REVIEW: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008)

CAST

Keanu Reeves (Speed)
Jennifer Connelly (Hulk)
Kathy Bates (Misery)
Jaden Smith (The Karate Kid)
John Cleese (Rat Race)
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Robert Knepper (Heroes)
James Hong (Blade Runner)
Sunita Prasad (Hardwired)
J.C. MacKenzie (Dark Angel)
Lorena Gale (Smallville)
Patrick Sabongui (The Flash)
Roger Cross (First Wave)
Hiro Kanagawa (Heroes Reborn)
David Richmond-Peck (V)
Ty Olsson (Izombie)

The movie’s first act shows the most potential. Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is swept away from her with a police escort, by flustered agents who inform her that even they don’t know why she’s being picked up. She’s rushed into a room crowded with other scientists and engineers and told that not only is something from outer space going to impact Earth in the middle of Manhattan, but it’s going to happen in less than 80 minutes. I always question the way government officials act in movies, but there’s a palpable sense of tension and paranoia, and even a few good character touches (. A better movie would have played out closer to real time; the concept that Earth might be destroyed with such little forewarning is a really great idea (although there’s a shade too much 9/11 imagery here). Sadly, it barely makes up the first twenty minutes. At the end of it, a giant swirling orb touches down in the middle of Central Park, and an alien creature steps out, only to be shot by an overzealous soldier.The creature is taken to a hospital, where its’ strange, placenta-like shell melts away to reveal what appears to be a human being. Instead it turns out to be Keanu Reeves, playing an alien creature named Klaatu who somberly informs the President’s first-hand aide (Kathy Bates) that he’d like to address the United Nations. Bates’ character is problematic. She plays it as reasonably as she can, but as written, she’s yet another trigger-happy, kill-all-the-aliens caricature straight out of endless alien invasion movies that prevents logical characters from doing logical things. She refuses his request, and they tell Helen to drug him so they can interrogate him. She fakes it instead, injecting him with saline instead of sedative, and Klaatu makes his escape.During the escape sequence, Scott Derrickson’s direction goes into hyperdrive, using flashy editing and CGI to amp up the excitement, but it feels forced and unnatural. It happens several times, all in isolated bursts (Robert Knepper’s thankless and stereotypical military commander is the worst offender, popping up occasionally to yell in a Texas accent). Only part of the spectacle, like the swarms of tiny bugs that eat up everything in their path (as seen in the misleading trailer), feel integrated with the story. The effects themselves are hit-and-miss. The giant orbs, shown on the movie poster, are stunning to look at, and those swarms of bugs are eye-poppingly cool, but most of the effects that integrate real actors look weak.I’ve always thought of Keanu Reeves as a more physical actor than an emotional one , and it’s almost endearing the way he doesn’t seem to “get” the joke in regards to his flat acting style, which the producers of Day 2008 have ably exploited in having him play an emotionless alien. I liked him in the movie, but those who already dislike him as an actor aren’t going to have their minds changed. Jennifer Connelly does a fairly good job during the first half of the film, but as the bits of characterization from the first act peter out, it’s like she’s acting into a vaccuum; she puts plenty of emotion out but none of it registers. Will Smith’s son Jaden plays her step-son, and his primary mode is “whiny”.

Klaatu’s goal in Day 2009 is to save the Earth, which is bad news for its inhabitants. “If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives,” he tells Helen. Yet the film doesn’t want to be a “message” movie, so no obvious examples are shown lest the audience get upset. I felt The Day the Earth Stood Still was better than expected but the commercial aspect of its existence overpowers its low-key successes. Derrickson’s version misses ample opportunities to explore the nature of meeting a creature from another planet, and the times it does breach the topic it doesn’t have anything to say.

The 1951 original is a social landmark, and even won a Golden Globe for promoting International Understanding. The new version is entertaining, but the fact that it can’t emotionally connect to its audience, much less connect other people, is going to leave many fans rightfully disappointed.

Advertisements

REVIEW: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

 

CAST

Michael Rennie (The Third Man)
Patricia Neal (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
Hugh Marlowe (All About Eve)
Sam Jaffe (Ben-Hur)
Billy Gray (The Seven Little Foys)
Frances Bavier (Benji)
Olan Soule (Super Freinds)

The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from being solely about other-worldly visitors; what gives it the longevity that still stretches to this day comes in the way it peers into humanity, especially our limited capacity to adapt to and understand concepts that reach outside our little bubbles. It’s a masterwork of science fiction, but for a slew of intricate, intelligent reasons that you might not expect.

