The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) Review
Princeton Professor Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is confused and alarmed one night when an army of government officials turn up on her doorstep and insist she accompany them to a top secret location. Once there, she and other scientific advisors watch as an interstellar object shaped like some kind of gaseous planet lands in Central Park (where else?) and deposits a grey alien blob on the ground which soon sheds its skin to reveal a naked Keanu Reeves underneath. Keanu has come to Earth to decide man’s fate: a group of alien races have decided that the planet is in danger of total environmental collapse, and that only the eradication of the chief perpetrator, namely us, can salvage the situation. Following Klaatu’s escape from the government forces holding him, he hooks up with Benson who believes that given time she can persuade the alien to have a change of heart. Unfortunately, time is the one commodity the world doesn’t appear to have...
I’ve been trying to decide whether in theory remaking The Day The Earth Stood Still is quite as terrible an idea as it at first seems. On first hearing that Robert Wise’s movie was next up for the re-envisaging treatment it seemed a particularly asinine choice – not only is the original a seminal moment in the history of sci-fi cinema, lending dignity and weight to a genre which up to that point had focused on Saturday morning battles against Ming the Merciless, but it’s also a movie very much rooted in the time it was made, its entire ethos centred around the growing fear that the nuclear genie was out of the bottle and that we were all heading for imminent Armageddon. However, on reflection, while all that’s certainly true, the film’s basic premise - higher being comes to Earth to warn man against himself – was hardly unique, with the film’s overtly messianic lead character Klaatu just the latest version of a story that is almost as old as civilisation itself. What then would be so bad about simply updating Klaatu’s message for modern day concerns? If the danger of being overly preachy was avoided (and it could have been), there isn’t anything to say that it couldn’t have worked, had the right people with sincere motives been working on both sides of the camera.
But they weren’t. This is not a film with an earnest, heart-felt desire to spread the word of environmentalism, it is a movie designed purely to cash in on a famous name, and is as creatively and spiritually bankrupt as you would thus expect. I can’t recall the last mainstream film that was quite so half-hearted as this: no one involved seems to have had the slightest interest in what they were doing, and it shows in every frame on screen. David Scarpa’s lazy screenplay is more a first-draft effort than a fully realised piece of work, full of contrivance and plot holes and odd decisions (just why isn’t Kathy Bates’s character the President?) Scott Derrickson’s direction strives to produce memorable images but all-too-often falls back on genre clichés, while key scenes like Klaatu’s initial landing in Central Park are clunkily shot and edited, draining them of any power they might have had. It is a gigantic shrug of a film, a formulaic snore-fest with less artistic credibility than a Paris Hilton album and less respect for its audience than the editors of The Sunday Sport.
Watching it is an extremely dismal experience. At no point can one buy into anything one is seeing, so artificial and devoid of any discernable atmosphere is the thing. Indeed, it’s difficult to recall another alien invasion movie with quite as little suspense as this film manages to generate. Sure, it goes through the motions: we see cities being evacuated, news clips from around the world as superimposed alien craft land in famous locations and so on, while hordes of extras duly pretend to be the army and act as background filler, but none of it is for a moment convincing. It doesn’t help that there’s a huge gaping hole at the heart of the film in the form of its two leads. Reeves was cast primarily because he has that odd anti-charisma about him, but when one looks at how Michael Rennie in the original managed to give a riveting performance while maintaining his character’s total dispassion we can see that the two traits are hardly incompatible. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly sleep walks through her role although she admittedly doesn’t have much to get her teeth into. Her character acts in a totally non-believable way, siding with Klaatu despite all the indications being that this is a bad thing to do, and even dragging her adopted son along for the ride (although, given that the film ends with Klaatu’s derisible change of heart character integrity was not a primary concern of the screenplay.) The only person who looks pleased to be there is Kathy Bates, who one can almost see rubbing her hands together with relish at the thought of the massive paycheque heading her way for doing this rubbish. Her presence thus epitomises the cynicism of the whole production, a sight simultaneously amusing and terribly depressing.
The whole thing is so completely charmless that I struggle to find anything positive to say. It’s difficult to decide which is the most ghastly moment, so many are the contenders. Is it the point in which it’s revealed the makers are so creatively dead that they feel the need to explain Gort’s name? Or how about the idiotic scene in which Klaatu has a nice chat with a fellow alien who’s been living with us his whole life and now has a form of Stockholm Syndrome, not wishing to leave his prison because – pass the sick bag – he’s learned to love us primitive beasts? No, I think on reflection the most annoying point has to be the climax, in which Connelly’s character, sheltering with Klaatu in a sequence very similar to Cloverfield’s climax (it certainly seems to be the same location) manages to persuade the alien that we deserve a second chance with an argument that could be summed up as “PleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseohGodpleasegiveusasecondchancewe’llbegoodIpromise” Despite the fact that this is exactly the same thing she’s been saying the entire film, Klaatu for no discernable reason other than it’s the end of the film decides that okay, why not, to hell with it, she seems a decent sort who loves her adopted son, and promptly cancels the apocalypse. At this point what little integrity the environmental message has falls apart – I’m not sure using a similar argument against the world’s melting ice caps will be particularly effective.
As Scarpa says in his commentary, while Rennie’s Klaatu was a benign, New Testament Messiah, Reeves’ Klaatu is a real Old Testament God, unleashing his wrath with a plague of mechanised locusts from the body of Gort, a flood to wash away man for the sake of all other living species. It’s not a bad idea, but it is spectacularly badly handled. This is a stupid movie, poorly made and without a hint of merit. I sometimes bridle at the automatic dismissal of all remakes as terrible, but this is a perfect example of a film made for all the wrong reasons. Thankfully, at the box office, it turned out to be not so much the day the earth stood still, but more the day the earth turned away. If, in another sixty or so years, Klaatu decides to once again return to our planet, let's hope he does so with a bit more sincerity.
