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Fri December 12, 2008
The Day the Earth Stood Still
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not." Isaac Asimov
What a difference 57 years make. The original Day the Earth Stood Still withstood any number of allegorical interpretations including the usual Red scare over invading Communists and the more generic devastation of wars, local and world. The current Day production, starring the durable Keanu Reeves, has the good sense to add a contemporary take about the inhabitants of earth destroying it.
Keanu Reeves is a natural choice to play an alien because his acting style varies between wooden and almost wooden. Believable is his interpretation of Klaatu, a visitor on a space ship that could be described as a cloudy beach ball with enough atmospheric action swirling around it to make it a Peanuts cartoon character all its own. Klaatu brings a warning to earth that its people are destroying the planet and the consequences will not be nice if Klaatu and his clan have their way in cleansing the planet.
Now I can't resist seeing the allegorical application to the US invasion of Iraq, where our do-good design is fraught with death and destruction in order for Iraq to live again. But fortunately in this film, Klaatu can decide the fate of the planet by spending time with scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly in yet another quasi-feminist role where the man is still calling the shots) to assess the population's determination to save its world (Oh, I suppose the Republicans' skepticism about the resolve of the auto makers to change their wasteful ways is another trope tune).
As a fan of the Twilight Zone, I embrace the imagination of the original Day and to a small degree the new version, which falls short in plain dramatic terms, where the action is both plodding and predictable and the acting, as my thirteen-year old companion critic, Anthony Sutton, commented, is universally weak, starting with Jaden Smith's mostly one-note Jacob Benson and ending with a tepid Kathy Bates as the secretary of state. The lack of discussion about how we're destroying our planet is only one of the many screenplay voids. What happens to the giant robot is another.
The one area where you would think 2008 superior to 1951 is in special effects. With the exception of the robot, who has more personality than Klaatu (Well, they're both pretty affectless), there is no outstanding visual design, the ship itself so vague as to make the original saucer seem fantastic. Like the pace of the film itself, its graphic design is disappointing.
As a lover of film science fiction, I had a few moments of delight in this version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, if only because it reminded me how good the original was, along with chestnuts like War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet.
In the end, the film made me feel as if we stood still for almost two hours.
"Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art." Susan Sontag
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time and Cinema Classics shows, which can be heard streaming at http://publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/ppr/index.shtml and on demand anytime at 1
Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com