The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) **
I was absolutely mystified the first time I heard that 20th Century Fox had a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in the works, even before word got out that Keanu Reeves, of all people, was slated to take over Michael Rennie’s old role. Leaving aside the usual bitching about desecrating a classic, who was the target audience for this thing supposed to be? Did the studio really expect anyone to remember the old version, save the very nerds who would be incensed on general principle at the idea of a remake? And if not, then what was the point of trying to cash in on the reputation of a movie so old that it really didn’t have one anymore? Meanwhile, The Day the Earth Stood Still was so firmly rooted in the Cold War that removing the story from that context would seem to deprive it of all relevance or reason for existing. What in the world could a new version be about that would make any sense in 2008? And of course the “desecration” angle really does need to be considered at some point, especially if (as seemed to be the case on the basis of pretty much all the information that dribbled out during the months leading up to the film’s release) the producers had no higher ambition than to improve upon an iconic but featureless flying saucer and an equally iconic (but equally featureless) robot suit. Certainly the last 20 years or so do not present an encouraging track record for remakes of respected, genre-defining (or re-defining) movies: Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, the Sharon Stone-Isabel Adjanni Diabolique, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, the Dean Devlin-Roland Emmerich Godzilla, the Samuel L. Jackson Shaft, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, and so on. By attempting to reinvent one of the greatest science fiction films of the 1950’s— or indeed ever— director Scott Derrickson and writer David Scarpa were just plain asking for it.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to suspect that a new Day the Earth Stood Still might not be a fool’s errand after all. You see, there’s something to the original that nobody much talks about, something far scarier than Gort alone lurking behind the movie’s commendable plea for peace and sanity in an era characterized by all too little of either. Remember, Klaatu represents a sort of galaxy-wide United Nations, made up of incredibly advanced civilizations that have managed to break the cycle of ever-improving technology enabling ever more destructive violence, and he has come to Earth to offer us a choice. Either we can lay aside our arms and join in this interstellar commonwealth, or we can continue marching down our accustomed blood-soaked road, and be destroyed before we become powerful enough to pose a serious threat to peace in the galaxy. It’s a harsh ultimatum, and Klaatu’s people are in effect outing themselves as interplanetary colonialists by delivering it, but the rules were different in 1951. Back then, it was still widely accepted that “advanced” cultures had both a right and a duty to intervene paternalistically in the affairs of their more “primitive” neighbors— why wouldn’t the same apply to an enlightened extraterrestrial people that had outpaced humans in general by an extent proportional to that by which Western Europe had outpaced Subsaharan Africa? We don’t go in for that sort of thing in the 21st century, however, and that shift in mores has left Klaatu looking just a little less benign than he used to. That’s not all, either. The Day the Earth Stood Still never makes this explicit, but in “Farewell to the Master” (the short story from which the film derives), the inhabitants of the other planets achieved their state of permanent peace by creating a corps of virtually omnipotent robots to enforce it. The machines’ authority was absolute, and they wielded the power of life and death not merely over individuals, but over entire species. Step out of line in a way that endangered the cosmic common good, and Gort would swing by and burn your planet to ashes. Again, the movie never comes right out and says that’s how things work, but hints of that aspect of the source story are discernable if you look closely enough. That’s some terrifying shit, and even more terrifying is the implication that it was the best thing the aliens could come up with, despite all their ancient wisdom and superhuman intelligence. A remake that directly confronted that black undertone to the original’s surface optimism would indeed be well worth watching, and the tragedy of the remake we actually got is that it almost does— apparently by complete accident. After interestingly recasting the aliens’ agenda on an environmentalist rather than pacifist basis, it moves their arrogant paternalism front and center with a thoroughly unsympathetic Klaatu who employs his godlike power with a similarly godlike arbitrariness, but the new version ultimately accepts the aliens’ benevolence no less uncritically than the old.
Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, from Creepers and Dark Water) is a theoretical astrobiologist, meaning in essence that she gets paid to speculate as rigorously as possible about what it might take for life to evolve and survive in various extraterrestrial environments. She also holds the unenviable position of single stepmother, for her military engineer husband was killed in Iraq a year ago, leaving her alone to care for his elementary school-age son, Jacob (Jaden Smith). (The boy’s real mother is dead, too, and has been for long enough that Jacob probably has very few memories of her.) Jacob is an extremely rebellious little boy. You know how difficult it usually is to get kids to accept their stepparents’ authority, right? Well, imagine the battle Helen faces now that neither biological parent is in the picture. Normally, I wouldn’t make such a big deal of Benson’s family situation, but since The Day the Earth Stood Still is going to spring that tired old “humanity saved by the Power of Lovetm” crap on us later, I’m afraid I kind of have to.
