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The Day The Earth Stood Still
USA 2008
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Running time 99 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
3 stars


Synopsis: An alien, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), arrives on Earth to deliver a warning, and triggers global panic. A woman (Jennifer Connelly) and her young stepson (Jaden Smith) come to understand Klaatu and his mission, and attempt to change his mind about the future of humanity.

This ‘reimagined’ The Day the Earth Stood Still (DESS) has tanked at the box office and with many critical thumbs-down. This is a sad fate for a surprisingly sincere tribute to Robert Wise’s 1951 classic. While not in the same class as another recent enigmatic sci-fi flick (The Fountain), DESS is similar in its contemplative approach in which much of the film’s meaning is allusive and many questions are only partially answered.

The director, Scott Derrickson is known both for being a committed Christian film-maker and making successful horror films (particularly 2005’s The Exorcism of Emilie Rose). With DESS (and presumably his upcoming Paradise Lost), Derrickson explores the failings of humanity from a less gory perspective. A long-term fan of the original film, perhaps because of the possible readings of the alien as a form of Second Coming, he makes both an imaginative yet restrained plea for compassion. Unsurprisingly, his version suggests that the biggest threat facing the Earth is now environmental, but the main events and themes of the original are still recognizable in their new variations, enhanced by interestingly organic special effects.

In short, a mysterious, massive swirling orb lands in New York and a humanoid form emerges. Jennifer Connelly’s Dr Helen Benson, an astrobiologist, makes first contact just moments before a jumpy soldier shoots the alien. An enormous, featureless robotic figure emerges from the orb’s luminescence; disabling the surrounding military machine and readying itself to crush Helen and everyone else from existence. Stayed by a gesture from the wounded alien, the robot remains motionless.

In one of the more heavy-handed references to other sci-fi blockbusters, Keanu Reeves (I mean, Klaatu) emerges from his gelatinous space suit much as Neo emerged naked from the Matrix birth-tank. Announcing himself as an alien in a cloned human body, he attempts to deliver a message to the UN about the fate of the world but is thwarted by the US Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates). With the assistance of Helen, Klaatu escapes to set his mission of last resort in motion, but Helen and her young stepson are determined to change his mind. A typically impassive performer, Reeves (another long-term fan of the original DESS) brings an interesting gravitas to the role. Jennifer Connelly, while being more expressive, is not nearly as convincing but Jaden Smith counterpoints the trio nicely.

Whilst some will not stomach a ‘re-imagining’ of their beloved 1951 ‘original’, the producer of the 1951 DESS,. Julian Blaustein, had himself done some creative re-imagining, having researched over 200 sci-fi stories and novels before selecting Harry Bates’ short story Farewell To The Master as the basis for his film film. Published in 1940, the short story had featured the early 20th century optimism about the future of science, with the alien’s arrival treated as a wonderful opportunity for mankind to perfect its future. Blaustein shifted the story to a very different world, making it the basis for a parable about fear of the Cold War and the Atom Bomb. Like much other sci-fi to follow, alien contact with the world prompted violent reactions from a fearful population. To avoid alien reprisals, humanity (or at least a token portion of it) needed to acknowledge the threat stemming from their often destructive impulses towards each other, to the world, and to their alien neighbours, whilst the aliens needed to see that there is great potential for good in the human race. This message, a common, albeit fairly simplistic, sci-fi motif is portrayed with some emotional impact in both versions of the film.

As with many movies with far-fetched (even silly) premises, enjoying this parable requires a little faith. The film has an element of cliché, perhaps to some degree deliberately, and the performances and pacing stumble at times. It is easy to criticize the film as low key and low-tech, compared to, say, War Of The Worlds, but The Day the Earth Stood Still manages to be more meaningful. For me, the covert homage to the voice of HAL 9000 from 2001 was the cherry on top of a surprisingly different and likeable take on a sci-fi classic

 

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