The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) Review

Eighty years ago, an explorer (Keanu Reeves) came upon a strange glowing sphere in the mountains. Touching it, he loses consciousness. He awakens soon after, finding that not only has the sphere disappeared but that he now has a scar on his hand from where he reached out to the object. In the present day, scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is interrupted by a knock at the door as she puts her stepson to bed. The red-and-blue flashing lights at the window alert her to an emergency. She is bundled into the back of a government land cruiser and, via roads that are closed to civilian traffic, taken to a military facility to be told that an object is travelling through the solar system at a rate only a factor of ten below the speed of light. This object has recently changed course and is now set to collide with Earth in only 78 minutes. Benson is one of a small group of scientists assembled to devise a response to this collision but time is short.

On board a Chinook that is being used to evacuate the scientists from Manhattan, a military officer counts down until impact. But as the clock strikes zero and their Air Force escort continues to count down, it appears that the object has slowed and is now descending slowly to Central Park. Landing gently into a park into which the army, police and scientists have converged, the figure of a man is seen stepping out of the object. As Benson approaches this figure, a gunshot rings out. The human figure falls to the ground and, amongst others, Benson accompanies it to a military compound, where, after cutting away an outer layer of grey fat, they find the body of a young man. In hours, this man has aged such that he now bears a likeness of the explorer from 1928. He identifies himself as Klaatu, the representative of a group of alien races who, seeing how mankind have brought the Earth to the brink of an environmental disaster, have decided to intervene. Klaatu warns the United States Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) that the purpose of his visit is to assess mankind's ability to reverse the damage. If they are unable to, mankind and all that it has created on the Earth will be destroyed. As Benson and her stepson aid Klaatu in his escape, panic sets in and the military attack the sphere with drone aircraft. Beside the sphere, Gort, its guardian, attacks and destroys the unmanned craft. This begins the end of the world.

Which makes The Day the Earth Stood Still sound a lot more exciting than it actually is. Where Emmerich and Devlin did at least give us a glimpse of a society on the brink of the end-of-the-world in Independence Day and did so again in The Day After Tomorrow, the panic in the streets of this film seems to have been edited from stock footage of protests and, for all that we know, rock concerts and city marathons. Even the most film illiterate of viewers will realise that the freeway that has been locked down on behalf of the military is merely a piece of newly constructed roadway that has not, as yet, been opened to the public. This air of cheapness extends to how much of the film takes place in deserted parts of America, as though, tired of the city, Klaatu had retired to a distant corner of the north-east to think things over while millions left for the country, for abroad or for underground bunkers. Even the use of Central Park is nothing particularly special given that even CSI: New York set every third episode there or thereabouts.

Scott Derrickson has a track record of making his films not quite what they ought to be. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, in spite of promising much Satanic hokum and demonic goings-on was more courtroom drama than horror. The Day the Earth Stood Still, no matter the flying sphere, the giant robot and all the talk of aliens, is less a science-fiction film than environmental parable. For all that Klaatu has come from another world, his message is that due to our carelessness (or deliberate trashing of the world's resources), a gathering of species has decided that the Earth would be safer were we not on it. That might seem like a spoiler but rare is the alien invasion film that doesn't end with the threat of all of mankind being destroyed. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the exceptions but only on account of it beginning with the earth being reduced to rubble to make way for an intergalactic highway.

The trouble with The Day the Earth Stood Still is that nothing about this is at all convincing. It's left to Jennifer Connelly to save all six billion of us by introducing Klaatu to all the quite nice things that we have on this planet. Everything, apparently, that make us such a unique species. Unfortunately, Scott Derrickson can't quite decide what these things are nor how many of them there are. Mr Wu (James Hong) preceded Klaatu to Earth many years before but in their short meeting in a cafe, Wu can't quite define what makes us worth saving nor why he chose not to return home. Bach is one piece of this particular puzzle and it does sound lovely but it's hardly reason alone to avert the coming storm. For every symphony in the world, there's Westlife, the Vengaboys and the Crazy Frog, the last of which would make any right-thinking person take to Morse Code, CB Radio or holding up a placard to beg vengeful aliens to end it all. And that's without all the other things that serve to make us think twice about the miracle of life. Had Klaatu seen the Fantasy Channel, eaten Super Noodles or flown Ryanair, he might well have brought the destruction of the Earth forward and hastened its demise. Otherwise, for the two or three people who are rather pleasant to Klaatu, there are two or three hundred who are not. And while Jennifer Connelly is indeed beautiful, I'm sure that Klaatu could have, if he so wanted, requested that she escort him back to wherever he came from.