Anyway, Benson gets a phone call one evening from an insistently incommunicative man who informs her that someone is on the way to pick her up, but refuses to say one goddamned word about who or why. Yes, you’re quite right— that can only mean that it’s official government business. The national security types play it close to the vest until Benson and the dozen or so other scientists and engineers whom they’ve rounded up with similar brusqueness are actually at the military installation to which they’re being taken, but the upshot is that something from outer space is going to crash into Manhattan Island in about an hour and a quarter. You might think NASA could have done a slightly better job of watching the skies than that, but the astronomers have an unimpeachable excuse for being so late on the draw here— the object is only a couple hundred feet across, and it’s traveling at one tenth the speed of light. The Air Force will try to knock it off-course with a nuclear missile, but there’s next to no chance of that succeeding. The scientists have been called in not to save New York, but to figure out a way to deal with the aftermath. Of course, if the space whatsit hits the Earth at 10% of light-speed, it’s vanishingly unlikely that there’s going to be any aftermath.
Imagine, then, the mingling of relief, astonishment, and consternation felt by all concerned when the thing from the void doesn’t crash, but rather comes to a gentle stop, and sets itself down in Central Park. Clearly it’s neither a comet nor a meteor, and odds are it’s being controlled by someone, but it also doesn’t look like anything you’d recognize as a spacecraft. The object that generated so much official panic is just a big, shimmering sphere of who-knows-what, and it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if its substance turned out not even to be what we’d normally think of as matter. Benson and her fellow eggheads are rushed to the scene, and so are a mechanized infantry battalion and about half the cops in New York City. Tensions rise when something man-like emerges from the sphere’s interior, and as the being approaches within arm’s reach of Helen, a nervous soldier opens fire, seriously wounding the creature from space. No sooner has the alien fallen than something else steps out of the sphere— a distinctly unfriendly-looking robot some 30 feet tall. The robot is visibly fixing to annihilate the encircling troops, but the injured alien calls it off before anything really ugly has a chance to happen. Cooler heads having momentarily prevailed, the extraterrestrial is gathered up and hustled to the nearest military base for treatment. In the course of that, it comes to light that the creature belongs simultaneously to three different species, genetically speaking. The brain has one set of DNA, the body is otherwise that of a completely normal human (specifically, it’s the body of Keanu Reeves, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Matrix), and the dense, blubbery substance that the lead surgeon initially mistook for the alien’s flesh is yet a third organism, performing essentially the same function as a spacesuit. Benson and the others are all duly impressed.
Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, of Misery and Diabolique) is impressed, too, but she’s thinking more in terms of what might happen if the United States and its allies had to fight the people who made that sphere, that robot, and that living environment suit. And since the alien— Klaatu is still his name, by the way— is far from forthcoming about what has brought him to Earth, Jackson has no choice but to take seriously the possibility that an invasion from the stars is in the offing. All Klaatu will say is that he represents a coalition of extraterrestrial civilizations, and that his mission is to contact those who are empowered to speak for all of humanity— somebody like the United Nations General Assembly, for instance. It’s hard to say which participant in this contest of wills is the more needlessly obstinate, but Benson (who, as the theoretical astrobiologist, gets to hang around long after the rest of the team is dispersed) doesn’t have to watch the verbal sparring between Jackson and Klaatu for long before deciding that she trusts the politician less than the alien. When Jackson orders Klaatu sedated for transport to one of the ever-popular secure locations, Benson contrives to shoot him up with perfectly harmless saline solution, and urgently whispers “Run!” to him while she’s administering the injection. Klaatu does indeed run, using his apparently innate ability to access any form of electrical network (including even human neurons) to knock out the building’s whole security system, and to incapacitate everyone inside by stimulating their auditory nerves to transmit false signals of ear-splitting racket to their brains.
Klaatu reasonably seeks out Benson as soon as he’s put some distance between himself and Regina Jackson. He won’t tell her what his mission is, either, but he does at least describe himself as “a friend of the Earth.” Helen is willing to take his word for that much, anyway, and so she volunteers her services in helping the alien keep one step ahead of Jackson and her minions. Benson might be just the slightest bit warier, though, if she understood Mandarin Chinese. One of the places Klaatu has Benson take him is a McDonalds where he meets up with an old Chinese man (James Hong, from Blade Runner and Tank Girl) who is really another member of his own race. The fake Chinese has been living on Earth since 1928, observing humanity, and the conclusions to which he has come over the last 70 years are weirdly mixed. On the one hand, he characterizes humans as a violent people— in all probability incorrigibly so. He also calls us a tragic people, for he believes that we understand at some level that our behavior as a species is unacceptable, that we each as individuals wish to change, but that collectively we lack the necessary will to do so. Nevertheless, Klaatu’s contact insists that he will not be returning home when whatever unspoken doom the aliens are contemplating falls upon humanity, even though to remain on Earth will mean his death. The undercover agent has gone native, and nothing Klaatu can say will dissuade him from staying on his adopted world to share the fate of his adopted people.
