A few years ago, Klaatu and Gort made their way back to the ‘hood, thanks to the mega-budget re-make of The Day The Earth Stood Still. The duo arrived, over five decades after the original, with every intention of forcing some extra-terrestrial “tough love” on us.
Keanu Reeves stuck his chest out and stepped into the lead role made famous in 1951 by Michael Rennie, joined in this go-round by Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, and surprisingly, John Cleese. Certainly, the overall production and effects budget makes possible images never even imagined back in near post-war filmmaking.
But can all this money and contemporary talent add up to make this new The Day The Earth Stood Still as enduringly memorable as the old The Day The Earth Stood Still that graced the world’s screens during the height of Cold War paranoia?
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The talent behind the revamped 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still is certainly respectful of the original. Director Scott Derrickson, producer Erwin Stoff, and screenwriter David Scarpa have all publicly commented on how they understand that the earlier version is an acknowledged classic. Most film enthusiasts do actually fully realize that, generally speaking, remakes are about as successful as a Libertarian running for office in the Lone Star State. This is something that I sadly acknowledge having tried it in 2010 and found that my potential constituents preferred that I stay on the job here at the Smack.
This is not an absolute. On rare occasions, a remake actually fares pretty well against the original. Sorcerer compares favorably with Wages of Fear, for example, as does The Magnificent Seven with The Seven Samurai and The Birdcage vis-a-vis La Cage aux Folles. Accordingly, the number of deviations from the earlier edition have been held to a minimum. Gort is now a biological form and not a mechanical robot. Likewise, Klaatu is now an alien in a human body, not an alien with a human body. And, of course, the balance between story and special effects, between character-driven moments and action sequences, has been skewed as well, reflecting the advances in filmmaking technology, and presumably, present-day audience preferences. Being the challenger against a movie that most sci-fi affecinadoes consider to be sacrosanct, the equavlaent in its genre to what The Godfather is to gangster movies, is a tough undertaking. But then again, a beagle did win at Westminster…
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The Defending Champion
This is arguably the greatest science fiction film of all time. Don’t take my word for it — none other than the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board agree, since the original The Day The Earth Stood Still was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry as one of America’s most significant cinematic achievements, one that “continues to have enduring cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.” This distinguished honor is not only well deserved, it is also a fitting tribute to a great filmmaker, Robert Wise, who set out to defy convention and to author something truly special.
I wanted to make the picture as real, as believable and as honest as I possibly could so that whatever happened from outer space would blend smoothly into something with which everyone could identify. My goal was to make a movie rather than a science fiction movie per se.
To accomplish this, Wise concentrated on telling a rather simple story of an alien humanoid and the circle of ordinary people with whom he comes into contact. Additional credit must go to Edmund H. North, the terrific screenwriter who also brought us the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Patton, and of course, to Harry Bates upon whose short story the screenplay is based. The net effect is a powerful, thought-provoking viewing experience which strikes a responsive chord with virtually everyone who sees it. Michael Rennie stars as Klaatu (in a role originally written for Claude Raines), and his superb performance as the distinguished extraterrestrial messenger is both convincing and chilling. The always reliable Patricia Neal and Sam Jaffe (in his last role during the McCarthy era) more than hold their own as well. Throw in an evocative musical score by Bernard Hermann, solid technical credits throughout, and a scintillating pace thanks to the streamlined storytelling, and the original The Day The Earth Stood Still remains a champion, even in this post-Matrix world.
The very best science fiction films accurately reflect the tenor of the times in which they are produced. In the case of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, we find an audacious allegory for the 1950s chilling concern over the escalating tensions of the early Cold War era and nuclear proliferation. And it hit home by placing the onus on all of mankind, not just the feared Ruskies, but on every American as well. This central theme, where humanity is portrayed as having an inherent inability to restrain from destroying itself, continues in the 2008 edition. As Director Scott Derrickson stated in a recent interview, times have changed, and he felt the underlying story structure behind The Day The Earth Stood Still would allow him to comment on today’s overriding fear — that being mankind’s current path to destroying itself by destroying the very planet it lives on. Heady stuff for both filmmakers, and the Smackdown winner will undoubtedly be the one that succeeds in getting their message across the best.
Keanu’s Klaatu is a solid interpretation of the well-known alien messenger coming from afar. Mr. Reeves is well cast and certainly holds his own when compared to Michael Rennie. Ditto for Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson. She’s an excellent choice in this critical role — one that is expanded in importance from the character played by Patricia Neal — and so this was a critically important casting decision that worked to perfection. Likewise, John Cleese (surprisingly, in my opinion) pulls off his supporting role as Dr. Barnhardt. I’d give a slight edge to Sam Jaffe, but this is a minor quibble not worth arguing about. And when it comes to Gort, the 2008 version is bigger, more versatile and more imposing than the original. Think LeBron James vs. Charles Barkley — I think Nike needs to sign this new, improved Gort to an endorsement contract right away.
So far, so good.
Alas, there is one area where the remake (or “reintroduction” as some have called the new The Day the Earth Stood Still) does not fare so well. I’m referring to the critically important underlying ability to convince the viewer that what he is seeing is realistic, that the events portrayed on the screen could actually happen today, tomorrow, or next Tuesday. That was part of the magic which made the original such a classic. Audiences then, and even now, are drawn in, almost magically, by the excellent screenplay, the flawless direction by Robert Wise, and the limited number of special effects which, for the time, especially, were totally believable.
Derrickson’s direction and Scarpa’s script are more than competent by all standards, but they just don’t equal the seamless, thought-provoking, visceral storytelling found in the 1951 version. Few films do, and so this is not so much an indictment against the new film as it is to say the challenge to equal the original was a gigantic one, even by intergalactic standards.
Oddly, though, it was really the special effects which fail to impress. I don’t know who the hundred or so folks are that are credited with the various CG and (supposedly) high-tech visual imagery — maybe they are names pulled out of the Rancho Cucamonga telephone directory — because what seems blatantly apparent to me is that the biggest scenes, the destruction of the 18-wheeler and the Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, for example, were actually the work of Julian Beever and the Ohio Art Company. For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, Mr. Beever is the sidewalk artist who has become famous on the internet for this 3-D sidewalk chalk paintings, and the Ohio Art Company is the maker of Etch A Sketch. See if you don’t agree — Beever drew the requisite matte paintings, and then the almuninum powder from a giant Etch A Sketch wipes the image away. O.K., maybe this is an exaggeration, but there’s no denying the 2008 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still deserved better.
Everyone at the Smack knows my penchant for liking old movies more often than new movies. Guilty as charged.
Honestly, though, I liked the new version a lot more than I thought I would. As I took my seat in the theater, I expected the aging champ to knock-out this young pretender. But it wasn’t a knock-out at all. For me, it turned out to be a close decision.
The winner, then, is still the 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still. Even Uno agrees…