This environmental message is awfully woolly-headed. For all the criticism of Wall-E, it's point was understandable. Growing consumerism led to the Earth's population taking to space and leaving tiny robots to tidy things up before they returned home. The Day the Earth Stood Still tells us that humanity has left the Earth is such a state that it is balanced on a precipice. Should Klaatu choose to do nothing, Earth will be ruined, not only for mankind but also for all plant and animal life. Humanity, meanwhile, pleads for just one more chance, saying, as might a child, "I can change...honest!" Only those who have bought into creationism without question will ask why this period of the Earth's history is any different from the collision with the asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. And writing of Biblical stories, Klaatu is not unlike the God of the Old Testament. Not only does Klaatu, like God before the Flood, save plant and animal life by means of an Ark but like the God in the Book of Job, he spares the Earth providing he can find anyone worth saving.

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still does some things well. As James Gray wrote in his recent review of the film, it does the whole aliens-are-coming! thing very well, firstly with the anti-climax of the expected impact and then Klaatu's quite gentle landing on Earth. Long before the film's nanotechnology ending, it also has a subdued tone, particularly in Benson's helping Klaatu escape through a foggy and very bleak night. The silence of the ranch at which they stop at is in marked contrast to the panic that has set in in the city. But these are but two moments in a film that is perfectly happy to end in a blizzard of tiny beetles, which will disappoint all those people sitting until the very end to see Gort cut loose on the people of Earth. But that's as nothing to all those people disappointed that a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still might stand alongside the original. This isn't like a patch on the 1951 version of the film and, indeed, will probably only frustrate and annoy those with a liking for it, never mind anything more.

The disc itself looks fine. Like a lot of recent films on DVD, this boasts a fairly reasonable transfer. The Day the Earth Stood Still has few scenes that look particularly outstanding, with the exception being Klaatu's arrival on Earth and his emergence from the ship, with it being these scenes that look best. Scarpa admits that other scenes were written in post-production and their reliance on effects, and sometimes not very special ones, as well as their lack of involvement in the story, does rather give that away. However, the DVD is as typical a release of a modern science-fiction movie as any you might care to mention, with the only real blight being a layer change that's protracted enough to leave time to nip out, boil a kettle and perhaps even walk the dog before the film picks up again. The DD5.1 is much the same. It sounds best with Klaatu's landing and with Gort's disabling of the drones but it's often only ordinary, be that in the long scenes of explanatory dialogue, such as that with John Cleese, or in the bluster of audio effects at the film's end. As well as subtitles the DVD has also included an English Audio Descriptive Track.

On to the special features and to a set of Deleted Scenes (2m04s), which flesh out the story a little but add little of interest. Although, if, like me, you were wondering what exactly these scientists were supposed to be doing at the site of a collision with an extraterrestrial object, it's checking for radiation apparently. The crater would stretch from Manhattan to Iceland and back but Haz-Mat suits, it would seem, provide a sufficient amount of protection. Re-Imagining The Day (30m07s) is the main feature on the disc and sets about explaining both the era in which the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was released and why Fox set about remaking it. We hear very little from director Scott Derrickson in this feature - what there is probably justifies that particular decision - with the actors and crew all getting their moment to praise this remake in between behind-the-scenes footage.

The title of Unleashing Gort (13m52s) is more of a tease than anything else on the disc. The problem with Gort is that he does almost everything but be unleashed and come the time when he does break free from his confinement, he simply turns to virtual dust. The shame of this feature is that there are a lot of good ideas that might have moved Gort away from the giant robot of the original, including creatures that could have been terrifying-looking, before the producers simply went back to the robot. Why that happened is explained by those who were there and it's interesting from the point of view of how much discussion went into one particular decision in the making of the film. With so much discussion, it's a wonder the film was ever actually completed.

Watching The Skies (23m09s) takes advantage of the alien invasion story in The Day the Earth Stood Still to mull over the thought that there might actually be life on other planets. Like a conference of bookmakers, talk eventually boils down to very good odds. In this case, it's that, with so many stars and planets in the universe, it stands to reason that at least one of them might support life. One more part of the message of the film supports The Day the Earth was Green (14m05s), which interviews some of those who contributed to the environmental warning within the story as well as those behind the scenes who sought to bring down the carbon footprint of the production.

The Commentary on the film comes from screenwriter David Scarpa and it's a very dry affair. Scarpa's problem is his wanting to explain everything on a scene-by-scene basis, be it how Keanu Reeves' beard inspired the early scene of the explorer, how the experiences of Scarpa's father on September 11th led to his writing of Benson's ambushing by the military and how the robot is not really a robot. Finally, there is a large Stills Gallery of concept art, character designs and promotional art.

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