Wise’s plot, based off of Harry Bates’ story, is simple enough: a flying saucer has landed smack dab in the center of Washington, D.C., drawing scores of curious onlookers to its touchdown site. To the eyes of thousands upon thousands of nervous citizens, two entities step forth from the ship; one is a seemingly human individual instantly taken into custody, while the other is an ominous looking metal robot that, upon finding a spot outside of the U.F.O., has completely stopped moving — as if awaiting orders. The human-like visitor, named Klaatu (Michael Rennie, The Lost World), has come to Earth for the sole purpose of warning about the impending doom that might come about if we neglect to cease our petty wars and development of element-based weapons.


Operating as a critique for the post-WWII environment entrenched in the Cold War, The Day the Earth Stood Still can be quite deceptive if a glance or two is taken at its artwork, still shots, and the iconic, almost monolithic, stature of that metallic robot that it’s become famous for. Assumptions could easily be made that this operates on a purely science fiction level, demonstrating death rays and ominous flying saucers as the Thermelin coats the surface. In fact, that’s far from the case; Robert Wise’s sci-fi picture operates on much more meaningful levels. It’s these concepts that have kept it fresh — and surprisingly relevant with today’s societal conflicts — over the years, which will probably continue for years to come if the globe doesn’t latch onto some of its sprawling concepts.

One conversation held around a dining table earlier in the film features a group of characters discussing Klaatu and his presence on Earth, wondering why he might be here and for what purpose, or purposes. Suddenly, the gears shift in the conversation and a discussion arises that changes his status from being an alien to being a foreign spy — which evokes even more fear and hostility than the idea of him being from another planet. There’s one clear message that The Day the Earth Stood Still persistently communicates: in all our vast experience and untapped inexperience with the universe, there’s an undeniable possibility that other human lifeforms exist on scattered planets — and they might not be all about trying to ensnare the human race, capture loopy farmers for probing experiments, etc. Instead, it bluntly informs us of the ideal that humankind poses a much stronger threat than those curious other-worldly entities, along with the fact that they might be looking down on our pointless bickering with a smirk and a shaking of the head. There’s a shaky, strained wire regarding global tension that Wise’s film tightropes across, embodying the undertones of the time period that epitomizes post-McCarthy hysteria and activity in the nuclear disarmament effort.

But remember, this is a society fallen victim to the radio talents of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, as he tricked the people into believing that the earth was under attack by aliens during his 1938 broadcast. In a similar, pre-WWII environment, people took the content at face value, believing that alien warfare was adding onto the already-tense situation. Media perception on both ends only highlights and intensifies mania, which also plays a rather sizable role in The Day the Earth Stood Still. When an ominous, disc-like object floats down to Earth and opens to reveal a ironclad robot with a human-like figure controlling it, the natural reaction could be fear — or curiosity, or acceptance. Media’s engineering of major events, however, aims for hysterics, which creates the pick-and-choose dynamic in telling people what to think and feel about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Wise’s film opts to go the “fear” route, as most media outlets do, which leads to the cherry-picking of material to convey to the film’s absorbent victims. It’s a clear critique on mass-media and its manipulative nature, highlighted by subtle clues like the posturing of newscasters that relay the information and the excising of non-hysterical content from the crowd at the spacecraft’s touchdown site.


It’s not just the themes that hold up well over the years, either. The Day the Earth Stood Still was crafted in 1951, a time when Hollywood was growing more and more experimental with crafting science fiction material on-screen in unique ways. Surprisingly, the careful techniques used in Wise’s picture still look fantastic, from the presence of the flying saucer as it soars above and touchdowns within Washington D.C. to the usage of “death rays” pouring from the eyes of the ominous robot Gort. When the film begins to ramp up its sci-fi elements near the second half of the picture — devoting the first half to building tension with its thematic poignancy — it becomes both terrifying and engrossing to watch as the advanced methods of technological prowess flex their muscles on the world’s overestimated grasp on technology’s boundaries. Nowadays, computer generation can shatter and liquefy most types of matter while making just about any focal object fly; still, using simple techniques with found objects and camera tricks, there’s tangibility that The Day the Earth Stood Still’s production crew infuses into its stripped-down scenes that still work with full potency to this day — which, in ways, can be seen as real magician’s tricks instead of tech flexing its muscle.

More importantly, The Day the Earth Stood Still blends all these elements — intelligence, tension, and curious whimsy heightened by technological awe — into a hour-and-a-half of significant science-fiction entertainment that’ll trump the effort of most modern films remotely in the same spectrum of genre. It’s an important picture, especially during a time when tension has been mounted by the brewing, highly publicized threats of war and violence against each other. Even in a time when the efforts from science-fiction works like Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek television series have begun to show some significant rust, the seminal energy brooding in this ’50s classic still stands as crisp and clean as Gort standing in front of his stunned onlookers. That’s the sign of why The Day the Earth Stood Still is a truly great film — the fact that you can pick it up more than fifty years later and it’s still as polished and noteworthy as the day it was minted.