Samuel Goldwyn’s endlessly quoted “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” is a dictum that films beyond counting have challenged, some more successfully than others. It’s a tricky balancing act – audiences tend to resent being preached at, but if the message is coupled with a strong story, the result can be powerful.
A certain degree of dispensation, it could be argued, hovers around the science fiction film. Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas. This is not as true about its cinematic cousin, as SF authors have frequently pointed out, but nonetheless, there are plenty of ideas, some better than others, popping out of the SF film. This is perhaps by virtue of it being part of the broader cinema of the fantastic, where the spectacle of the impossible invites audiences to interpret what they are seeing in a metaphorical or allegorical light. Some films, however, don’t leave things to chance, and are forthright in challenging the audience to engage with them at the level of ideas moreso than at the level of characterization, plot or spectacle. This isn’t to say that those last three elements are unimportant, but they can be put to the surface of the – dare I say it – philosophical project of the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey is epitome of this phenomenon. A more modest, but no less explicit, example would be 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.
No, this hasn’t been a preamble to bashing the remake. I haven’t seen it yet, though the word is not good. What I’m gesturing towards today are the traps and possibilities that the remake faces. Certainly, one of the big challenges to remaking the original properly is the facts of life in the industry: no one is going to finance a big-budget SF film that isn’t going to deliver boom and bang for the punters. The trick, then, is to make that spectacle not be an end in itself. That isn’t a problem with something like Transformers – anything non-spectacle-driven is essentially getting in the way of the joys the film is supposed to deliver. But this approach to a remake of Day would not only be a betrayal of monumental proportions, it would produce an ungainly monster unable to satisfy at any level (check out the two versions of the The Haunting for a case in point). The Matrix trilogy, by contrast, may not have wound up satisfying many fans of the first film, but damn if those films did not at least TRY something pretty ambitious for blockbuster productions. The question is whether the FX and the philosophy in the films, especially the two sequels, worked together or against each other.
So let’s look again at the original Day. It isn’t without its FX. In fact, they’re pretty state-of-the-art for 1951. Interestingly, the biggest wow moments are contained in the first few minutes of the film. That’s when we get the landing of the saucer, and Gort disintegrating tanks. The purpose of these scenes is clear. To borrow a phrase from Dickens, if we were not perfectly convinced from the beginning of the Klaatu’s extraterrestrial origin and the awesome power behind him, then nothing wonderful could come of the story the film was about to relate. We see Klaatu as an ordinary human being for much of the rest of the film, so we need the memory of his spectacular arrival to keep us aware of what he represents. When the earth stands still (Klaatu stops all electric power), the scenes are shot without any effects, but we read what we see as a display of godlike power, partly thanks to the effects at the start of the film. Their importance comes into play again at the climax, when Gort is activated, because we already have an inkling of just how formidable he is.
The danger the new film faces, then, is one that the trailers have already fallen into. If everything is prologue to the scenes of civilization disintegrating, then the audience will be left slogging through the story and characters – and theme – waiting for “the good bits.” And whatever point the film might have wanted to make will be lost.
We’ll see if this is the case or not.