Before we begin, allow me to state for the record that I hate remakes. With very rare exceptions, they tend to be lifeless, pale imitations of the classics which came before them.
The remake of the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still does nothing to change my perceptions of Hollywood’s latest runaway trend.
Set in New York instead of Washington D.C., the film focuses on the arrival of Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), an alien who comes to Earth with an ultimatum for mankind. Before he can even finish assembling his true form in front of an astonished gathered military force, a soldier shoots him, nearly killing him. He’s taken to a military academy for study, where one of the scientists allowed to observe him as he is operated upon and allowed to heal is astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). When Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), the Secretary of Defense, arrives with agents in tow and declares that Klaatu is a prisoner of the government and is to be interrogated, Benson finds a measure of empathy for him and rather than dope him up, gives him a harmless saline injection which allows him to retain enough of his faculties to escape. Once he does–eventually reuniting with both Helen and her estranged stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith)–it’s up to Helen to keep him from being recaptured and, once Klaatu’s dire intentions are known to her, prove to him that humans deserve the chance to evolve, rather than be destroyed.
Aside from some minor character changes, so far it seems that The Day The Earth Stood Still follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor (that original film inspired by the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates…no relation to Kathy). As with all remakes, however, the proof is in the execution… and as executed by director Scott Derrickson (Love in the Ruins, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and writer David Scarpa (only previous credit: The Last Castle), this retelling of the tale is slow-paced, bland, boring as hell, nonsensical in many parts, and is, in many ways, an outright insult to the original.
The most glaring example of said insult is in the fact that Klaatu’s famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto“–an override command to his robotic bodyguard and defense mechanism Gort (given his name in this film by the U.S. government, and not Klaatu’s species)–was originally cut from the script, and placed back at the last minute. Not only that, but when uttered by Klaatu in his proto-human form after being shot, the line was redubbed in such fashion that it’s almost unintelligible! To those who may not be familiar with the source material, you may be wondering why I’m grousing over a seemingly simple line of dialogue. The thing is, this line is considered one of the most famous–if not the most famous–lines of dialogue ever recited in any science fiction film or series in cinematic history! It’s more well-known among fans than “Live long and prosper” or even “May the Force be with you” (gasp!) To give a line as this such short shrift is akin to having Superman not being able to fly or Spider-Man not shooting webs. It’s a travesty, make no mistake, and one for which the filmmakers deserve to be taken to task.
Swerving away from the Geek Side of the Force for a moment, let’s just say that when Keanu Reeves (The Matrix trilogy, Street Kings)–Mr. Stiff-board himself–gives one of the most nuanced performances in a film, you know that movie’s in trouble.
Like the recent Punisher: War Zone, the film is full of good actors dedicating themselves to turning out solid performances in a worthless film. As with Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk or the laughably bad Dark Water, Jennifer Connelly’s performance proves to be one of the few things an audience member would be willing to remember about this mess. She’s a scientist, a mother, a survivor, and desperately wants to prove to Klaatu that humanity is more than the sum of its parts. John Cleese, most notably of Monty Python fame and the last two Pierce Brosnan Bond films, puts in a credible dramatic cameo as the updated Professor Barnhardt, who helps lend weight to the pro-human argument. Poor Kathy Bates (P.S. I Love You, Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys) does her best to make due with the tired and cliched dialogue that Derrickson and his writers shove into her mouth.
On the negative side, however, by far the worst performance is given by Will Smith’s son Jaden (All of Us, The Pursuit of Happyness) as Helen Benson’s bratty, annoying stepson. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I wished so hard for a return to the days of corporal punishment for a child as I did while watching Jaden Smith’s character Jacob sneer and give attitude. Even while trying to prove to an alien that humanity is worth saving, there’s no way any normal human mother wouldn’t have hauled off and belted this kid across a room! Smith was passable in Happyness, but loses all the grace points he earned from that film by turning in a Jake Lloyd-worthy performance here.
The film is littered with numerous plot holes, such as when the final assault on humanity begins. Up until this point, Klaatu has demonstrated a powerful rapport with all things electronic, and a continual mastery of his own technology. So when Gort transforms into a swarm of nanotech-powered locusts (don’t ask), why is it that Klaatu’s own bodyguard and technology suddenly doesn’t recognize him, and is indeed capable of doing him harm? The film is also full of absolutely predictable moments, from the sudden death of one of Helen’s friends (one of the only people Klaatu doesn’t lift a finger to save, after saving the life of someone else earlier in the picture with Christ-like powers of resurrection) to Jacob’s abrupt turn from Jackass Child to Mr. Nice-Nice. The only true surprise is the ending, which is not only abrupt, but also makes Klaatu out to be a jerk, punking the entire planet Earth at once.
Whereas the original The Day The Earth Stood Still was a testament to why such films become classics, this newest iteration is a testament as to why filmmakers should just learn to leave well enough alone. I’m sure the executives at 20th Century Fox–box office loser of the year–will have plenty of time to ponder this, as there’ll be a lot of lonely projectionists in theaters showing this time-waster this weekend.