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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Posted By on Wed, Dec 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

It's not Keanu's fault. Really. As far as emotionless aliens go, he's fine. Sure, actors such as Jeff Bridges (Starman) and David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth) did something interesting with their extraterrestrial roles while Keanu ... well, let's say his performance here is a good exercise in minimalism. Still, you've got to envy the guy for cashing in on what was probably the easiest paycheck of his acting career.

"Be bland, scowl a bit and don't move around a whole lot," must've been director Scott Derrickson's sole instructions, which pretty much sums up the entire movie. For an effects-laden blockbuster that's supposed to save us from the onslaught of high-minded Oscar-ready releases, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a remarkably lethargic and intensely boneheaded remake of a sci-fi classic.

When the digitally enhanced snow globe of alien invader Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) touches down in New York's Central Park, sexy egghead scientist Jennifer Connelly (who gets less convincing as she loses weight) desperately attempts to convince him that mankind is worth saving before his giant rubbery robot Gort obliterates everything in a display of high-priced effects. Enter a Rumsfeldian Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) and a belligerent but cute-as-a-button black stepson (Jaden Smith) and you've got your standard issue bureaucrat screws everything up before endearing kid saves the B-movie day.

But, here's the deal: If you're going to dumb down Robert Wise's 1951 original (which wasn't all that intellectual to begin with) then you should at least wow us with frantic action scenes and mind-blowing special effects. Instead, The Day the Earth Stood Still offers a barely articulated lesson on eco-responsibility that's short on smarts and thrills. And while it's admirable that the film attempts to keep its digital effects relevant to the story rather than stringing one action sequence after another, a little urgency and emotional connection would've gone lengths. Not only do the film's leads lack chemistry, they barely exist in the same movie.

It's tempting to blame Derrickson for this big-budget mess; after all, his filmography — The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Hellraiser: Inferno — hardly screams competence. No, the more likely culprit is screenwriter David Scarpa (The Last Castle) who clearly has no idea what to do with the material, populating his adaptation with cardboard charaters and drama-free plot turns. So confused are the film's motivations that Scarpa actually has Reeves' Klaatu simultaneously arranging humanity's demise while he contemplates saving it. It culminates in a pointless display of digital effects and a message of ... well, I'm not really sure. Instead of the original film's corny plea for world peace, mankind gets a big ol' pat on the back for being at our best when things are worst.

Gone is sly commentary on xenophobia or the challenge that humankind should endeavor to be the best possible version of itself. Instead, Wise's allegorical genre-busting anti-Cold War message has been replaced by the same kind of PC-coddling that demands public school teachers to praise kids for not misbehaving. It doesn't work in the classroom and it definitely doesn't work on screen.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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