Combine a completely unnecessary remake of a 1950s science-fiction classic with a starring role for Keanu Reeves and you have a recipe for nothing to get excited about. In that respect, the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still does not disappoint. It unsuccessfully tries to hide its narrative emptiness behind a noisy CGI light show and half-hearted lip service to a ripped-from-the-headlines current-events subject.
After a largely superfluous opening set in India in 1928, we cut to New York City, where the government is assembling a group of scientists in preparation for the aftermath of an asteroid impact. It seems there is an object hurtling through space on a collision course for Earth. Among the scientists is Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an Iraq War widow who has an estranged relationship with her stepson (Jaden Smith).
Of course, the mysterious object is really the spaceship belonging to Klaatu (Reeves). It wouldn’t be much of a remake if it wasn’t. Klaatu lands in Central Park, gives his “We come in peace” spiel, gets shot for no adequately developed reason, and his giant robot Gort turns off the lights for all of Manhattan. The wounded Klaatu is transported to the now-ubiquitous “undisclosed location,” where he proceeds to heal at an amazing rate (which is good because his alien HMO is probably not accepted at any Earth hospital).
So Klaatu busts out with the help of Dr. Helen, who enlists in his cause for reasons that are also not terribly well explored, and they go on the run with her bratty kid. The planet Earth, rather understandably, goes apeshit, especially when the giant robot turns into a billion flying metallic gnats that eat…well, pretty much everything. People, vehicles, football stadiums are all on the menu.
The revelation that Klaatu is there to save Earth by removing humanity is unsurprising, as is the fact that Keanu/Klaatu will have a Jennifer-induced change of heart, because you’ve figured it out about 30 minutes ahead of any of the dim-bulbed brainiacs in the movie. It’s also not exactly original. Even the most amateurish purveyor of Trekkie slash fiction has learned to leave that trope on the curb.
The original film was guilty of some naive, pie-in-the-sky ivory tower thinking on the subject of world peace and nuclear arms, but at least it was sincere in its sophomoric politics. The new version’s embrace of climate change as the cause du jour feels empty and cynical, like they needed something for the aliens to be pissed about in order to justify all the fancy, expensive CGI.
To be fair, Keanu Reeves’ performance is not one of the problem areas for this movie, but this is not his best work. He may not have the broadest emotional range, but he does intensity well, which is why his best work remains movies like Speed, Point Break, and The Matrix. The role of Klaatu throttles that intensity and leaves only the robotic Keanu we all like to make fun of.
Jennifer Connelly is stuck in a thankless role of providing Klaatu with someone to talk to after he escapes, but the films fails to furnish her with anything resembling her own point of view. Jaden Smith has the doubly thankless role of giving Ms. Connelly’s character the illusion of a story.
I hope Hollywood will consider the creative failure of this movie before embarking on any more “re-imaginings” of classic films, but of course, being Hollywood, they just can’t help themselves. At least the ending would seem to preclude any possibility of a sequel, but again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about.