The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (part 2 of 11)
Suddenly, electron microscope images of bacilli start flashing on the screen. Biology! I hope we get to see a frog explode soon. A caption informs us that we’re at “Princeton University – Present Day.” Hey, everybody, it’s Present Day! Yaay!! Gosh, I hope I get an X-Box. Or an exploding frog. Either one would be wicked cool.
Here we get a reveal on Jennifer Connelly as Dr. Helen Benson, holding a class discussion in a darkened science lab crammed full of fancy-looking equipment. (Hey, watch your elbow, Sheila—(smash!) Oh… well, we can always get another interocitor.) Actually, the point of this scene is to establish that Helen isn’t just a biologist—she’s an extreeeeeme biologist. The bacilli flashing on the screen behind her, for example, live in totally radical places like sulfuric acid, radioactive waste, volcanic magma, etc. The fact that she studies bacteria that live in sulfuric acid will, in a few moments, qualify her to be part of the A-team of scientists reacting to an interstellar object about to crash into the Earth. Because… um…
(Okay, in retrospect I can see that the government thinks we’re about to get a meteor impact, and there might be exotic microbes on it for her to look at. But, first, the movie doesn’t make that clear at all, and, second, that doesn’t quite square with what actually happens later.)
By the way, can I just mention that Jennifer Connelly looks like a wreck here? She’s a strikingly beautiful woman, but throughout the movie she constantly looks like she’s been up all night crying. Aw, c’mon, Jennifer, becoming a Repeat Offender isn’t that humiliating! Or maybe she’s sad that her once-promising career has devolved into giving people hugs.
She dismisses the class, after which her T.A., Tom, a grad student half her age with a big fuzzy beard, shyly hits on her. She demurs, however, saying she has to get back to her own “extreme environment”—which, as we are about to find out, is the Hell of the Ungrateful Step-Child. Her rejection of fuzzy-bearded Tom serves to establish that Helen leads a Life Without Love. Aw. (Don’t wait in suspense for the final shot where she walks away from the end of the movie holding his hand, because fuzzy-bearded Tom is never seen again. Did they forget to film that scene?)
We see her in her car speeding across a bridge, and then we cut to a video role-playing game with a warrior—running across a bridge. Significant? Random? You decide! The gamer is a kid named Jacob, who’s played by the young moppet Jaden Smith. Jaden has let his hair grow out since The Pursuit of Happyness—in fact, his hair is so long I honestly thought on first viewing that he was a girl for the first few minutes. Hey, what do I know? I thought Alicia Coppola was a girl, too. Anyway, that momentary misapprehension made the bit coming up later about the kid finding his dead dad’s razor and announcing defiantly “It’s mine now!” especially confusing for me.
Helen calls game-playing-which-means-I-hate-my-mom Jacob to dinner, but he ignores her. So she comes up to remonstrate with him. He ignores that too, and in the course of their argument he calls her “Helen.” This seems like infernal cheek if you don’t realize at this point that Jacob is her step-son, and resents that his parents’ deaths have left him stuck with a relative stranger. Helen, in any event, seems unable to manage or discipline him and finally goes back downstairs to answer the phone. She’s probably wishing at this point that he had turned out to be red-headed, which would have at least provided a broader array of disciplinary options.
The phone call turns out to be a male voice confirming her identity, then telling her that “someone should be there shortly” and “everything will be explained to [her] en route.” Seconds later, a huge team of government sp00ks knocks on her door and tells her to come with them, and that everything will be explained en route. As near as I can figure, whoever called her five seconds before the team showed up to take her away, to tell her a team was about to show up to take her away, was calling first mainly to scare the shit out of her. Which? Seems counterproductive to me.
Apparently, the big crowd of sp00ks (in, of course, a brace of black SUVs) knows only enough to go to her house and Shanghai her, because they’re not aware that she’s a single mom and that there’s no one else to stay with her kid.
This is actually an interesting change of pace from the usual movie government op, where the agents abducting you know your shoe size and what size Trojans you use and everything’s been arranged in advance. This movie does a fairly good job of showing that the government response has been hastily thrown together, yanking private sector scientists who don’t know each other out of their lives to form an insta-team. Seems odd, though. Our government has a paranormal research agency, a time travel oversight agency, and an academy for superheroes, and there’s no one on staff to deal with a simple incoming interstellar object? Someone needs to have a sit-down with the head of HR.
