Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Daze After "The Day The Earth Stood Still"

The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) Iconic sci-fi pic that managed to be just strange enough to be spiritual without having to explain itself. Edmund H. North's script (adapted from the 1940 Harry Bates story "Farewell to the Master") just assumed that any advanced civilization's technology would seem like magic to us (ala Clarke's Third Law). It's anti-nuke theme was somewhat off-set by it's Christ allegory under-pinnings: a human-appearing being from above comes to Earth with a "message," is killed and resurrected to give mankind a lesson in humility. That the alien--Klaatu (Michael Rennie)--walks among us under the guise of a "Mr. Carpenter" just nails the significance home.

Right from the get-go, The Day The Earth Stood Still announces its intention with a "spooky" theremin-laced score (by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann), quite at odds with its message of peace. Wise shows a global humanity surrounded by its current technology (radio, television, radar) spreading the news of an invader from space, which lands in the Mall area of a tourist-clogged Washington D.C. in Spring. Phalanxed by a wall of tanks and military might (with a larger crowd of tourists behind it) the alien presence reveals itself and is shot by a panicky soldier for its trouble. Before you can say "Kent State," the alien is taken to Walter Reed to be treated, observed and questioned, and the formal Klaatu--patient, curious, but with a hint of passive condescension--does his own analysis, escaping from the hospital and blending with the populace as "Mr. Carpenter"--taking a room at a boarding house, becoming involved with a widowed secretary (Patricia Neal)--it IS the '50's, after all--and her son, seeing humanity first-hand.

Meanwhile, his Enforcer, Gort, a lumbering, laser-cyclopsed, soft-metal robot stands guard over the saucer, turning his evil eye on any hint of aggression, without any regard to how much of the GNP was flushed to make those tanks. If Gort could laugh when he turned on his eye-light, he'd probably do it with glee.

There are so many small details that delight: Patricia Neal
's uncommonly common working Mom, with a wary eye towards Mr. Carpenter--there's not even the hint of romance there; Sam Jaffe's cameo as Einstein stand-in Dr. Barnhardt, looking at his business-suited stranger visitor from another planet with eyes of dazzled wonder; the whole design of the thing that has so permeated our culture with sleek silver surfaces that fold in and out of each other seamlessly; "Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto!" which, indicative of the race's parsimoniousness, roughly translates to: "Robot, take Klaatu's body back to the space-ship and repair whatever damage has been done to it, bring him back to life, and oh! while you're at it, don't turn me into a smoking pile of ash, thank you very much*"--talk about "Three Little Words!"; Robert Wise's unerring sense of staging and for putting the camera in the exact, most effective place without making you aware that it's the most effective place. Wise is always given short-shrift as a director, implying a yeomanlike sensibility rather than an artistic one, but the Man Who Edited Citizen Kane also conceived beautiful, eerie, creepy shots like this:

Thanks to Glenn Kenny of "Some Came Running," who reminded me **

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic film—a time-capsule, of a kind—from a different time and place and space that reminds, yes, with great power comes great responsibilty--but there's always someone more powerful, who might take yours away, and make you stop and smell the fall-out.


"Everything New (Testament) is Old Again"

So why remake it? Well, it's a question that Klaatu's United Planets couldn't negotiate--and Gort's Galactic Police Force would probably give you the eye. But the agent of Keanu Reeves saw a poster of the original and dollar signs swam into his head and here, we have it. And Scott Derrickson (who put a different head-spin on "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") thought he could turn it into a warning about global warming, and Reeves thought that, though the original Klaatu preached peace, he did so threatening force, which he found "fascist."


That sounds noble in thought (if a tad simplistic). On-screen, it's a different matter entirely.

Because it's a "re-imagining" (rather than "a remake"), there is no "
flying saucer," but a cloudy, spacy "orb" (all the better to remind you of the planet, but I kept wondering what kept it in place), and rather than the military, scientists are in the front line (with Princeton astro-biologist Helen Benson, played by Jennifer Connelly, as the point-person). The military is back-up.

