They did it. The fools! They finally did it. Goddamn you! Goddamn you all to hell! – While this outburst would be better suited to Tim Burton’s remake of the Planet of the Apes, I’ll let it herald another cinematic atrocity: They have remade Robert Wise’s science fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and the result is thoroughly unspectacular. Yep, that’s telling ‘em off… Honestly, I wanted the remake to succeed, but my initial scepticism proved, unfortunately, not to be the result of a paranoid mind.
It’s not so often I get the chance to see films some 10 days prior to their world premieres. Thus I was in an elevated mood when the opportunity presented itself today. As one never knows what’s liable to get a man into trouble, I’ll not thank the person responsible for this treat here… I’ve been a fan of the original film since I saw it together with my wife some six years ago. (It’s now one of her favourite films). Of course, we’re not alone in our fandom of the movie; Klaatu Barada Nikto has become something of a household phrase in USA and among nerds and geeks the world over. The 1951-film is one of the best known black and white S/F films ever made and one of the most beloved.
It’s not difficult to see why. The film has a pretty timeless message about humanity’s place on earth. In 1951, the perceived prevalent threat to our existence was the atomic bomb, but one hardly needs to be a rocket scientist to imagine new ways for the human race to destroy itself or its world. Thus, the concerns of Robert Wise’s film can easily be renewed, so to say, or re-energized, by newer generations. Then also the film had going for it the design of an incredibly cool – though borderline dorky, some would say – robot, or automaton as I prefer to call it. GORT wasn’t much more than mansized, but still damn well unstoppable when he got going. That is, until the humanoid envoy of the alien race called him to stop with the succinct “Deglet Ovrosco!” and the now so famous command “Klaatu Barada Nikto”.
I could list, if pressured by Gort, a hundred reasons why the 1951-version of The Day The Earth Stood Still deserves its classic status, but I’ll dedicate this post to some of the hundred reasons why the remake that has an imminent world premiere falls not only short of the original, but falls extremely painfully short, with broken limbs and a smashed skull to show for its toils.
The original film jumps straight to the action. As soon as the credits have played, over images of the universe with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful soundtrack setting the mood, we get to know that an alien spaceship is about to land on earth. Within five minutes, it has landed in Central Park, and as the film delivers its plotpoints economically, we have also been prior to the reactions to the phenomenon all over the world.
The first problem I have with the remake is that it uses so much of its running time to get to the point. First we have a kind of prologue, which shows us a mountain climber, played by Keanu Reeves, encountering a giant orb-like object in the Himalayas (?) The entire sequence is accompanied by the fakest looking snow I can recall having seen since the more claustrophobic second rate studio pictures of the forties. As it turns out, this sequence has no real bearing on the rest of the film, apart from trying to over-explain some points mentioned later anyway.
Then, as the film proper begins, Jennifer Connelly, who as always does a fine role here, is shown at work handing out homework assignments for a class of students of astrophysics or astrobiology or some such. There is a scene where she is asked on a date by a colleague, an offer she declines. We never see her students, workplace, or colleague again. Couldn’t the film just have told us what her work is? We follow her home, where she meets her stepson. This we know because said son actually tells her: “Don’t be such a stepmom!” I guess we could not be trusted to gather this ourselves. Later in the film, she explains her family history to Reeves’ character, Klaatu. How many times does the audience need to hear the same? Isn’t one of the advantages of the medium that we don’t have to be told everything, as we can actually SEE what is happening. If the “show, don’t tell!”-rule is true for literature, it must be doubly so for films.
The following twenty minutes or so posits exciting questions, such as who’s going to watch the increasingly irritating STEPson while momma is apprehended by the government and what is going on? (I suspect that most viewers, even those unfamiliar with the original film, will have a far better idea about what’s going on than the protagonists. This is seldom a good thing). We follow what can only be described as bureaucratic procedures as Connelly’s character gains access to an emergency area filled with scientists – and one engineer (!) – that have no idea why they are there. After introducing these, the film never lets us see them again. She meets the head of the science community, played by Jon Hamm, always so tired looking in the very good TV-series Mad Men. He looks even more tired here, maybe because the film has no need for him. There is an intimation that he knows Connelly from before, but this thread is not followed up on. Neither is his part in the film, except from a scene towards the end, in which he serves as her driver. Now, that’s a character arc for you!
