Opening 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!)