The Day the Earth Stood Still built up a pretty difficult task for itself. It is no joke to remake one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and to do it in the form of an effects-heavy Hollywood blockbuster sounds like a doubly risky proposition. True to form, the Hollywoodization of the classic has done it no favors. Though generally still pretty watchable, there’s no denying that this is the inferior version.
The world gets shaken when a strange sphere from outer space lands in the middle of Central Park. From it emerges Klaatu, an alien being who has come in human form to deliver a message to the leaders of the planet. But the government quickly subdues and detains him, fearing a full-scale alien invasion. Dr. Helen Benson, a famed astrobiologist, helps Klaatu escape, but soon discovers that Klaatu has indeed come to bring an end to the human race. It is left to Helen and her stepson to convince Klaatu that despite all the damage they’ve caused to the Earth, humanity is worth saving.
The movie doesn’t stray very far from the themes of the original movie, and that fact alone provides much of the enjoyment of the film. It’s a credit to the strength of the source material that the concept remains as compelling as it did over fifty years ago. But the movie goes about the whole thing in a pretty stilted way, fashioning this tiny, mostly philosophical story into a big, glad-handing blockbuster complete with world-ending set pieces and a total lack of subtlety. It feels like this movie began in the boardroom rather than the page, with disparate blockbuster elements being shoehorned into the script for the sake of making the movie bigger than it really ought to be. These insertions are terribly awkward. Scenes are broken up by blatant product placement. Character moments are undermined by a need to over explain the themes. Poignancy gives way to explosions. And it almost feels like the character of Jacob Benson was heavily rewritten solely to accommodate the casting of Jaden Smith as the son of Jennifer Connelly. The scenes that are pulled wholesale from the original film still work the best, and they give this movie the gravity that it needs.
The main point of remaking the sci-fi classic is probably found in the special effects. One could probably reason that today’s technology would serve a movie about an alien invasion pretty well. And for the most part, that’s true. The special effects provide a sense of scale to the invasion, making it feel like the world is really coming to an end. When it comes down to it, however, the value added to the story is minimal at best. The movie has some surprisingly sloppy direction. Some of the handheld camera work is downright unnecessary, and many scenes feature disjointed, choppy dialogue.
Much has been said about Keanu Reeves’ wooden acting, but in this case, it’s a blessing. Reeves was just about born to play this role, perfectly portraying the strange, foreign detachment that Klaatu feels towards the destruction of the human race. Jennifer Connelly is consistently great. Small parts from Jon Hamm, James Hong, Kyle Chandler and John Cleese brighten up a lot of the scenes, making a lot of the movie’s on-the-nose dialogue more palatable. Cleese is downright awe-inspiring in the two small scenes that he’s in, despite having to explain too much. The weak link in this cast is Jaden Smith, who seems all too aware that he’s just acting, and fails to reach anything approaching truth.
When it’s all over, The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t really feel like a bad movie. The concept and themes remain compelling to this day, and though corporate directives threaten to ruin everything, the strength of the original story makes it through. Some strong performances help as well. It’s just frustrating, because the movie often gets close to reaching something far greater. But this is a Hollywood blockbuster, where it’s hardly ever about scaling those heights. It’s just business; everything else is secondary. In the end, the movie suffers in comparison to its source, which was far braver, far smarter, and far more worth your time.