The UK release of the disc is encoded for Regions B and C, with the film presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio at 1080p. The transfer handles the film's cold, austere palate well; the numerous night scenes have fine definition, with authentic black levels and a pinsharp look at the, admittedly not always very interesting, alien globes. A couple of early interior scenes seem to have been drained of some colour - a couple of flesh tones are a little too pallid - but that passes, while the sequence in which Klaatu is interrogated has a starkly crisp appearance, and the climactic sequence in Central Park a perfectly cold, clear aspect. Overall, very good.
The soundtrack for the film is not the most ambitious, but the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does what it's asked to do in exemplary fashion. The one highlight is the sound of Gort, a gratingly alien mechanical sound which resonates in the speakers and makes the sequences in which he is captured and then escapes, while from a directorial point-of-view aren't very good, extremely effective from a purely aural perspective. The landing in Central Park isn't terribly exciting, but the final attack on the Park, complete with the swooping parasites, makes nice use of all the speakers. Working with what it's given, the track is fine.
Disc and Extras
The disc opens with a trailer for the upcoming release of The X-Men Trilogy on BD. The Main Menu is styled around the sequence in which Klaatu is interrogated, taking the form of a bunch of computer monitors watching the interview and his subsequent escape. It’s reasonably atmospheric but an odd choice given there are notably more visually exciting sequences which could have been featured. For some reason, the selection box for the extras is confined to a small box which only exhibits three choices at a time, which is unnecessarily tiresome, and the Chapter Selection consists of very small pictures which one has to flick through individually, but overall one can't complain. The film itself and all extras are subtitled.
The Extras are very reasonable for a mainstream release like this, although writer David Scarpa sounds rather lonely on the disc’s sole Commentary track – one wonders the reason for the absence of anyone else. While he never begins to discuss the major elephant in the room – why make the film at all? – when he’s speaking he provides insight into the decisions he made with the script. Unfortunately there are long silences between utterances, so long in fact that this reviewer more than once had to check that he hadn’t accidentally turned the commentary off, which, together with the fact the writer somewhat tails off in the second half, means that an initially promising track ends up weaker than it could have been with just a bit more preparation on the part of its speaker. In a similar vein, there’s a better Making Of struggling to escape from Reimaging the Day (30:06) but every time it starts getting interesting, from talking about the evolution of the script or the SFX being put together, the usual earnest platitudes about how great everyone is to work with interfere. Nevertheless, it’s a touch better than one might expect.
The Stills Gallery has nearly 1000 Storyboard images and over 250 examples of Concept Art which can either be flicked through manually or seen overlaid with the movie itself via your remote – if you choose to view the latter in this way, in addition you also get plenty of CGI pre-visualisation of key sequences (such as the drastically different opening originally planned, which featured a team of astronauts experiencing a close encounter with the spheres.) In addition, the Gallery has some 450 Production Photos which are a mixture of images from the film and behind-the-scenes material of cast and crew at work. Taken together, no one could accuse the disc of skimping as far as visual reference materials go.
Unleashing Gort (13:52) is a featurette which can be summed up as “We tried to be really daring and innovative with creating a new Gort, but in the end chickened out and just copied the original.” Several of the original, far more interesting designs then pop up in Build Your Own Gort, one of those interactive features not even six year olds derive any entertainment from, this particular one inviting you to mix and match body parts from each Gort design to create your own unique version. Your reward for doing so is – and I’m not kidding here – to watch it fly apart, just like Gort does in the film. Woo. Mercifully there are only three Deleted Scenes (1:56), including one almost existentially boring sequence of Keanu being wheeled through corridors. Despite only being a couple of minutes, time really does seem to stand still here – when the highlight of a sequence is a close-up of someone’s foot, you know it’s time to move on. Equally tedious is the worthy but dull The Day The Earth Was “Green” (14:04) a look at how the film’s production tried to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. Oddly, no one suggests that a far smaller carbon footprint would have been made had they not made the film at all.
These, together with the half-hearted Theatrical Trailer (1:48) (which intermixes CGI scenes with characters staring open-mouthed at CGI scenes), would have been enough to make for a solid if unspectacular extras package, so it’s to the credit of those involved they also bung in Watching the Skies: In Search of Extraterrestrial Life, (23:08) which features various scientists talk about the possibilities of finding ET and what would happen if we did. Despite the fact much of what it contains won’t be news to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject (although the fact that Jimmy Carter thought he saw a UFO certainly explains a few things), it still makes for a well made companion piece to the film. The Press Release also lists the disc as having D-Box support, although not having the equipment I can't comment on whether it does or what it's like. Finally, there are weblinks to both Fox’s UK and international websites.
To a certain degree, the very title of this movie is now very outdated. Whereas in the 50s had an alien craft landed the whole world would quite likely have frozen in awe and terror, now it's almost certain that instead it would rush forward to the craft en masse, mobiles thrust into the air eager to capture the best footage to sell to news networks and upload onto YouTube. Nevertheless, this is a film which didn't necessarily have to be awful but which instead turned out to be far, far worse than we could have imagined. The pity of it is that the extras package it comes with isn't so bad, but it's very difficult to believe anyone will care sufficiently to bother.