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Spheres of influence
A cinema review of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL by Camus
 
"It's that idea that the messes that we've gotten
ourselves into as Americans and a species and
a human race, the solutions to these will come
at a price and we have to be willing to
pay that price..."
Director, Scott Derrickson

 

I admit I went in to this movie with DVD Outsider's patented 'remake aversion' peaking at 9.7. It's accurate to say that there is something I share with remake director Derrickson. I rate Earth Stood Still as one of my favourite Robert Wise movies (wrestling with The Haunting for the top spot). There are mitigating circumstances strongly attached to this particular remake – its message. Even in special effects laden, lightweight Hollywood fare, the idea that, as a species, we are screwing up this planet and have to change our ways, is a worthy one to reiterate. In fact, I'd say that the further we slip forward on oil and unsustainable resources, the more loudly we need to hear this message. Let's not get above ourselves. After all, the movie stars Keanu Reeves as an alien and not Al Gore at a podium. Hollywood soaks up ideas that have been around for some time – and recycles them once they have become dominant in the culture - but it's no bad thing to get American kids into the cinema and give them something weighty to think about. After all it's today's children who will be the last of humankind's luckiest generations. I genuinely pity my grandchildren and the lives they will be forced to live.

An extinction-level event is approaching the earth at a velocity that would make Einstein choke on his chalk. As those in the know fly away from Central Park, the object slows down and lands. After some suitably Close Encounters bright light, over-exposures and some awed slow backwards walking, the sphere ship yields two passengers. Of course, human nature allied with weapons produce trigger-happy idiots whose idea of a hullo is a bullet in the chest. For some reason, this small, utterly stupid reaction made my blood boil (as it did in the original). The alien is followed by an enormous robotic creature (no creases at the back of the knees for this twenty first century CG Gort), one that brooks no violence of any kind. The humanoid Klaatu is born from within an organic outer suit and grows rapidly into Keanu Reeves.

I will say this, hand on heart; Reeves is very well cast as a remote alien god-like creature that slowly warms to the species he's here to annihilate. Fit the actor with the right role and that's half the battle and Reeves holds his own throughout the smorgasbord of effects and human hand wringing. Yes, he's no Shakespearean great and neither is he a method chameleon but when the suit's bespoke, he's very assured. He's older and has a little more gravitas (this is a man who played Ted 'Theodore' Logan in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, a character with such an absence of gravitas, it was a wonder he didn't float way). Excellent! And remember, The Matrix was almost a decade ago...

It seems as if the human race has gone as far as it could on stupidity and a complete lack of global responsibility and needs to be wiped off the Earth together with the crass results of its labours. A delegate from a consortium of alien civilisations is despatched to make a final judgement. Earth is too valuable a planet to be sacrificed to simple avarice so must be purged. A cadre of scientists is caught up in the events. A biologist, Jennifer Connelly, whose stepson misses his soldier father killed in Iraq, comes to trust the visitor before the torture-happy US government have their way with him. It's Connelly and her boy that introduce Keanu to the other side of human behaviour. As Harlan Ellison once concluded one of his short stories, "No single snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

Despite the robotic Gort's obvious invincibility, the American Forces try all sorts of ways to take him out. Watching these military types barking out orders continued to frustrate me. For some reason even the pronunciation of the word 'sidewinder' wound me up. I don't know whether it was the fact I knew all their efforts would prove futile or whether I just can't stand 'rod up their arses' career military as portrayed by actors who should be reigned in a tad. All the effects, serviceable as they are, have a strong and ethereal feel of the digital about them (odd shots of helicopters et al) and while the alien spheres are suitably alien, there's no real 'wow' factor to any of the conceptions. On the other hand, the method by which we are to be purged is very nicely designed and executed. I particularly appreciated the shot of the green road sign being eaten away – a literal sign that nothing, no evidence, of mankind will be spared.

It was about halfway through when I realised that my apathy towards remakes (or this one in particular) was abating a little and while the film would never deliver a profound experience per se, it was, at the very least, thoughtful, entertaining, measured and provided one scene which I thought was so well judged, it made me smile throughout (except for one cut within that scene that crossed the line of action alarmingly). The scene in question is between Reeves and (of all people) John Cleese as a Nobel prize winning man of peace who's labouring over a fiendish equation. Of course Reeves not only finishes the equation, he also appreciates Bach playing in the background. It's this one scene that prompted a number of points; firstly, given enough intelligence and reason, first contact with an alien species need not be fraught with terror. Secondly, it's always a lovely surprise to see the most diverse actors sharing the screen making more than the sum of their respective parts and finally, the scene had real weight, an idealised and rose tinted look at the human race through the universal constants of mathematics and music. Its nobility caught me unawares.

On the polarised end of nobility is the rather thankless task taken on by Kathy Bates playing the absent President's Defence Secretary. Why the US Government's edict on the occurrence of alien invasions is to scarper like terrified rabbits is beyond me. Bates toes the line and serves some basic narrative function but she really is the 'bad guy' – hopelessly violence prone and all in the name of higher echelon protection. When Connelly is whisked from her home, she gives a lovely response to the catch-all reason of 'National security.' "That means anything you want it to mean..."

The remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still tells its story well with characters you care for with a minimum of fuss and visual hyperbole. Reeves is convincing as an alien (make of that what you will), Connelly is always watchable as an enlightened step-mom and the supporting cast is dependable and rooted in the reality of the situation. There's a truth to the film, a solid idea that this is in fact how we might cope with an event of this kind. For that reason I recommend it but only within the terms of what Hollywood churns out these days; effects laden fare with very little regard towards originality and emotional fulfilment.

Postscript:

Slarek told me recently that, in a poll conducted from a small cross section of the younger generation, 70% answered a question with the same answer. It is a chilling indictment of ignorance and close mindedness and deserves to be highlighted. It shows a stunning lack of historical perspective and a breathtaking naiveté of an awareness of what cinema actually is and indeed, can be. I leave you to judge...

Question: What era of cinema is better and why?

Answer: Modern cinema... because the special effects are better...

Good god...

The Day the Earth Stood Still

USA 2008
103 mins
director
Scott Derrickson
producers
Paul Harris Boardman
Gregory Goodman
Erwin Stoff
screenplay
David Scarpa
based on the 1951 screenplay by
Edmund H. North
cinematography
David Tattersall
editor
Wayne Wahrman
music
Tyler Bates
production design
David Brisbin
starring
Keanu Reeves
Jennifer Connelly
Kathy Bates
Jaden Smith
John Cleese
Jon Hamm
Kyle Chandler
Robert Knepper
release date (UK)
12 December 2008
review posted
26 December 2008