It's considered one of the "untouchables", a title in a long line of cinematic stalwarts that should never be considered for a remake. Along with such legendary efforts as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Exorcist, it stands head and shoulders above other entries in the genre. So imagine the outcry and dismay when Matrix man himself, Keanu Reeves, was pegged to play the role of alien visitor Klaatu in the seemingly unnecessary remake of Robert Wise's masterful The Day the Earth Stood Still. Fanboards were furious over the choice, curious why a studio would subject the world to such a ridiculous, unnecessary effort. Never mind the fact that Wise's Cold War analogy was/is over 57 years old, and seen as dated by the all important 18-25 demo, any revisit of the material was presumed to be flop fodder. Unfortunately, that's not the case with this intelligent update. While not quite the classic of its predecessor, the new Day doesn't destroy the original's legacy, which is equally significant.
Though she has little to do with such matters, Dr. Helen Benson is immediately called in by the United States government when a large spherical object lands in New York City's Central Park. She is charged with "making contact" with the strange being within, but after a trigger-happy soldier wounds the creature, it's confined to a top secret military base. There, the Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson and the rest of the scientific community learn the awful truth. Because of their lack of environmental concern, the rest of the civilized planets have sent this being, an emissary known as Klaatu, to prepare Earth for the human race's destruction. Hoping to change his mind, Benson and her stepson Jacob help the alien, taking him to Professor Barnhardt for some scholarly convincing. But Sec. Jackson won't let Armageddon happen. With the military's help, they grab Klaatu's robot sentry Gort and try to discover his extraterrestrial purpose. What they learn dooms all mankind.
Clearly we are still living in a post Star Wars world. It's obvious from the moment a work of serious science fiction is announced. If there's not a plethora of intergalactic dogfights and digital cityscapes almost ridiculous in their scope and sensibility, the fanbase screams "foul" and runs back to their model of the Millennium Falcon. Such narrow-minded acceptance/avoidance of any new work of true speculative fiction is less indicative of the quality of the piece, and more a reflection on the expectations of the audience. Perhaps that's why something as solid and intelligent as The Day the Earth Stood Still was ignored when it arrived in theaters last year. While many had reason to worry, few went to see if their fears were realized. Had they wandered into their local Cineplex (or even better, an IMAX theater), they would have caught a thoughtful, quasi-epic adventure that riffed on themes present in the Wise original while bringing some necessary F/X heft to the outcome. Some will still complain about Gort, the lack of certain magic words (they're in there, by the way), and an overall shoulder shrug of an interest level, but that's too bad. This really is an interesting, entertaining work.
Hats off to Scott Derrickson, who's previous resume offered little indication that he could handle such a massive motion picture undertaking. Even the period piece precision of The Exorcism of Emily Rose is no warm up for taking on Michael Rennie and his giant automaton guardian. There are so many facets to The Day the Earth Stood Still - the science, the era, the social commentary subtext, the cosmic import - that a lesser talent might fold. While some may still consider Derrickson's efforts subpar, just imagine how rotten this remake really could have been had, say, Brett Ratner been involved. When you read what Hollywood wanted to do with the recent Watchmen adaptation, the suit stupidity really boggles the mind. Nothing here plays totally false and marketing mandated. Instead, David Scarpa's script tries to incorporate as many thought provoking ideas and universal truths as possible while never fudging on the action. And remember, this is 2008/2009 we are talking about. Do you really think your average moviegoer, unfamiliar with the constraints of serious sci-fi, would tolerate a talky, prostylitizing parable about ecology? Right, and the Will Smith/Steven Spielberg Oldboy remake is borderline genius.
No, while probably forgettable (it definitely won't stand the test of time as the original has), this version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the best we could have hoped for, and this is not meant as faint praise. It's engrossing and involving, trapping us in the situation with scientist Jennifer Connolly (not that big a stretch) and Secretary of Defense Kathy Bates (ditto). Reeves is excellent as the blank emoticon alien, relying more on Neo than nuances to get his point across, and Will Smith's son Jaden goes from irritating to ingratiating as the little child who, naturally, carries much more soulful wisdom than any wisenheimer professor (John Cleese, cashing a check). Some will still fault the development of Gort, but considering his necessity to the last act apocalypse, the oversized threat ain't half bad. And all the while, Derrickson keeps the film moving, never languishing long enough to give us pause - or a chance to shore up our suspension of disbelief. If you can look beyond your previous classic bias, if you can stomach the notion of someone taking one of your favorite films and actually doing something decent with its remake, than you will enjoy The Day the Earth Stood Still. Go in expecting too much and you will be directly underwhelmed. Pitch your prospects accordingly and you'll enjoy yourself.
As per this critic's policy, Screener copies of DVDs are not awarded points for video or audio. If FOX does send a final product version of The Day the Earth Stood Still to the site, this paragraph will be updated accordingly. (One caveat - I saw this film on IMAX at a press screening. It was wildly impressive in said format. I imagine the Blu-ray version will be the way to go for wannabe consumers).
As per this critic's policy, Screener copies of DVDs are not awarded points for video or audio. If FOX does send a final product version of The Day the Earth Stood Still to the site, this paragraph will be updated accordingly.
As for bonus features, FOX really unleashes a lot of added content here. Whether it will all show up on the eventual B&M package of the title remains to be seen. As part of this screener, we are treated to a collection of deleted scenes (only three and not all that necessary), 30 minutes of EPK Behind the Scenes (good), a discussion on Gort, an overview of current attempts to find life on other planets, an interview featurette focusing on environmental issues, and a full length audio commentary from screenwriter Scarpa. It's too bad that Derrickson isn't present for this alternate narrative track. His insights from a visual standpoint would have been helpful, though our scribe does a decent job of discussing narrative choices and changes between the first script and final version of the film (FYI - there are two and three disc versions of the title coming out. This critic only received a single screener DVD. The three disc offers the original 1952 film and a digital copy. The two disc offers the first film only).
It may not be fair to group all sci-fi fans into a single, post-Cantina collective, but it does seem that movies like Timecrimes and Primer are ignored or half-heartedly embraced while another dull derivation into a certain galaxy far, far, away has mainstream audiences anxious. The Day the Earth Stood Still does deserve some of its dismissal. After all, it's treading in very hallowed Hollywood ground. Yet it's not fair to instantly dismiss something for being brave (or dumb) enough to take on the past. As a result, this remake receives an easy Recommended rating. If the actual DVD specs could be confirmed, the score might be even 'higher'. Some may consider a rental initially, since there are always going to be issues with content, casting, and other critical complaints. But here's betting that once the aura of the original wears off, there will be more serious speculative fiction fans embracing this revamp than rejecting it. Scott Derrickson deserves a lot of credit for not totally dropping the ball on this otherwise tenuous cinematic situation. No matter what he did, he was bound to fail. DVD may be the place where his efforts gain some sort of redemption. They definitely deserve it.