Movie Review - 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

The Day the Earth Stood Still Review

Your's truly has never seen the original 1951 science fiction classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. That bit of info is offered up-front not as a confession, but as a qualification. They’ll be no comparisons made between the original and 20th Century Fox’s new reimagining of the story starring Keanu Reeves as the mysterious alien visitor “Klaatu”; no contrasts drawn between the subtle, allegorical brand of sci-fi of the 1950’s and more bombastic, effects-driven style of today.

Judged solely on its own merits, The Day the Earth Stood is a flawed but sometimes entertaining yarn masking a near fatal lack of nuance in concept and holes in its plot with some technical brilliance and some solid, grounding performances by its stars.

The film is at its very best in its first 20 minutes introducing the conflict. A diverse team of scientists are taken into forced custody by the U.S. government to consult an on unknown emergency situation. The sequestered scientists include astrobiologist (she studies simple life forms that exist in environments inhospitable to life) Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), a recent widow struggling with raising her 11 year-old stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), who is dealing with abandonment issues.

Building an effective sense of tension and mystery that drives the opening act, the varied scientists learn that the government is tracking a celestial object moving at unheard of speeds that is due to strike the Earth – Manhattan, in fact – in a matter of hours, and unless it can be stopped would result in the extinction of all life on Earth. It wouldn’t really be a “spoiler” to reveal the object – a seeming sphere of energy – surprises everyone by slowing down before entering Earth’s atmosphere, disarming any attempt to destroy it, and parking itself slowly and harmlessly in Central Park.

The sphere essentially “gives birth” (into the arms of Helen) to the being that will eventually emerge as Klaatu, as well as deposits his nanny on Central Park’s lawn - the 28-foot tall, humanoid robot Gort, who activates and lays out harsh punishment when it perceives Klaatu or itself is in imminent danger.

From there, that aforementioned series of plot holes and convenient devices begin to emerge that compromise a strong start. Klaatu announces his intention to speak to the world leaders art the United Nations, to warn humanity they must stop destroying the planet Earth’s environment. Of course U.S. Government does what it seemingly always does in movies when faced with a civilization obviously light years ahead of our own in scientific and technical knowledge … it tries to control the situation with guns and sedatives.

Inexplicably left alone in a room with a polygraph administrator, Klaatu of course escapes the military facility, and walks away on foot undisturbed (anyone ever hear the term “perimeter”), where he later meets up with his first human contact Helen and then eventually Jacob. And thus his education into the complex nature of humanity begins. This involves a lot of driving around the rainy swamplands of New Jersey in a Honda, while in a “B” sub-plot, the military does what it can to destroy Gort without raising its ire.

In short, when the government responds to his arrival with violence, Klaatu makes the decision humanity isn’t capable of not destroying the Earth, and sets in motion in a doomsday scenario (interestingly, somewhat Biblical in nature) designed to scrub the planet of our existence, unless he can be convinced we’re worth saving before it’s too late.

It might not be fair to too harshly criticize the film for centering its plot around this concept. Humanity having to explain/demonstrate its often contradictory nature to highly evolved beings is tried and true sci-fi device. Heck, it’s pretty much a background theme in every episode of Star Trek there ever was. The problem, however, is centering a feature film around the conceit that a civilization that has mastered interstellar travel, can mimic lifeforms, and destroy whole civilizations is somehow immune to the concept of complexity – that a race that has observed us for decades needs a mother and her son in a Japanese sub-compact to demonstrate to them we’re not entirely barbaric.

Sci-fi is at its best when it hides relatable metaphors in futuristic and fantastical elements. There is no attempt at metaphor here. The message that we must stop destroying the Earth because we’ll destroy ourselves in the process is as naked as Gort. That leaves The Day the Earth Stood Still with 60-some formulaic minutes to fill of Klaatu coming to the realization that humanity is more than meets the eye, despite the fact his own sleeper agent explains to him exactly that at a roadside MacDonald’s early in his escape.

To their credit, Connelly and Smith give credible, appealing performances as the estranged step-mother/step-son who connect (and thereby save all human kind) though their shared grief. And as easy as it might be to engineer a crack about Reeves portraying a wooden, essentially expressionless alien, he delivers just fine in the prescribed role.

For fans of such elements, the movie is most accomplished on the technical side, including liberal use of “invisible” special effects – i.e. effects that mimic real world elements – like the generous helping of military helicopters director Scott Derrickson paints all over the screen.

The Day the Earth Stood Still starts strongly, and is good to look at throughout, but is ultimately compromised by a too familiar and too simple message that fails to challenge the moviegoer and results in a somewhat lackluster experience that feels like it could and should have delivered something more.

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