That fate, as I’m sure you’ve begun to suspect, is extermination, and the delivery system for it, as I’m sure you’ve also begun to suspect, is Klaatu’s giant robot. Although it appears to be a single, immense humanoid, Klaatu’s companion is really made up of hundreds of billions of gnat-sized biomechanical insects, capable of converting any inorganic matter they consume into more of their kind. When Klaatu says the word, this plague of high-tech locusts will fan out across the globe, killing every one of us and erasing all non-living trace of our presence here. Now you might find it hard to reconcile this plan with Klaatu’s claim to be a friend of the Earth— certainly Benson has a difficult time of it when she finally gets wise to what the alien has up his sleeve. He never said he was humanity’s friend, though, did he? No. In fact, the difference between those two propositions is exactly the point. Planets capable of sustaining multicellular life are terribly rare in the galaxy, and the coalition of cultures that Klaatu represents holds that it is unconscionable for a single species to be allowed to ruin such a world for everyone else who lives or might someday live there. If one species on a given planet can’t refrain from poisoning its estuaries, razing its forests, melting its icecaps, poking holes in its ozone layer, and hunting its other inhabitants to extinction for fun and profit, then for the sake of life itself, somebody needs to step in and put a halt to the destruction. Klaatu’s people have the power to do so, and by their lights, that means they also have the responsibility. The alien posing as an old Chinese man was charged specifically with assessing the chances of us mending our ways as our civilization matured, and fond of us though he is, he reckons those odds in the “when pigs fly” range. However, as is revealed when Benson’s physicist friend, Barnhardt (John Cleese, from Time Bandits and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), presses Klaatu on the subject, even his race once found itself in a position that demanded the immediate emergence of airborne swine. Maybe all humanity needs to set it straight is a crisis as dire as the one faced by Klaatu’s people. And maybe all it takes to prove that is a demonstration of our race’s capacity for selflessness from someone (like— oh, I don’t know— Helen Benson?) whom the alien emissary has reason to trust. Helen had better do her convincing fast, though, because the process that will culminate with human extinction has already been set in motion, as evidenced by the arrival of a fleet of smaller spheres meant to ferry breeding populations of Earth’s non-human life to safety while the swarm of robo-bugs does its apocalyptic work.
I’m a pretty big fan of both continued human survival and love in all its forms, but you know what? If the fact that some humans are capable of loving stepchildren who treat them like shit for no reason is really the most persuasive argument for keeping us around, then by all means bring on the metal-munching nanobots. What’s most galling about The Day the Earth Stood Still’s resort to the old “Man is a feeling creature, and because if it the greatest in the universe” line is that Klaatu buys it, even though he’s spent the whole movie openly regarding the human race much the way the inhabitants of a rural area might regard a pack of feral dogs that had set up shop in the nearest patch of woods— although he feels no malice toward us, he considers us dangerous and impervious to reason, and he’s here to shut us down before we have a chance to do something irrevocably horrible. There’s no reason I can see why watching Helen and Jacob share a tearful moment together before the deceased Mr. Benson’s grave should alter that stance, especially after Klaatu has heard the old Chinese guy’s report. The latter alien was here for seven decades, and while the first seventeen years of his mission made him a witness to some of the most appalling and disgraceful deeds ever perpetrated by the human race, the subsequent 53 were characterized by an unprecedented effort on the part of the species to get its shit together. The aliens’ undercover observer was present for the containment of totalitarianism, the dismantling of the colonial system, and the rejection of war and conquest as standard instruments of state policy by what had previously been the most belligerent and acquisitive bunch of nations on Earth. He was here to see a belated and imperfect, but nevertheless strenuous, international effort to abate the environmental damaged caused by two centuries of unrestrained industrialization, including nuclear test-ban treaties, pollution-control legislation aimed at reining in everything from pesticides to ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, and biological conservation measures that would have been politically and philosophically unthinkable at any previous point in human history. Most importantly, he got to watch as we developed armaments capable of rendering half the globe permanently uninhabitable, spent 40 years pointing those doomsday arsenals at each other while committing every imaginable provocation to use them, and yet never pulled the triggers. And while he was taking all that in, the alien scout by his own admission fell in love with humanity— not just in a general sense, either, if we’re to take literally the words of the young man who calls the operative “grandfather” during his McDonald’s rendezvous with Klaatu. If, after all he’s seen, felt, and experienced, the older extraterrestrial still believes that Homo sapiens has got to go, then what imaginable justification could Helen Benson offer Klaatu for pulling the plug on the bug-bots? It would be one thing if The Day the Earth Stood Still had presented Klaatu as a human-hugging space-hippy, contending with the folks back home that the long-term observer’s report actually indicated the redeemability of humankind despite the agent’s own assessment to the contrary, but that isn’t how the movie plays it. Klaatu remains the hardest of hard-asses in the face of good arguments for sparing us, but goes all soft and gooey the moment he sees two people collapse, bawling, into each other’s arms in front of a tombstone. Bullshit.
