bigger picture of evolving life throughout the Universe. The original pulled us up short by proving conclusively that life does exist elsewhere in the Universe, and that life has a message for us, and offers to help if we’ll only accept that help. We’re also warned that community is "impatient with stupidity", having "learned to live without it", and those who don’t or can’t are seen to by an independent force of robots programmed to act against violence where-ever it arises. That community has abilities far beyond those we understand, with an ability to cancel out all electrical energy at will, as demonstrated by Klaatu at midday, to Helen Benson in an elevator. Keanu Reeves’ Klaatu is nowhere near as subtle, in fact goes about his business with all the dedication of a well paid executioner. His visit to Earth is for the express purpose of ensuring humanity is expunged from the planet, and as quickly as possible. He realises too late that maybe humanity does have some small, redeeming qualities and tries to make amends, warning Helen Benson that he might be able to help, but "at a cost to your way of life". With that, he struggles to his spacecraft, lays hands on it and Armageddon suddenly ends as he exits the Earth leaving it entirely without electrical energy of any kind. Fanciful and hardly acceptable, given what physics tells us of the Universe and the forces at work within it.
A very weak ending, leaving more questions than answers. For a Universal community which apparently cares so much for complex, highly evolved life forms, the movie’s end implies that humanity is likely to become extinct anyway without the basis of its ability to preserve itself. Electrical energy. All kinds of electrical energy. Sure, that community gets a humanity-free Earth upon which to re-seed life, if it so chooses, but is that really in the spirit of the original movie’s message? I don’t think so. Michael Rennie left with a message of hope and a warning of the over-watch. Keanu Reeves simply left. No message, no hope and we’d already seen what the over-watch would do. Still, with no means left of generating energy to sustain life in all but the equatorial regions of the planet, would humanity last long anyway? Clearly Klaatu didn’t really give a shit in 2008.
4 out of 10 for this one.