The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) (part 9 of 11)
Next follows a brief scene showing the 30-foot robot being lowered into a deep underground silo. Okay, that’s enough of that, now let’s look at a house somewhere!
Helen, Klaatu, and Jacob enter a nice but cluttered home, calling out to “Karl” that they’re there. In the background, classical music plays. While Jacob, who for the moment isn’t particularly stressed about hanging out with a potentially hostile alien, takes his coat off and gets settled in a side room, Klaatu wanders around and notices a plaque inscribed with their host’s name, Karl Thomas Barnhardt, and an inscription in Latin, Inventas Vitam Juvat Excoluisse Per Artes (“inventions enhance life which is beautified through art”). This is the quote from the Aeneid that’s inscribed on Nobel Prizes, though why they’re showing us just the little plaque with the Latin and not the more recognizable prize medallion itself is not clear to me. Hey, maybe those video game guys stole it! Oh, they pan up to show the medallion too, never mind. Is it just me, or do those things look like a giant penny?
Helen explains that Karl won the Nobel “for his work in biological altruism.” This sounds like something goofy they made up to make Karl sound noble, but in fact it’s a real field of philosophic study that investigates why, in times of limited resources, individual organisms throughout the animal kingdom occasionally produce fewer offspring (which, in Darwinian terms, is self-abnegation) for the good of the community. Which is great, but since it’s not explained, most of the audience is left to think that it’s something goofy the filmmakers made up.
Helen and Klaatu wander into the professor’s work area, which is stacked with papers and books and walled with book cubbies. Because Karl is a Scientist™, he also has a chalkboard with a great big scientific equation scrawled across it. Move over, Gabriella! Note the subtext: chalkboard = low tech = good.
I’m not sure what this equation is for, but there’s a small diagram next to it that includes the phrase “event horiz.”, which suggests this is all physics. If Karl studies biological altruism, he’s a philosopher, not a physicist, but then geniuses in movies like this are all Mycroftian polymaths anyway. I’ll bet he’s an expert on anything you throw at him. Spy gadgets… headless jousting… how to run a kingdom without letting people know you’re a frog…
Oh, and speaking of which: By virtue of your previous appearance in Die Another Day, John, you’re now a Repeat Offender. Given that you seem to use a salad spinner to choose which movies you appear in, it was bound to happen.
Klaatu glances at the chalkboard scribbles and muses, “Close, but not quite.” He starts to erase part of Karl the Mycroftian Polymath’s equation, explaining when Helen objects that he won’t mind. Helen goes to check on Jacob, who complains that Helen shouldn’t be helping “one of them”. Helen cups his chin and asks him to trust her “just this once.” You know, I’ve only known this kid for an hour, and I know there’s nothing in their relationship that would lead her to think he would be willing to do that, so chalk up one more bout of blind optimism on Helen’s part. Isn’t it weird how the movies always celebrate the characters who say, “Screw the facts, it’ll all work out”?
There follows a kind of cute scene where Klaatu starts scrawling an equation on the board, then John Cleese appears, observes what Klaatu is writing for a moment, then starts scrawling gibberish alongside him. The two play Dueling Equations for a bit as the classical piano music plinks along in the background, until Klaatu negates an equality John Cleese just wrote and looks at him significantly. John Cleese turns to him in wonder and says, “Is it possible?” Have I just snagged yet another top-billed cameo in a terrible movie? Klaatu—okay, a round of beer for anyone who guesses what Klaatu does! Yes? Yes? Yes, you’re all right, he stares blankly at him.
John Cleese looks down at a newspaper (The Bergen Record, if you care) with a screaming headline about spheres and armies mobilizing and the end of the world, which seems to spark the insight that Klaatu is an alien. (Helen didn’t mention exactly who she was bringing over, I guess.) The piano music pauses as John Cleese says to Klaatu, “I have so many questions to ask you.” The first no doubt being, How the hell did you get into movies in the first place, you talentless dork? Or at least, that would have been my first question.
In response, Klaatu stares blankly at him some more. I’m starting to think that the aliens somehow figured that staring blankly was a weapon of some kind on Earth, and so recruited their master in that particular art as their emissary. That would explain much.