Fortunately, the local Mrs. Kravitz has pushed through the sp00ks to stare wide-eyed at the shenanigans and goings-on, and so Helen fobs Jacob off onto her before letting herself be pushed into an SUV. The SUVs and the motorcycle escort haul ass down a highway that’s been cleared of traffic specifically to speed Helen’s arrival, but the sp00k won’t tell her what she’s needed for. This, understandably, freaks her out a little. So much for everything being explained en route.
They arrive at a military base where she’s directed, still without explanation, onto a troop transport helicopter that’s already full of soldiers in full kit and a passel of gabbling scientists. Oddly, everyone in the transport is talking to the person opposite them, four feet away, instead of the person they’re sitting next to. Helen sits in the only available spot and then does the same thing. Unfortunately, the person opposite her is one of the most irritating characters in the movie, a big-bearded pain in the ass named Yusef (Mousa Kraish).
The guys around her establish that they’re all various stripes of scientists (how is that possible? They’re not wearing white lab coats!)—except for the guy next to Yusef, who’s a civil engineer. I assume the worm guy went on ahead. So, put all of them together, they wonder, and what do you get? They, uh, don’t know. That’s cool—me neither.
The transport lifts off and flies them to “Fort Linwood Military Academy, New Jersey”, which presumably is near Linwood in South Jersey (just west of Atlantic City). We see whole battalions of soldiers running here and there, busily moving things around and, you know, generally doing things. Someone sure stirred that anthill!
Helen and the Princeton Area Science Team join a large, milling crowd of civilians. The crowd is currently being harangued by a soldier telling them to hand in their cell phones and cameras at the checkpoint they’re being sifted through. Helen, instead of meekly submitting to this injustice like all the rest, reacts by shoving her phone down her bra [!]. This tells us that she Thinks Differently from Everyone Else, which will certainly become heavily underlined in Sharpie when Klaatu shows up and she’s the only one who doesn’t want to kill him on sight. (This is what happens when you land your spaceship in Manhattan instead of, say, Wyoming.)
This also tells us that Helen is Stupid, since everyone is being wanded at the checkpoint, and unless she has a magnetic bra, they’re going to find her phone. Or let’s be solicitous and say it tells us She’s Read the Script, and knows she’s about to be spotted by a colleague on the inside who’s in such a hurry to talk to her that he bypasses her through security. Well, guys like that are always useful to have around.
Oh, and this phone thing? Not. Important. So I’m really glad the movie’s spending all this time on it.
Her colleague turns out to be the Science Guy in Charge, Michael Granier, played by a haggard-looking Jon Hamm from Mad Men. He explains her abduction by saying he put her on the “vital list”, so they must be expecting some exteeeeeme biology. I don’t know why he was in such a rush to pull her through security to talk to her, though, since they barely say hello before he hurries off and we cut to the big briefing for all hands, which is where she would have ended up anyway.
They’re in a big, darkened lecture hall. Michael is showing diagrams of the solar system, including a large unknown object recently identified outside Jupiter’s orbit. This object was originally projected to swoosh through the system harmlessly, passing through far from Earth, but somehow it has altered its own trajectory—onto a collision path toward Earth. Now, surely it would occur to someone listening to this briefing that the object is probably a spaceship that’s headed for, and intending to land on, Earth? Something altering its heading away from the course gravity would provide must be under its own power and is probably controlled by an intelligence, right? And yet everyone in the movie spends the next several minutes until Klaatu’s arrival in full Armageddon mode, expecting a catastrophic impact at ground zero—which, by the way, they’ve reckoned is New York’s Central Park. I hope they’ve cleaned up all the fish.
In fact, later on the scientists even count down to the moment of impact, and when a huge object fails to smash into Manhattan they’re all like, Huh?? As in, hey, why didn’t this extraterrestrial object that can steer itself and move under its own power mindlessly smash headlong into Earth like we expected? Maybe they thought porn stars were driving.
Yusef asks if a missile could intercept the object, and Michael says the military is working on it, but the object’s speed makes success unlikely. An older black woman (Lorena Gale, whom you might know as Elosha the priest from Battlestar Galactica) asks why New York can’t be evacuated, and Michael again says there’s no time. The object is really booking through space, and the collision is going to happen in 78 minutes [!]. Michael says all they can do is plan for the aftermath, but the meeting ends abruptly without any actual, you know, plans being made. So essentially this was the briefing to tell everyone that they’re all screwed. Okay, folks, that’s it! Box lunches in the lobby!
Geez, at least in the Deep Impact we’re-screwed briefing we got to watch Morgan Freeman manipulating Tèa Leoni, while Laura Innes made faces. That was fun.