Director: Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) | Writer: David Scarpa (The Last Castle)
Like the more recent James Bond films have shown, updating a classic movie for modern relevance may not only change its specifics, but also the meaning behind it. Imagine if Mary Poppins was no longer about a proud magical nanny shepherding bratty children through interbellum England, but instead remade into a blockbuster about a time-traveling abortion doctor sent to the past to protect Dakota Fanning from Hurricane Katrina. Maybe the hero’s name would remain the same, but there would be little else to connect the two films.
The Keanu Reeves-starring remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still finds itself sharing like circumstances with the terrible example I just made up—aside from character names and the fact that its plot revolves around a spacecraft landing on Earth, the new Day couldn’t be more different from its sleepy 1951 predecessor, a kitschy anti-nuclear fable that everyone remembers but no one likes. For instance, the original is concerned with man-made arms of mass destruction, while the remake focuses on humankind’s horrifying attempted murder of Mother Earth by frustratingly non-specified environmental means. See the difference?
Reeves, that furious black hole of charisma, plays Klaatu, a pale, smug-looking alien accompanied by GORT, a massive robot made of bad computer graphics. Together they land in a big, glowing ball of a spaceship in Central Park, where they are met by trigger-happy military men under the orders of a government bigwig (Kathy Bates, who reads her lines as though having learned them phonetically), but also by the gentle and understanding Scientists of New York, led by Dr. Helen Benson (a too-skinny Jennifer Connelly). Klaatu warns the Americans that the kindly alien overlords from beyond are planning the destruction of the human race if they can’t pull it together (“it” isn’t stated past ambiguous ramblings about pollution), to which the Americans respond by locking up their preachy visitor and trying to blow up his ship. USA! USA!
To be fair, The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t wholly uninteresting, but at this point in the pre-apocalyptic year of 2008, the film’s vague environmentalist sermon is trite to the point of meaninglessness; Klaatu may as well be warning the other characters of the dangers of ingesting those silicone packets that come in boxes of shoes. Compounding its clichéd message is the strange addition of Will Smith’s kid (Jaden Smith) as Helen’s stepson, whose role as an angry lad filled with loneliness since the death of his Iraq War-fightin’ father feels terribly out of place in such a bland sci-fi exercise. Of course, the character is there for a purpose, a round Hallmark moment hammered into a square peg of a climax, all meant to tip Klaatu’s scales in humanity’s favor.
When it comes down to it, The Day the Earth Stood Still cancels itself out. As an Earth First-tract it scolds and encourages in equal, boring measures, and as a piece of entertainment it flounders, mainly in that it’s as hard to hate the well-meaning but too-careful “bad guys” as it is to like the flat and utterly boring protagonists. The film may have future relevance, however, in its two new additions to the Rules of the Remake: don’t bore audiences with something they read in the news every day, and don’t bother remaking something that wasn’t that good to begin with. Let’s hope any potential producers of a Ferngully reboot are paying attention.
Rating: Two of Five Stars