That last-minute implosion of Klaatu’s character comes closer than any other one flaw to being fatal to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it’s made doubly irksome by the movie’s apparent willingness up ‘til then to portray the alien as a figure of placid but undeniable menace. Like Rennie-Klaatu, Reeves-Klaatu is giving modern, Westernized humanity a taste of its own medicine, but the draught is bitterer by far this second time around. The former came to Earth to civilize us, and under the early-50’s assumptions that permeate the earlier film, it’s possible to imagine that the distaste with which we might greet being forcibly civilized says more about our ignorance and backwardness than it does about the validity of Klaatu’s mission. The latter has come to drain a swamp, and the only hope we mosquitoes have of survival is to promise very contritely never to give anyone malaria again. What’s more, for all the new Klaatu’s talk of having a fundamental respect for all living creatures, his dealings with humans reflect exactly the same imperiousness that we display in our treatment of the “lesser” beings on our planet. Klaatu habitually kills when it isn’t necessary, as when he crashes a formation of helicopter gunships, even though he could just as easily have shut down the circuits that fire their weapons instead, or when he flattens a policeman with Helen’s car rather than simply inducing the muscles in the cop’s hand to relax their grip on his pistol. He also grants life as nonchalantly as he takes it, as when he restores the aforementioned flattened policeman with a regenerative secretion produced by the tissues of his space suit. Like a capricious deity, he’s someone whose attention you’d really be better off not having, regardless of how much knowing him might benefit you when he’s in a good mood. Frankly, it’s astonishing that Benson continues to trust him for as long as she does. This revised characterization works remarkably well with Reeves’s usual immobile non-acting; it’s a rare situation in which his inability to credibly simulate human emotion is exactly what the role calls for. It’s also, as I mentioned before, an easy and effective way to bring out the dark side of the premise. Unfortunately, Scarpa and Derrickson don’t seem to want to do anything with that dark side, so what starts out being a point in the remake’s favor eventually turns decisively against it— especially once we get to the Earth standing still.
Yeah— you were really starting to wonder about that, weren’t you? What was originally a demonstration of the aliens’ power is now the final price for human survival, as Klaatu calls off the bugs, but freezes all “artificial” means of power generation and transmission. With that, we’ll have no choice but to find some less destructive way of interacting with the rest of the Earth’s biome. It’s the last scene in the film, and it’s also the point at which the movie is finally scuttled by its own subtext. At the surface, one might defend what Klaatu does from the perspective of radical environmentalism. If we’re just one species among many, of no more account than any other, then our right to pursue our own comfort and survival stops at the other fellow’s ecological niche, right? Granted, and granted as well that our machines have done far more harm to the biosphere than we’d ever have managed without them. But how do the aliens rate by that standard? If they’re zipping around the cosmos at a tenth of the speed of light (and probably a hell of a lot faster than that in open space) in balls of concentrated force, accompanied by giant robots Voltroned together out of billions of self-replicating mecha-bugs, installing their brains in culture-grown bodies mimicking those of whatever species they plan to visit, and wearing spacesuits grown from genetically engineered placental tissue, then they can hardly be said to have renounced advanced technology! Nor is it remotely imaginable that the energy cost of their scientific marvels doesn’t outstrip that of anything humans have ever thought of. That sort of sophistication doesn’t come out of nowhere, so one has to assume that alien science went through a dirty, smelly, destructive period, too, no matter how clean and sustainable it might be today. So what do you know— we’re right back at the intersection of hypocritical arrogance and colonial paternalism again, aren’t we? And since this comes after Klaatu’s conversion, at which point we’re supposed to accept him more or less unreservedly as one of the good guys, that’s absolutely the last place we ought to be.