Directed by Scott Derrickson. Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, John Cleese, John Hamm, Robert Knepper. 20th Century Fox.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Sci-fi disaster footage and occasional violence; a scene of slimy alien metamorphosis; a few instances of profanity and crass language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
“I’m here to save the earth,” says Klaatu in Scott Derrickson’s action-movie remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It’s the kind of line you might expect of an enlightened being who comes down from the heavens with a message for mankind — particularly one like Klaatu who is known from the original film for such Christ-like acts as dying and coming back to life, and who is played here by Keanu Reeves, no stranger to sci-fi Christ figures.
However, it turns out that the enlightenment this Klaatu brings is a little less inspiring than that of his 1951 counterpart. Keanu–Klaatu isn’t much concerned with the human propensity for suspicion and violence, nor is he the type to be impressed by the lofty aspirations of the Gettysburg Address during a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. (He does admire Bach, perhaps for his mathematical elegance.)
When Klaatu says he’s here to “save the earth,” he doesn’t mean he wants to save human beings from themselves. He means he’s here to save the earth from us. Yes, it’s The Happening all over again, but with an alien plague of nano-locusts instead of unexplained suicides. Humans are a virus, and Keanu is the cure?
The remake isn’t a bad movie. The xenobiological and geopolitical implications of the premise have been developed with some care and intelligence. The special effects are well conceived and executed, and the story represents a credible effort to honor the original while contributing something new. Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) effectively builds and sustains a sense of thoughtful tension — until the screenplay lets him down.
Then you have a character who protests, “As scientists, we can’t consent to that.” Right, because scientists have never done anything unethical, goodness knows. And there’s Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) saying “We have the situation under control,” when she not only knows perfectly well that they don’t, but has said so, so that Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) can reply, “You’re not in control — you don’t know what he’s capable of,” even though Jackson actually does have a pretty good idea what Klaatu is capable of. Later Jackson tells Helen, “I make no promises. I still answer to the president. You’re on your own.” What does that even mean?
One of the nice touches in the first act, as the U.S. government scrambles to respond to detection of an extraterrestrial object on a collision course with the earth — and then to the unexpected nature of that object when it touches down in Central Park — is the clear sense that even the world’s leading experts are in over their heads, that no one can confidently formulate the correct procedures in a wholly unprecedented situation. Military personnel on the brink of first contact shakily request rules of engagement, and a surgical team looks with nervous bewilderment at a possibly dying extraterrestrial, wondering what interventions they might safely attempt. No one knows. The government has assembled the best and brightest, and they’re smart enough to know that no one on the planet has a clue.
But then at some point military policy impacting the security of the planet appears to be in the hands of a mustachioed colonel (Robert Knepper) who is not an important enough character to have a name, but whose yahoo status may be suggested by his southern drawl, and whose arrogant belief that he knows how to handle giant robots from space in Central Park threatens to usher in an apocalypse. A colonel? Shouldn’t there at least be a general or two on the table, or a Department of Defense emergency council, or something? What happened to the Secretary of Defense? Heck, what happened to the President and the VP? I know they’re squirreled away in secure locations, but who exactly put Colonel Mustache in charge of planetary security? (An officious cop who tries to arrest Klaatu also has a mustache: a token of officious authority, perhaps?)
In the original, Helen Benson is a government secretary and a single mom who meets Klaatu incognito and has no idea who he is. Here she’s reinvented as an astrobiologist on the government’s short list of who to call in case of alien invasion, who knows exactly who Klaatu is from the beginning. Her son, now her stepson, is named Jacob (Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness) rather than Bobby, and is given absent-father issues that make him resentful of his stepmother and hostile to the alien, whom he doesn’t know is Klaatu. “We should kill him,” Jacob declares. “Just to make sure. That’s what dad would do.”
This kind of thing would have tended to undermine humanity’s chances of making a positive impression on the Klaatu of the original, who was the alien equivalent of a humanist, and whose beef with mankind centered on our proneness to suspicion and violence. That Klaatu was concerned with the complexities of human nature, which is what an extraterrestrial envoy ought to make us think about. But Keanu–Klaatu isn’t an ambassador for altruism, except in the broadest sense of eco-friendliness. The closest he comes to commenting on man’s inhumanity to man is when he says, “You treat the world as you treat one another.” I would have preferred “Be excellent to each other.”