After half an hour, the spaceship has finally landed and eventually Keanu Reeves emerges from a cocoon-thingy. For once, Reeves’ wooden acting serves a purpose, as the character is supposed to be inhuman in most aspects apart from appearance. Reeves manages more or less to appear as human, and maybe they should award him a prize for this.
The story is supposed to be a kind of moral parable or a tale of what if? – Can human beings change if they finally know, without any room for doubt, that they are about to destroy themselves – or be destroyed? This is all well and good, but while the original film knew what it was trying to say and said it succinctly and effectively, this remake manages to spend a third of its running time just setting up the situation. Not only does it spend too much time on incidents and characters that ultimately don’t contribute to the story, but the story it does tell is muddled and not convincing, even within its own reality and frame of thought. The filmmakers have tried to make it contemporary and relevant to today, but I never felt convinced by humanity’s right to a continued existence after the evidence presented here.
Global warming and pollution is the atomic bomb of today, the film tells us. This is all well and good, but while the first film showed us this as a challenge to the world, and showed us the world answering, the remake is US-centric to the extreme. While it tries to show the US- government as ill equipped to handle the situation, paradoxically it has no interest in how the rest of the world faces the global threat that GORT and the alien races post. The film initially introduces us to scientists of many cultural and national backgrounds, but it lets these disappear without any further thoughts of their place in the story. Reeves’ alien once tries to get the chance to talk with the UN, but this request is quickly dismissed by the American Secretary of Defence (if I remember correctly), played by Kathy Bates, and for all intents and purposes, both the film and Klaatu forget about the request.
Instead of trusting that the seemingly timeless galactic moral dilemma of whether it is necessary to kill humanity before they kill their planet is sufficient in the stakes department, we are also treated to a back story of Connelly’s husband dying in Iraq and this event’s effect on the remaining family. I can see little reason to include this except as a forced reference to current events that doesn’t even manage to throw the briefest flicker of light on why the father died or how his death has served as the mean of estrangement between mother and stepson that the film tries to convince us of is a deep source of unhappiness. I find myself being obfuscate here, partly because I don’t want to give away too much of the action, but mostly because this part of the story makes little narrative sense and the storyline comes off as downright uninteresting.
Apart from an uninteresting story, which irrelevance is an accomplishment considering the material they had to work with and base the story on, the film has two serious problems: The first is the special effects, which are surprisingly badly made, and the second is John Cleese, or, rather, the casting of Cleese. GORT, the automaton, is initially well made. He is now about ten metres tall, but that is a remake for you, and it kind of works well. However, in his second incarnation, in the latter part of the film, he dissolves – by own volition – into a kind of metallic dust cloud consisting of myriads of tiny metal insects (don’t ask!). Everyone who has seen The Mummy Returns knows how bad digital dust storms can look and this film is definitely no exception. Apart from GORT2, there are a number of bad effects, and as already mentioned, they were not even able to make the snow look convincing.
The worst special effect, though, has to be John Cleese posing as a scientist. People in the movie theatre started giggling as soon as he appeared and immediately began making difficult equations on a black board. Some actors just have too much baggage to work in roles like this. While Cleese could function in the humoristic role of Q in the Brosnan Bond-films, serious acting is another venue altogether. Seldom have I seen a role working so much against the film it appears in as Cleese’s appearance here.
In closing, I know that most will share my deep regret that not even GORT’s commands are given correctly in this film. When the automaton in his first appearance destroys all of the army vehicles and weapons, his humanoid companion, Klaatu, makes him stop his rampage by commanding him “Deglet Ovrosco!”. In the remake, they can’t wait to introduce the iconic (if one can say that about a sentence) Klaatu Barada Nikto, so they use it already at this point. We never hear it again, nor any other commands to GORT. Damn, that’s a shame! Had they had a creative bone in their collective bodies, the film makers could at least have tried to introduce a phrase themselves, something new, something worthwhile, something.