Where are the snows of yesteryear? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Why do they remake classic films?
Some questions, alas, are forever unanswerable -- and the rationale for recycling "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is one of them. The inexplicable need to update Robert Wise's seminal science-fiction gem of 1951 has resulted in something that would better be titled "The Day the Robot Stood Still."
What used to be called a flying saucer is now a hi-tech flying crystal ball that lands in the middle of Manhattan's Central Park. Out of it, an E.T. named Klaatu (we know him as Keanu) emerges. Figuring this is the vanguard of a larger hostile force, the earthlings -- these American earthlings, that is -- react hysterically and violently. A trigger-happy young soldier immediately shoots him.
But Klaatu has backup: Gort, a huge indestructible automaton designed to destroy Earth (if necessary and if provoked) in order to preserve the greater galactic health and welfare. Other mini-crystal balls are landing elsewhere around the globe, with predictably panicked rioting in the streets.
2 stars = Mediocre
- Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates.
- Rating: PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence.
- Web site: 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'
It's time for change we can count on, or at least a cool head. But the president and veep are evidently duck-hunting at an undisclosed location, so power devolves to Defense Secretary Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), a cross between Madeleine Albright and Edith Prickly, who decides to capture, sedate and interrogate the wounded alien.
"Does it actually speak our language?" she wonders (eschewing the word "English" in deference to foreign audiences who'll be seeing dubbed versions). Yes, it does. But it only wants to speak to kinder, gentler astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) at the secret military hospital where he's taken.
Aided and abetted by Helen and her skeptical stepson (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith), Klaatu soon escapes in order to learn more about the terrestrials who relentlessly pursue him. "Madame Secretary," reports one of Bates' generals, "we're sending in the drones!" -- human and aeronautical -- with a little fright music. But alien science is a marvelous thing: Klaatu has a tube of back-to-life healing cream as well as electrical powers to defend himself.
He also has Gort, the giant mutant Robocop -- sort of a cross between Mr. Clean and Darth Vader. Most of the film, he doesn't do much except stand there in Central Park, scaring off the muggers -- for which the Pentagon should write him a thank-you note and leave him alone. But noooo. In comes the military and hauls him away for study until finally, after excessive poking and probing, he goes ballistic.
That apocalypse, when it comes, takes the form of a biblical plague of metallic locusts: Black smoke-like clouds of 'em that get in your eyes and under your skin, disintegrating everything on contact. Can Helen's plaintive habitat-for-humanity plea ("We can change!") convince the aliens to relent?
Fans of the original yarn will recall Michael Rennie's moving portrayal of Klaatu, with its anti-nuclear war warning and agenda. Keanu Reeves plays him more like Mr. Spock, with cryptic gravitas -- a much less communicative "Stranger in a Strange Land." Nobody groks him, and vice versa.
This "Day" is less faithful to Edmund North's 1951 screenplay than to "Farewell to the Master," Harry Bates' short story on which the then-revolutionary original movie was based. There's no Lincoln Memorial scene, no real inspirational hope for Earth. David Scarpa's cliche-laden script here -- and Scott Derrickson's lame direction -- lack any sense of time, place or continuity. (Derrickson is now said to be working on a potentially even greater travesty -- a remake of Hitchcock's "The Birds"!)
I also couldn't help missing Billy Gray, who played the kid in Wise's original (before moving on to Bud in "Father Knows Best"). Jaden Smith is a cute but clumsily conceived replacement. When told Klaatu "didn't come here to hurt us," he replies: "They should kill him anyway, just in case."
John Cleese shows up as a kindly professor, but we keep expecting him to do something funny -- a silly walk, at least -- which he never does. Connelly gets absurdly snatched up by a helicopter like Jamie Lee Curtis in "True Lies." Meanwhile, Gort gets precious little screen time -- for which he should fire (or preferably vaporize) his agent.
The real problem, of course, is the aliens' choice of landing sites. If they had just touched down in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, they'd have gotten a much more laid-back and less lethal Second Amendment kind of reception.
Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 12, 2008 5:00 AM