An alien being, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), arrives on earth to warn of global crisis, but despite the help of Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, "A Beautiful Mind"), the authorities consider him a hostile being, refusing his request to address world leaders. They do not know what they have set in motion on "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Remaking or 'reinventing' classics is a risky business which rarely works and endeavoring to do so with a Sci-fi classic is a double-edged sword - for all the cinematic technological advances that have occurred over the past fifty plus years, the fan base for the 1951 original is ardent, the film's standing untarnished. And so, director Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and screenwriter David Scarpa ("The Last Castle") have made a valiant attempt to keep the essence of the original, yet update it for today, but for all the many ideas that work, the end result is inert. Keanu Reeves gives a good physical performance as Klaatu, the alien newly inhabiting a human body, but his utterly humorless alien has, well, an alienating effect.
Astrobiologist Benson is widowed, now a single stepmother with a tentative relationship to her deceased husband's son Jacob (Jaden Smith, "Happyness"). While preparing dinner, she gets a creepy phone call, identifying her name and address, advising her someone will be arriving for her soon. Blue and red lights flash through her windows before she hangs up. The highway has been closed down for her transport to a military copter, where she joins scientists of every stripe. Upon landing, she's greeted by friend Michael Granier ("Mad Men's" Jon Hamm), who chose to put her on his 'vital' list. Everyone is briefed that a large foreign object is bearing down upon the earth at a speed that will obliterate Manhattan. There is one hour and eighteen minutes until impact and no time to evacuate.
But the arriving object, a 300 foot high sphere full of gaseous clouds, slows down on its approach, resting in Central Park. Surrounded by military, police and scientists, a tall, gray skinned figure appears. Benson approaches, the figure reaches out - and is shot. The alien is whisked away for emergency medical attention and the Secretary of Defense, Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, "Misery," "Failure to Launch"), starts calling the shots. When Klaatu eventually emerges from his biosuit, 'born' in human form, and says he must address the United Nations, he is denied and declared U.S. Government Classified property. Benson helps him escape, although she is unsure of his motives. Meanwhile, a 28 foot tall shimmering black robotic creature emerges from the Central Park sphere and foils any attempt to attack. A group headed by John Driscoll (Kyle Chandler, "The Kingdom") encapsulate the menacing figure and dub it Gort for Genetically Ordered Robotic Technology.
This time around, Klaatu isn't warning us about the Cold War possibility of destroying ourselves, but of the inconvenient truth that we are destroying Planet Earth. Hundreds of mini-spheres appear world wide terrifying humans and attracting nature. As urban dwellers evacuate cities worldwide, Klaatu gets a message to Benson and she arrives with Jacob to assist him. He directs her to a surprising location to meet with Mr. Wu (James Hong, "Balls of Fury"), an alien like himself who has lived on Earth for over seventy years. Mr. Wu begins the process of opening Klaatu's eyes about the human race. Still, Klaatu tells Helen that if Earth is destroyed, her kind will also be destroyed, but if the human race is destroyed, the planet will be saved. Helen brings Klaatu to Nobel Prize winning biologist Professor Barnhardt (Monty Python's John Cleese, "Die Another Day"), who compares Klaatu's experience with their own and introduces him to Bach. But back in New York City, Gort has been ticked off by the team who once again try to obliterate him and goes all "The Mummy" on a global scale.
While there are similarities to "The Day After Tomorrow" here, none of the special effects impress on anywhere near that scale. Gort is a more menacing version of "The Iron Giant" who loses his personality once he genetically reorders and Klaatu doesn't so much 'barada nikto' as 'Gimme shelter' in the film's unexciting finale, taking cover beneath a bridge as Gort molecules fly all about. For every good idea the filmmakers introduce (environment over warfare - not a stretch, a 1928 prologue explaining Klaatu's genesis, the Mr. Wu character, Klaatu's biosuit) they offer up some head scratchers (the president and his veep spirited away to leave a global invasion in the hands of the Secretary of Defense?; a Gort unleashed that eats away man-made objects but seems to leave man, his objective, alone?; the Mr. Wu character's raison d'etre, given Klaatu's mission?; a stillborn reference to Biblical Arks). In this version, Jacob takes the perceived militaristic view of his deceased dad and resists rather than responds to Klaatu, as 1951's Bobby did. It's a colder world than in 1951.
Since winning her Oscar, Connelly has largely concentrated on playing moms, yet the conflict between her and Jacob is weak so the climatic bonding doesn't have much impact no matter that Klaatu appears to think otherwise. Bates, in a prescient Palin hairstyle, is a macho mouthpiece reflecting the current administration more than the upcoming one, Hamm has little to do but echo the original film's era and Chandler is a casting department sleazeball. John Cleese and James Hong both have more impact than other supporting players with their individual scenes begging understanding.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is an apt title for the 2008 version, not for the held breath implication of 1951's but for its utter inertia.
Robin did not see this film.
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