The scenario starts the same: Land-Bang-End up in Hospital. And there things start to change. The original Klaatu had no special powers. Gort was the "muscle" (and here, the robot is 20 feet tall, gun-metal gray in color, and a completely CG construct--it's actually simplified from the original's design--and, as with the first Gort, its unreadability makes it a genuinely creepy sight). Keanu Reeves' Klaatu has a nasty way with bio-feedback that does damage. So much for pacifism. But, this Klaatu isn't Christ-in-a-business-suit. This one goes back a few chapters, back to the Old Testament. Particularly those parts dealing with Noah and Moses. The threat is environmental, rather than nuclear, and to sustain one of "the handful of planets that can support life," Keanu-Klaatu's United Planets are thinking of a little Silent Spring Cleaning of the life-form doing the most damage. Good thing he doesn't carry around a cook-book!

The following section is SPOILER material, so if you want to be surprised how it ends—if you care—don't highlight the next paragraph which, like the Earth, gets blacked out:

That scouring consists of billions of nanite-sized metal locusts (why they have to specifically look like insects, I have no idea, but I'd guess it has something to do with why Klaatu's named "Mr. Carpenter" in the first one). So, this "plague" starts doing its damage, devouring metal of all kinds, sports-arenas and such, and one can only hope that it can distinguish "green" technology, like solar panels and wind-generators, from the other kinds, but I suspect not--that might involve thinking! Keatu, or Klaanu, or whatever you want to call him, decides at the last minute that because humans have the capacity for change, they maybe, just maybe, could save their environment, so he sacrifices himself sabotaging the plague, leaving humans with no electricity, no technology, and presumably the resolve to stop the global warming crisis with, as a much wiser alien once inventoried, "stone knives and bear-skins." Thanks, Kleatu or Kono, or whatever your name is, thanks a lot. Who's gonna pick up these continents of dead nanites corrupting the soil, Mr. "Ecology?" And they thought the first one gave off mixed signals?

Keanu Reeves has the most limited range of any actor who hasn't suffered a stroke, but he does have two specialties at which he excels: endearingly stupid, or robotic. The latter serves him well, as in Speedthe portions of The Matrix when he was portrayed by pixels, and this film. His strange visitor from another planet is a nice piece of craft, slightly more human than Jeff Bridges' "Starman," and extremely efficient in his movements--when he turns his head to look you right in the eye, you'd better take him seriously. He's quite effective in the role. Jennifer Connelly delivers the techno-babble expertly (as she did in "Hulk"), but she really doesn't have much more to do than Patricia Neal did, as the role is basically reduced to "concerned mother." As the child she's concerned about, Jaden Smith at least doesn't fall into the "predictable child" category. He finds different ways of doing things than the "stock-child" role. Kathy Bates is too good for her role of Secretary of Defense, Jon Hamm, of "Mad Men," doesn't really separate himself from the pack, but Robert Knepper does a fine job as a Colonel in charge of trying to stop a tidal wave with a tea-cup. It's always great to see cameo's by James Hong, and John Cleese, who plays Prof. Barnhardt in this version.*****

But, ultimately, there wasn't much point in doing this, other than to give people jobs, and give some Hollywood-types more "green" cred. The production was carbon-neutral (wouldn't that have been ironic?), which means they presumably paid carbon credits used to destroy old-growth forests for eucalyptus plantations.

"The Universe wastes nothing," Keatu says at one point.

He's never been to Hollywood.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) is a cable-watcher.

* I hope there's a "please" in there, somewhere!

** Kenny has a wonderful illustrated tribute to director Robert Mulligan, who died this week. It's far better than anything I could contribute.

*** My wife and I have a habit--a ritual, if you will--whenever we watch a movie with Keanu in it. After every
line of his dialogue, one of us will murmur a disappointed "Don't speak," in response to his poor inflaction choices--or lack of them.

**** There is one amusing bit--when Benson is shanghaied to participate in the landing investigation by the military, it's set-up and photographed exactly as it was done in "The Andromeda Strain"...directed by original TDTESS director Robert Wise. Coincidence? Nothing's a coincidence in a "re-imagining."

***** I hate playing the "If only..." game—it smacks of frustrated screenwriters—but, as they had an Albert Einstein-clone in the original, it would have been interesting to have a Stephen Hawking in this one—brilliant, but crippled, talking through a voice-box. If Klaatu wanted inspiration from the human race, who better? Then, imagine this scenario: the group leaves, but Klaatu hangs back, turning to look at the wheelchair-bound pysicist. "I could cure you..." Pause The voice-box rasps: "Save...the...world."

But, they didn't.

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