Movie Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still

By Stephen Cass | December 12, 2008 2:00 pm

Promotional screenshot for The Day The Earth Stood StillOpening today is the remake of the 1951 science-fiction classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly and directed by Scott Derrickson (who Science Not Fiction interviewed earlier this week). In the original movie, Klaatu came to inform the Earth that the galactic community was Not Happy about the stockpile of nuclear weapons humanity was building up. This time around, it’s the erosion of planetary biodiversity that has our alien neighbors ticked off. It’s actually not an unreasonable motivation — many astrobiologists suspect that bacterial life may be somewhat common in our galaxy; even in our own solar system there are several possible habitats, including Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. But they have speculated that more advanced lifeforms are exceedingly rare: consider that for 85 per cent of the 4 billion years life has existed on Earth, no multicellular creatures arose. So the rapid extinction of many species here would be a significant blow to the biodiversity of the entire galaxy, not just the Earth’s.

The movie centers on the dynamic between Klaatu (Reeves) and an astrobiologist (Connelly) who helps him escape the clutches of the U.S. government. Reeves is perfectly cast as the dispassionate and alien Klaatu, and Connelly makes a believable scientist. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the science and the science speak, and that the director didn’t feel it necessary to have the scientists constantly explaining every little bit of jargon to some audience surrogate, which tends to ruin the suspension of disbelief. Even if an audience doesn’t understand every word, they will pick up the ring of authenticity from such exchanges, which inevitably carries more dramatic weight than a group of scientists pausing in mid-conversation to explain to each other what a hyperbola is. Any essential upshot that the audience needs to know can then usually be conversationally conveyed in plain English, which is a language scientists have also been known to use.

But the character that steals the show is Gort, the robot enforcer that accompanies Klaatu. Gort has been updated well, and even when standing stock still conveys an impression of barely restrained violence that not even the original exuded. His menace is palpable through the screen: this is a Gort with personality. (John Cleese also has a great cameo as a nobel prize winner.)

Some critics of this movie have been unfavorably comparing it with the original, which they have retroactively elevated to the ranks of a great philosophical think piece. I’m a fan of the original too, but it’s not without glaring plot holes; its all-knowing Klaatu makes many absurd mistakes simply for the sake of appearing alien or advancing the story. The new version is much more internally consistent (and in fact may have spent a little too long establishing some things, for example, where the aliens got the DNA to build Klaatu’s human body.) I really enjoyed this movie, and appreciated that it didn’t try to paint a simplistic view of human nature. Human nature is complicated, and can’t be reduced to a single essence of “good” versus “bad.” For example, government officials are suspicious to the point of paranoia when Klaatu arrives, but as the movie shows, is it really paranoia if the aliens are actually drawing up plans to squish you out of existence? I also liked that, unlike the original, the new Klaatu isn’t held up as being beyond reproach, and that Cleese’s Nobel Laureate was allowed to draw him into a substantive debate, rather than the humbled acquiescence that marked that character’s response to Klaatu in the original.

This is an intelligent and well-made reimagining of a classic that has managed to keep some of the best stuff of the original (Don’t make Gort mad!), while losing elements that not even the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can excuse. (I’m an incredibly powerful alien who understands human society well enough to go undercover in a nice boarding house, but I’ll give a bunch of huge flawless diamonds to this kid so we can go to the movies!)


Comments (9)

  1. Egaeus

    You’re much nicer to the movie than most reviewers. I still haven’t decided if it’s worth my $10 personally.

  2. I am glad to read your review of the movie, it addresses most of my fears about what might go wrong with a DTESS remake, including what might go wrong while addressing the corniness of the original. I can’t wait to see it!

    p.s.: Jennifer Connelly’s name is spelled so.

  3. @Egaeus

    Well, every movie reviewer is different (you can take a look at the things I like to see if we’re on the same wavelength.) But as I indicated above, I think the movie is being treated a little unfairly by some who remember the original as being much better than it actually was (in fact, the original received mixed reviews and was only “moderately successful” when it came out), meaning the new movie gets measured against an impossible standard and suffers by the comparison.


    Thanks, spelling fixed!

  4. etienne navir

    So: Well, … the end of the movie came suddenly, unexpected —
    unsatisfyingly — but, perhaps because I fell asleep for a few minutes
    near the beginning, I missed something.

    [SNF here — What follows below includes spoilers. I’m going to get our developers to install the plugin that allows you to black out text that can then be revealed by highlighting it if visitors want to read it — at SNF we try hard not to drop in spoilers if we can at all avoid it, even for TV episodes, or at least warn people about them — but for now I’m adding in this block and a few extra carriage lines…

    *** ]

    This is a remake of the 1951 film titled “The Day the Earth Stood
    Still,” which means it had the same title. Mostly it was an homage to
    a Michael Crichton book, Prey (2002) about self-replicating nano-bots,
    with a dash of Sphere (1990) thrown in. It’s revealed that GORT is in
    fact an acronym invented by Earthlings — Genetically Organized Robot
    Technology — and Keanu Reeves never says “Klaatu barada nikto” —
    which is like no one saying their spouse is not their spouse and
    screaming “They’re coming!” in a snatcher movie. Reeves reprises his
    role as Constantine in the same-named 2005 flick about “irreverent
    supernatural detective, who has literally been to hell and back,” and
    gets to wear the same suit — except this time he raises the dead,
    gives his life to save all mankind, then rises as blinding light into
    Heaven, presumably joining something in progress at his Father’s right
    hand. Jennifer Connelly does the Patricia Neal part as Nicole Kidman
    in The Invasion. (Apparently, the new formula for protagonists is
    professional, single-mothers with difficult to control male children.)
    Kathy Bates in it, but looks like she wishes she weren’t.

    And then the end credits come on.

  5. darren

    total rubbish!!!! don’t waste your cash.

  6. Egaeus

    I saw it, and I have to say that if you just HAVE to see it in the theater, at least go to the matinee. Full price is way too much. I have to agree with the critics who say that the first half is great, and then it goes bleh.

  7. JJ

    In response to your comment, “So the rapid extinction of many species here would be a significant blow to the biodiversity of the entire galaxy, not just the Earth’s.”

    I think that’s quite a stretch. It may be true from a statistical point of view, but given the limits that Einstein has placed on our ability to move about or communicate amongst civilizations in the galaxy, it is unlikely that there would be much of a network of sophisticated alien races communicating about the earth, even if they had discovered that we’d evolved. The speed of light’s a bitch, ain’t it? Face it, this movie takes liberties in order to advance the plot. Just like with Star Trek, it would be damn boring if it didn’t. So, I think it’s silly to try and mix a realistic/scientific view of the galaxy with a Hollywood plot that as far as we know today is bloody unrealistic.

    Aside: since life was nearly wiped out on several occasions due to natural occurances, where were the aliens then? I say again, silly comparison.

  8. Thanks a ton for posting this, I found it extremely informative, and it answered most of the concerns I had.

  9. Crystal

    I absolutely love this movie, it was well done and I feel as though it hit the mark. I think its good that they updared the story to go with our “time”. Very good


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