'The Day the Earth Stood Still' Review: Good, Old-Fashioned Sci-Fi
There are some films which are so quintessential to the history and understanding of the medium that they transcend their genre. What, on its face, may be the textbook definition for its kind can surpass the viewership of its generally-niche audience into the wider cinematic lexicon. And, as a general rule, any work that reaches this height is a highly-suspect choice for revisiting by another cast and crew.
Such is the trial of 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves as the famous alien messenger, Klaatu. While the original became a classic almost instantaneously, its Cold War-era metaphor coupled with the great impression it left on countless works coming after, the idea of reviving such a classic seems tantamount to blasphemy. Still, director Scott Derrickson took on the challenge, adapting the story from an anti-war allegory to a focus on the environmental damage of mankind.
By making this trade, the 2008 version allows itself to take some creative liberties with the source material, while still retaining a thoughtful message. Unlike so many other failed remakes of classic sci-fi properties, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a well-paced, reflective narrative that focuses mainly on character interaction, metaphor, and as much scientific realism as it can muster, while eschewing the pull to fall too far into ridiculous action spectacle.
Except once GORT goes on his rampage to eliminate humanity – but as the film’s biblical threat, it only seems fair that the terrifying might of our otherworldly judges be doled out in a high-budget affair.
Keanu’s Klaatu is a somewhat more reserved creature, starting off the movie as a powerful archon of his believed superiority. He is imposing merely in visage and word, but his short-lived bursts of violence are equally impressive. As with many of his works, he performs with the utmost stoicism, which lends itself exceedingly well to creating the feeling of a being that is at once very human and anything but; a feat which makes his eventual transformation to repentant savior all the better. Jennifer Connelly holds up the majority of the film as the main human protagonist, Dr. Helen Benson, and plays equally well against Keanu’s alien visitor, the other scientists (including fine turns from both Jon Hamm and John Cleese), and her step-son, Jacob (played by Jaden Smith, with all the best and worst on show for a child lead).
Yet, as strong as the film begins, its end feels rather hurried. We see Klaatu’s growth quite well, and it’s by no means a quick cop-out, but his final moments are all too rushed. The film also opts to avoid the final speech from the alien, meaning that the tension is resolved in the resolution of his character arc, but the film quickly cuts to black thereafter. No lasting thoughts from Dr. Benson, no re-establishment of the world’s status quo… Just an end to the threat and roll credits.
The strangest part of this is that the final speech was cut so as to keep the movie from feeling overly-preachy about its message, yet the point of the story is still quite heavy-handed. The metaphors of “The Arc” and “The Flood” are literally spelled out for us by the cast, Klaatu berates the humans he interacts with for their destructive nature and the fact that “The world can survive without man,” and all the other tropes you can imagine. It’s by no means a Birdemic level of proselytizing, and I for one feel it was handled almost as well as could have been hoped. However I can certainly see where those on the other side might be disgusted with the way the film paints them as the villains so vividly.
Does this remake live up to its predecessor? Definitely not. But how about as a companion piece, a retelling for a new age of viewers? In that case I have to say the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still can truly be admired. It’s not the greatest film of its kind, and it’s certainly not without its flaws, but what it does right, it really does right, and you have to give credit to a movie that’s willing to let itself remain a pensive, character-driven allegory, even when it has a towering alien robot with laser-eyes and a swarm of insectile nanobots looming in the background.
Final Say: Watch It