The low point of the movie’s persuasiveness is the single scene with Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) — in the original an Einstein-like scientist who impresses Klaatu with his highly evolved thinking, here a caricature of professorial enlightenment. Helen decides to bring Klaatu to Professor Barnhardt when Klaatu professes his disappointment with earth’s leaders. “Those aren’t our leaders!” she protests earnestly. “Let me take you to one of our leaders!” (What? Since when is earth a noocracy, governed by the wise or intelligentsia? Perhaps she is trying to pull a fast one, or perhaps she’s using a mental reservation, meaning “one of our leaders” in the sense of “one of our leading thinkers.”)
At any rate, when they arrive at Professor Barnhardt’s house, we hear piano playing in the background. Helen points out Barnhardt’s Nobel Prize — “for biological altruism,” she says, which sounds made-up, possibly to impress Klaatu, but turns out to be a real-world area of study involving the basis of behaviors in any species that benefit other individuals at the expense of the acting individual.
Then comes the scene in which Klaatu sees Barnhardt’s chalkboard, covered with equations and formulas, realizes how close he is to enlightenment, and begins erasing and making corrections. Then, suddenly, there is Barnhardt, gravely watching Klaatu from behind. After calmly observing for a few moments without a word, Barnhardt calmly joins Klaatu at the chalkboard and begins writing alongside him, like two brilliant musicians performing a duet, as if he solves equations with extraterrestrials every day. All the while the piano-playing continues in the background — a recording, it turns out, not Barnhardt’s own playing. Misdirection or storytelling mistake? I couldn’t tell.
Barnhardt makes the case for allowing humanity to face its crises and try to rise to the occasion. Mankind lacks the will to change, Klaatu contends, but Barnhardt objects that “It’s only at the precipice that we change.” Later, bidding them farewell, Barnhardt offers Helen the Zen-like recommendation, “Convince him not with reason, but with yourself.”
Huh? Even if this works, why should it work? Even if Klaatu ultimately recognizes that “there is another side” to humanity, when did humanity become the issue? I thought the issue was earth in the balance.
The movie is considerably helped by Connelly, who brings conviction and intelligence to her role, and by Reeves, whose detached persona effectively expresses Klaatu’s alienness to his human body. As in The Matrix, Reeves plays a character with christological overtones who gets a slimy, naked Verbum caro factum est birth scene, and has to learn to use his human muscles for the first time. I like Klaatu’s succinct answer to a question about what his natural form is like (“Different”).
Klaatu’s flickering CGI globe spacecraft, which Derrickson ushers onscreen with Spielbergian awe, effectively updates the flying-saucer imagery of the original. The giant robot Gort, also CGI, isn’t nearly as interesting, although the plot does come up with a novel way of using him.
A few scenes suggest christological resonances, as when military laser sights appear on Klaatu’s palms like stigmata. The first time Reeves appears onscreen, in a prologue set in 1928 in which he plays a human being whose DNA becomes the basis for Klaatu’s human body, he’s wearing a beard that could have given Klaatu a Christ-like appearance, but for some reason Klaatu grows hair on his head while remaining clean-shaven. The death-and-resurrection motif of the original has been omitted, or at best conflated with the incarnation imagery.
A couple of brief soundbites offer religious context. Reactions to the extraterrestrial manifestation from religious leaders range from apocalyptic warnings to optimism and calls for understanding; an televised image of Pope Benedict suggests that he is among the voices of calm.
Klaatu’s own message, though, is anticlimactic. Even when he takes a stab at profundity, it falls flat. “Nothing ever truly dies; the universe wastes nothing,” he says in a key scene. “Everything is simply transformed.” Not only is that irrelevant to his larger message, it actually undermines it: If nothing ever truly dies, why is it so all-important to save the earth?
The movie cleverly dovetails the title incident with its own message. At the same time, it seems to lack the courage of its convictions. When the original Klaatu temporarily brought all technology on earth to a grinding halt, the movie made a point of noting that critical systems like airplanes and hospital technology were spared. Given this Klaatu’s willingness to implement an anthropological Final Solution to the environmental problem, I have no trouble accepting that he might not go in for such tender-hearted hair-splitting. Yet this movie only shows us the effects in centers of commerce, government and military locations, and so forth. Whatever happened with the hospitals and airplanes, it’s part of the story, and shouldn’t have been ignored one way or the other.
I don’t object in principle to Keanu–Klaatu’s message. It’s just not a very interesting or enlightening thing for an ambassador from the universe to say. It’s sort of a letdown, not unlike like having the pope show up at your house only to check the batteries in your smoke detectors. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just hope he has more on his mind.