The piano music now starts a new cut, one more allegro than the previous. Klaatu wanders over to the other side of the room to look at one of the stereo speakers, which the movie obligingly allows us to do as well. Helen says, “It’s Bach.” Ah yes, your composer, of course. (I know nothing about Bach, but in the music credits what’s listed for him is “The Goldberg Variations: Aria Da Capo and Variation No. 1.” This is harpsichord music, but it’s being performed on the piano, as I suspect is not uncommon.)
John Cleese: So we’re not so different after all.
Klaatu: I wish that were true.
Yes, only one of them can act.
Back to the dumb robot/army subplot. In a “flash facility” in rural Virginia, Kyle Chandler is walking down subterranean corridors with some colonel, asking him a string of questions about the robot. Later, I discovered to my amazement that this colonel is another fugitive from the 2007 Flash Gordon series: Ty Olsson played Vulton, the head of the Hawk-men, in several episodes of that show. (In an amusing concession to budget limitations, that version of the Flash Gordon Hawk-men didn’t have wings, just leather coats that they flapped around a lot. Seriously.) And, oh god, I just realized that they cast a Flash Gordon actor to head up the army flash chamber. I wish I hadn’t realized that, but unrealizing things that make your brain hurt generally requires more alcohol than I happen to have on hand, so I’ll just have to make do.
The robot is both machine and living being, or neither, says Colonel Hawk-man, which clarifies things immensely. Evidently, it’s a kind of silicon-based “hybrid”. He adds, “We’re calling it GORT—Genetically Organized Robotic Technology.” Which is just dumb for the casual viewer, and a slap in the face to fans of the original film, in which Gort was just the robot’s actual name. How annoying is it that they took this perfectly innocuous alien name and turned it into a military acronym? That’s like the new Doctor Who series coining the term Defensively Armoured Lumpy Emotionless Killer.
Colonel Hawk-man goes on to explain that Gort is impervious to all kinds of scanning, so they decided to try opening it up with a diamond drill. But, wouldn’t you know, the drill-head fractured. (Again, who programmed this thing that it doesn’t think being drilled into—you know, with a drill—is a hostile act?) It’ll take 24 hours to fix the drill robotically.
By this point, they’ve entered a control center with big picture windows opening out onto the flash silo. Visible through the glass are Gort’s head and bulging shoulders. His red “eye” is on, which I guess means the robot is awake and alert, and it follows Kyle Chandler closely as he walks from one side of the observation chamber to the other. Wow, I never thought I’d see Kyle Chandler get cruised by a 30-foot-tall gay robot.
Unnerved by the robot’s attentions, possibly because he realizes it erroneously pegged him as someone who matters, Kyle Chandler decides they don’t have 24 hours and orders that the drill-head be replaced manually. This involves sending a person into the flash silo. So I guess the U.S. Army has Redshirts, too.
Meanwhile, over at John Cleese’s house, Jacob is once again sleepily watching the All Canned News Footage Channel. Apparently, the entire world is rioting, water and fuel are in short supply, and oh, incidentally, there’s this escaped felon on the loose in the New York area who looks exactly like Keanu Reeves. Jacob sits up, startled to see Klaatu’s picture on the screen. Now, this makes no sense. He knows Klaatu is an alien, he can guess the government wants to talk to him, and he’s already seen the cops try to apprehend him. Why does this news report suddenly enthrall Jaden-Acted Child Overflowing with Bile? (Hey, if Gort‘s an acronym…)
In the next room, John Cleese is calmly suggesting to Klaatu that the aliens must have a technological solution that would help us humans, but Klaatu says the problem is that humans lack the will to change. He cannot change our nature. John Cleese perceptively suggests that all civilizations reach a crisis point—including Klaatu’s. Klaatu admits his people “had to evolve” when their sun started to die. So John Cleese brings his argument home: “It’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment—don’t take it from us.”
This is, actually, the most effective moment in the film, and for once Keanu Reeves’s stone-faced mannerisms betray a subtle indication that this argument is getting through, that John Cleese’s rebuttal is actually making some sense to him. This is the turning point, the moment at which Klaatu reconsiders his mission, and finally, an hour in, Klaatu becomes more than a mere nuncio of an alien confederation’s dispassionate judgment.
Naturally, then, if you’ve made this connection with the audience, and empowered your central character for the first time, the thing to do is to cast aside the moment, drop the insightful new character you’ve just spent all this time establishing, and proceed directly into a chase scene. (*facepalm*)