FILM REVIEW: The Day The Earth Stood Still
12A • 103 mins • 12 December
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jon Hamm, John Cleese, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates
The original Cold War parable of The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its not-particularly-subtle Christian allegory and message of global peace, established itself in 1951 as a tour de force of first contact storytelling and delivering such cinematic icons as the giant robot Gort. It’s hovered near the top of any list of genre favourites since its release, jostling alongside the likes of Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey for a place in the Hall of Fame. So remaking it in 2008 with boisterous CGI effects was always going to feel a bit like remixing Bach’s violin concerto in A minor with a garage beat – even if the younger generation thrills to it, it’ll still feel like sacrilege to the rest of us.
Fortunately this Keanu Reeves vehicle is not a travesty. It is, however, a movie of two distinct halves, and it’s the second part – the updated, big-budget section where it turns into The Day After Tomorrow – that lets it down. At first, it has the measured, uncanny feel of a Twilight Zone episode. A mysterious sphere lands in Central Park and the military – initially anticipating a cataclysmic meteor crash, then suspecting alien invasion – pressgangs a team of scientists into investigating. The ever-gorgeous Jennifer Connolly plays Helen Benson, a biologist who observes the alien arrival… moments before a trigger-happy soldier shoots it, and it’s taken into custody.
The direction is fantastic during this build-up, all fish-eye glimpses into labs, low camera angles in shadowy corridors, and claustrophobic close-ups. Looking drawn and angular, wringing his infamous expressionlessness for every drop of menace, Keanu Reeves plays a Spock-like, dispassionate alien (Klaatu) sent to scourge a planet ruined by our ecological incompetence. Escaping custody with intimidating ease, thanks to his ability to control technology with his mind, one skilfully understated scene has him eating a sandwich in Grand Central Station, completely unmoved as an argument in front of him ends with a man having a heart attack. The autumnal light that infuses many of the exterior scenes gives Klaatu an otherworldly pallor, and despite a tonal mis-step when they meet an alien sleeper contact in McDonald’s, his uneasy partnership with Benson clutches your attention.
But an awkward final act – which couples Klaatu’s “emotional growth” with Gort’s plague-of-locusts assault on the Earth – blows it. The message (that we are always capable of changing when faced with dire situations) is bluntly stated multiple times, first by John Cleese as scientist Professor Barnhardt. It’s muddled by the soap-opera reconciliation of Benson and her frizzy-haired son at the grave of his dead father. “There’s another side to you!” exclaims Klaatu clumsily, as he watches them embrace by the headstone. Meanwhile the visual style expands into Roland Emmerich territory, as a cloud of robotic bugs brings large-scale destruction to the highways and football stadiums of America. The movie has the air of missed opportunity about it – but as reimaginings go, it’s no global disaster.