First, let me wish my fellow site scribes and whoever might be reading this the best of the season. Now I should turn to the painful task of following up my speculative piece a couple of weeks ago about what might go wrong with the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a blockbuster whose success is so anemic that, a few years from now, it will certainly have lapsed into sufficient obscurity that whatever profile it might still have will be the result of masochists voluntarily subjecting themselves to its inanities. It will, in other words, have become a cult film, but of the sort where the cult’s loyalty is the loyalty of absolute contempt.
My concern leading up to seeing the film was that the need to provide big-bang FX would overwhelm the story itself. In this, I was both right and wrong. Yes, the grand spectacle is saved up for the end of the film, but as spectacles go, it isn’t all that impressive. And there is enough flash during the rest of the film to keep those jonesing for eye candy satiated. Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, acquits himself honorably as Klaatu, quite convincingly coming across as an alien in a human body. Where the film fails, and fails in jaw-dropping manner, is at the level of the script.
The problem does not lie in the nature of the update. Some kind of change was necessary. Since global thermonuclear war no longer looms quite so threateningly on the horizon, some other sort of anxiety had to take its place, and the notion of aliens wiping out humans in order to preserve the overall biosphere in a universe where life is all-too-rare could work. No, the problems, as I see them, lie elsewhere. Let me enumerate them in ascending order of seriousness.
1) Garden-variety stupidity. These missteps take the form of individual moments, which, though egregious, pass quickly to make way for the next idiocy. My favourite comes early in the film, where Jennifer Connely and other scientists critical to helping humanity deal with the aftermath of a presumed asteroid strike (which is what everyone initially thinks Klaatu’s ship is) are kept hovering in helicopters at the anticipated ground zero. Exactly how ensuring the vaporization of the people you most need supposed to be helpful?
2) Characterization. Let’s leave out the strange decision to bring John Cleese in for a brief, straight-faced cameo that reduces the Sam Jaffe character of the original movie to a complete irrelevance. Instead, let’s focus on the presentation of the Jaden Smith character (Connelly’s stepson). The kid is so completely unsympathetic, so utterly repulsive, that at the screening, a friend and I spent much of the film coming up with imaginative deaths for the nasty little moppet. Not exactly a reaction that is going to help out the whole humans-deserve-another-chance argument.
3) Core thesis. This is the critical one, and I must now put a spoiler warning into effect, as I have to talk about the ending. So, Klaatu decides that we can change after all (based on what evidence, I’m sure I couldn’t say, as he sticks to this decision while humans try to bomb the hell out of his and his ship), and in order to give us another chance, but still save life on Earth, he gets rid of all electrical power on the planet. This gives us the Standing Still of the title. But in the first film, this was a brief demonstration, whose purpose was to make us sit up and take notice. Here, the effect is permanent. If we ignore one obvious problem (why didn’t he do this in the first place, instead of threatening to exterminate us, not to mention all life on the planet that wasn’t contained in his specimen spheres?), we are still faced with broader philosophical issue. The choice humanity faces at the end of the original is a forced choice – we must change our ways or face annihilation – but it is nonetheless a choice. It is an action we must take – we are agents of our own salvation. Here, there is no choice. Whether we can change or not is irrelevant. The problem is taken out of our hands. So why would we bother to change our ways when an alien/God is going to take care of everything for us. The film hardly acts as a warning. In fact, it becomes stupidly reassuring: yeah, things are bad all over, but relax and enjoy yourselves, and some dude from outer space will take care of things when they get bad enough. How edifying.