Robert Wise's 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still sits firm in the canon of classic sci-fi films. Not because of spectacular effects, freaky tenatacled creatures, thrilling alien-man battles or mind-bending concepts -- in fact, the film had virtually none of those attractions. What it did have was a gutsy, prescient geo-political message delivered with little sugarcoating by a wiser-than-us outer-space visitor: Now that warfare has escalated to literally earth-shattering capabilities with nuclear weapons, humankind must cease all aggression -- or else.
We're still teetering on that brink, of course, which means the admittedly dated film still packs a somber warning. But these days, we've put immediate annihilation via nukes on the back burner, while we fret about the planet's somewhat slower demise from various environmental crises.
Thus The Day the Earth Stood Still has been re-imagined as an eco-thriller by director Scott Derrickson. (Remaking classics carries its own global risks, but that's another story.) This time, the visiting aliens arrive with a very tough-love green message: You humans made a mess of this planet, so we're gonna clean it up for you -- the hard way!
I'm doing you a favor by laying this out, since it takes seemingly hours for this lackluster film to make its extremely tepid point.
We begin with a perplexing prelude set in the remote Karakoram Range in 1928, in which a mountaineer resembling a bearded Keanu Reeves is "burned" by a glowing snowglobe.
Then, we're whisked to present-day New Jersey, where in rapid succession astro-biologist Dr. Benson (Jennifer Connelly) teaches class; squabbles with her step-son, Jacob (Jaden Smith); is abducted by federal agents and put on a plane with a bunch of other angry scientists; and lands in New York City just as an unidentified object is hitting the grass in Central Park.
The huge, glowing swirly marble (or reasonable facsimile) disgorges a humanoid covered in blubbery goo, whom some soldier promptly shoots. Also disembarking: a giant metallic dude, with the plastic-like body of a naked superhero (Dr. Manhattan, I presume?) and the roving red-eyeball-scanner of a Cylon. He puts a supersonic brain-wave hurting on the assembled crowds, but allows the authorities to medevac the injured spaceman.
Patched up, the alien (now definitely Keanu Reeves, tapping his just-woke-up deadpan) announces that he is "Klaatu," representing a group of civilizations in "nearby" outer space, and that he must speak at once with Earth's leaders. No can do, says the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates), who is in charge. (Presumably this event occurred during the Bush administration, because characteristically both the prez and the veep are hiding, and never seen or heard from.)
Klaatu finds an ally in Dr. Benson, and soon they're off in the wilds of Jersey on their own Harold-and-Kumar adventures (complete with cop encounters and a stop at a noted fast-food hamburger chain). The kid's also on board, which leads to some weird family-drama moments. ("What if he wants to move in?" Jacob whines to his step-mom about the alien. Ohmigod kid, the entire planet is at stake, not your daddy-issues!)
Klaatu finally gets to his mission. "This planet is dying -- the human race is killing it," he explains. Earth, it seems, is going down. "I can't risk the survival of the planet for one species."
Dr. Benson pleads: "We can change!" sounding like a kid who promises he will eat his vegetables, if he can get a puppy. Too late, says the stern alien: "The decision is made, the process has begun."
And so it has, as the giant metal dude turns into -- well, I won't spoil it -- let's just say a very destructive force. (Apparently, one of Earth's worst eco-problems, not surprisingly, is Giants Stadium, which takes an early hit.)
Only Klaatu can stop this force. And only Dr. Benson can talk him into it, because Klaatu doesn't really chat with any other Earthlings. In a head-scratching deviation from the original film, Klaatu never goes before any world leaders to explain what's wrong and how it could be fixed. He pretty much takes the beseeching promise of one person -- albeit a very attractive woman (you know how that goes with men and men-like creatures). Then again, she doesn't really offer any specifics (you know, women and their warm-and-fuzzy ideas about "change").
Earth v. 2008 screenwriter David Scarpa recently told Wired magazine that "people don't want to be preached to about the environment," which was why he jettisoned a climatic here's-the-problem-find-a-solution speech, such as the one 1951's Klaatu gave. "I don't think audiences today are willing to tolerate that," Scarpa said.
Ya think? Well, audiences loved Al Gore's 100-minute speech about the environment disguised as a movie -- complete with helpful charts and take-home suggestions. If today's Klaatu really has been observing Earthlings like he said he was (and not, perhaps, mucking around in the Himalaya), you think he'd have noticed man's groovy capacity for edu-tainment, his appreciation of coherency -- and his natural distrust for unnecessary remakes.