RogerBW's Blog

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) 09 September 2021

2008 science fiction, dir. Scott Derrickson, Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly: IMDb / allmovie. The aliens land with a message for humanity, and the humans immediately shoot one of them.

This was my "extra" viewing for the episode of Ribbon of Memes in which we discussed the original; I got all enthusiastic, but it turned out my co-hosts were (quite reasonably) less so, so we ended up not talking about it. Well, this is a terrible film; but it's terrible in all sorts of interesting and educational ways.

What's immediately noticeable is the slacker pacing. It's only ten minutes longer than the original, but in the original we get straight down to business: object, landing, shooting. Klaatu's first sensible conversation with the humans is 18 minutes in. Here it's 33.

Here Helen is right in the thick of things, which is good and bad. Good, because she's played by Jennifer Connelly, and when your other principals are Keanu Reeves still in post-Matrix stiff mode playing flat and emotionless, and Jaden Smith getting Jaden all over everything, you need someone capable of portraying an honest emotion for the film to rest on. (Fortunately Connelly has broad shoulders, and she's ably assisted by Kathy Bates as the face of the government/military side of things.) Bad because, well, original Helen is a normal person and that's kind of the point; here she's one of the key experts, someone who gets the blue-light convoy and road closure laid on for her even if she wasn't expecting it. She's much more conventionally set up as a heroine rather than as someone who just happened to be in the right place.

And then Klaatu escapes on screen, which means he becomes less enigmatic and more conventionally an alien threat: OK, we've seen that he can do this to people, what are the limits of that ability? (Answer, he only gets to use it once per film.)

There are military details that are wrong, like the MQ-9 Reaper being shown with some sort of jet or rocket engine, and engaging a ground target with AIM-9 Sidewinders rather than the AGM-114 Hellfires which are much more appropriate to the task. But even nitpicky Roger has to admit that the point of this is not that the details are incorrect, it's that we get this kind of military detail at all, in a moment of "look what neat toys we've got even if they don't help here" porn, a discordant jingoistic note in a film that's otherwise trying to hew mostly to the original.

Well, mostly. The threat is changed from nuclear war to eco-doom, and the sort of people who disagreed with that found it preachy simply for mentioning the subject (funny how they never say that when it's a thing they agree with; and yes, I do watch for this in myself!), but more to the point it lends itself to analysis just as the escape sequence does. You're evacuating samples of the animals ("so long and thanks for all the fish"), and the threat to Earth is much more blatant and immediate, but… animals without plants? How are they going to survive in your temporary zoo, then?

There are missed opportunities. "We should stop him", says Annoying Kid, and nobody thinks to reply: "we", humanity, can't stop him. We've tried all the military force our budget will allow (no actual large bombs or artillery, and nukes are never even mentioned, perhaps because the thing's sitting in Central Park, though at the point where most of New York has been nano-disassembled you'd think it wouldn't really matter). So what do we have to lose by attempting persuasion? We're already all going to die anyway!

There's an entirely pointless scene of tension where some patsy is sent in to change the drill bit that has failed to penetrate Gort, because doing it with a robot arm will take too long. Why? Why not just take the drill out of the room it's sitting in and mount the new bit in it, given that you're already letting people go in and out anyway? And what might be a powerful moment as the humans flush the room with high-temperature fire to try to stop Gort's breakout, incidentally murdering that unfortunate bit-changing patsy, is completely wasted because everyone nearby dies in the next few seconds anyway (also if explosives didn't leave a mark why would fire?).

But the message here, because the destruction plan has already been put into play before the film starts, is: Helen eventually convinces Klaatu that there is good in humanity, so he stops the genocide of humans. But… Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon are still out there. The aliens have had agents in place for years; they already know that there is good in humanity; they already know that humans can love each other, and can make beautiful art, and all the rest. They already knew that when they decided that the environmental damage was getting too much to tolerate, and it was time to remove humans from the board in spite of all the good things. So… why does telling them again what they already know make any difference? Yeah, John Cleese actually does all right in a straight role, but so what?

And finally… no, not quite finally. The phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" wasn't going to be in the film at all (weird when you consider what other stuff was kept in even though it no longer seems relevant to the story), but Keanu insisted. But… he says it. People have argued about what it means in the original, but anyone can see that in a general sense it's an instruction to be relayed via Helen: "Klaatu says [don't wipe out the humans, resurrect me, go to plan nine]" or something of that sort. Whatever it meant there, here it's just present so that people can say "ooh, I recognise that phrase, wasn't it in Army of Darkness?"

And really finally this time: the original film had all the world's electricity being stopped (except for aircraft and hospitals… and nerve impulses…), therefore the new version must have all electricity being stopped. It's not at all clear whether this is meant to be a temporary effect, since it happens just before the departure of the ship, or permanent, as some reviewers wrote (presumably on the basis of a press briefing, or perhaps a cut other than the one I watched). If it's permanent, guess what happens when you can't use electricity any more? Fossil fuel lighting, gas mantles and candles! You can't have electric trains, or petrol cars, but you most certainly can have a boring old-fashioned diesel engine if you can build some way to generate hot spots in the cylinders before you crank it. And so on. This seems to me as though (without, after all, any sign that humans have decided to change their ways) it'll just bring on ecological collapse even faster.

Both Derrickson and Reeves were said not to like remakes in general, but to feel that this one was different. So. Yeah.

See also:
The Day The Earth Stood Still

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:45pm on 09 September 2021

    I'm starting to form a hypothesis about modern bad films. They're built out of moments that the participants can see would normally be bad, but which the writer, or the director, or occasionally an actor, thinks will actually be great for [[reasons that make no sense]] and nobody dares call them on it. Could there be any truth in this?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:20pm on 09 September 2021

    An artist probably doesn't want to believe they're working on something rotten, so they will try to be as positive as they can about it. (Unless they're really honest, like Michael Caine, who said "I have never seen [Jaws: The Revenge], but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.")

    With a film it's particularly hard because often lots of money has been spent before it becomes apparent that it's just not going to be any good, and finishing it off will at least let it make some money back. (Indeed, many of the rights may have been sold in advance, so as long as you've got something to slap a title on…) An author can abandon a book, modulo contracts, but it's much harder to give up on a film.

    I think there are two artistic failure modes that oppose each other. At one end you have the auteur situation: one guy is absolutely in charge, and nobody has the authority to tell him that this isn't working. If that person is Francis Ford Coppola then maybe you get Apocalypse Now out of it, but sometimes that person is Ed Wood, or maybe all the money will be gone with nothing to show for it. But this sort of film is rarely dull, which is what comes out of the other mode, the one where everything's being second-guessed by the marketing people and what survives is just bland and flat.

    Another consideration is that the assembly of all the individual filmed moments into a coherent whole is something that happens entirely after shooting has finished; sometimes you can get people back for an extra scene here or there, but it's unusual and expensive. And a significant chunk of a modern audience is apparently happy just with those nifty moments, not needing more than the basics of a narrative thread to say why our hero is doing this thing at this point; I've seen TV episodes that don't really have a story at all, just a series of vignettes in which the pretty actors deliver witty lines or the special effects go zoom and whoosh, and at the end someone says "we've won" and everybody goes home.

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