The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (part 1 of 11)
Welcome to the fifth installment of Razzie Contenders: 2009 Edition! In this special series of mini-recaps, the Agony Booth staff takes a long, unflinching look at the awful movies that got nominated (or should have been nominated) for Razzie Awards in 2009!
Check out the other recaps in this series: The Love Guru by Ed Harris, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale by Ryan Lohner, 10,000 B.C. by Jessica Ritchey, The Hottie & the Nottie by Albert!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a milestone of science fiction. Director Robert Wise (West Side Story) used stark lighting and a powerful, detached performance by Michael Rennie to underline a crisis facing humanity, which ultimately was not the alien, Klaatu, but the pettiness, greed, and mutually destructive paranoia of humanity itself. Full of unforgettable imagery—a hatch emerging from a seamless spaceship, the faceless humanoid robot Gort representing Klaatu’s creepily passive alien menace, Patricia Neal commanding Gort to save its master—the 1951 film elevated the alien-monster movie into the function for which science fiction was created, as a medium for the exploration of humanity’s soul and what we’re currently doing with it.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), meanwhile, is a big, loud, post-Roland Emmerich special-effects movie which, apparently purely by coincidence, happens to have the same name. Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) used an expansive computer graphics budget and a powerfully soporific performance by Keanu Reeves to create lots of soft-focus swirly colors on the screen, and some really cool licorice bugs.
Full of imagery that makes you remember other, more interesting movies—Keanu Reeves in a suit being interrogated in an empty room, teary-eyed Jennifer Connolly convincing a guy with powers to use them to save humanity, malevolent insects completely annihilating solid objects, Will Smith’s real-life son talking about how his dad would have killed the aliens—the 2008 version joins the ranks of any number of recent sci-fi blockbusters that collectively diminish the potential of science fiction by remaking classic films as sterile, computer-generated exercises in Hollywood formula.
In discussing the very goofy 2008 film called The Day the Earth Stood Still, I won’t be making a lot of snide references to its deviations from the earlier version—much as I would love to—because there’s really no point of comparison. They both have a tall, dark-haired alien named Klaatu, and a robot named Gort, and—yup, that’s it. Let’s put it this way. When they remade Lost Horizon, but converted it into a Burt Barcharach/Hal David musical of stunning banality, it was still ten times closer to the original that this film is to its predecessor.
They didn’t even throw us a bone the way they did with The Incredible Hulk, giving us links to classic lines from the source material: which is to say, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) does not use the line “Klaatu barada nikto”, the command that Patricia Neal used to get Gort to stop destroying the Earth and save Klaatu, with its original meaning or impact. It’s the best-known line from the original film, possibly “the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial”, but it’s barely in the “remake”, because the whole scenario in which the line originally arose has been junked in the new movie. Which, really, says it all. I’ll call this Klaatu’s Law: Remaking a classic movie somehow necessitates siphoning away anything that made it special in the first place.
The movie opens by sliding down from a starry sky into in some sort of snow-swirled mountainside that looks like the back exit to the Gulag Rura Penthe. A caption tells us this is 1928, in the Karakoram Mountains in India. For those of you who don’t know, which I assume is everybody in America (including me—I looked it up), this is the mountain range next-door to the Himalayas, home to the second-highest peak in the world, K2. This being the remake, maybe there are some subtle associations being made with the number two here. Perhaps on multiple levels.
Inside a tent, we spend a long moment pondering the back of a mountaineer’s head, before getting the stupid reveal that—gasp!—it’s Keanu Reeves! With a big Smith Brothers beard! What, did he refuse to shave it? Keanu wanders out of his tent and, giving us an early harbinger of his performance in this movie, slowly stares empty-eyed up at a glowy light atop a nearby cliff as if he’s baked out of his mind.
Keanu climbs the cliff and finds the source of the glowy light, which turns out to be a six-foot tall snowball with pretty flashing lights inside. Hey, Sargon finally made it to Earth! And he got a bigger crib, which is nice. On seeing this beautiful apparition in the midst of this icy wasteland, Keanu’s first impulse is to… hit it with his pick-axe. Of course. Why is it the aliens always think we’re the violent idiots, again?
It turns out there’s an inch or so of ice surrounding what’s actually making the lights: a swirly CGI sphere with colored streaks sliding clockwise around the surface, like a glowing, animated marble. Wow, I had no idea palantirs came so big.
The glow expands to fill the screen, creating a sudden momentary fear that the rest of the movie will be narrated by Justin Timberlake. But after a moment the glow fades. Hilariously, the movie teases us into thinking the swirly sphere ate Keanu Reeves, by showing us just the pick-axe at first. Then it pans to reveal Keanu is still alive (boo!), sprawled in the snow, with a hole in his right mitten over the back of his hand.
Keanu wakes up, relatively speaking, and notices in succession that the swirly sphere is gone and that his mitten has been defiled. He looks placidly at the place where the sphere had been, then he pulls off his mitten and looks placidly at a big square welt on the back of his hand, then he looks placidly up at the sky. The scene ends before we can watch him look at the snow, and his shoe, and a rock that’s right there nearby, before wandering back to his tent to write in his journal: “Nov. 23, 1928. There was a glowy light on top of the cliff today. Went to look at it. It bit my hand. Hand looks funny now. Also, nearly out of chamomile. Will have to switch to Quaaludes soon.”
Well, that was fun, watching Keanu Reeves look at things and say nothing. So far, he’s attained a level of cognition roughly on par with my dog, Chiyo, who is also really good at looking at things and saying nothing. It’s her special skill. That, and ruthlessly excavating and mangling plush toy squeakers.
So apparently the purpose of this sequence is to explain why Klaatu, when he shows up, will look like Keanu Reeves: the aliens stole some DNA from Mountaineer Keanu and used it as the basis for the human form that Klaatu takes—though why they sent their swirly-sphere-DNA-collector to one of the remotest, most inhospitable regions on Earth is not exactly clear to me. Anyway, I’m sure that’s why the movie provided this prologue, and not to remind us that Keanu Reeves is a glassy-eyed, slack-jawed, inarticulate zombie. Well, how could we possibly forget?
Honestly, this movie should be called The Day Keanu Reeves Stood Still and Looked at Things.