Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

Please welcome our guest poster, Scott, with his review of the modern remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still:

I have to introduce this review by saying that I've never seen the original movie, outside of some fuzzy stills showing the giant robot. I pretty much went into the movie blind; I knew Keanu Reeves was in it, but that was it.

The basic premise of the movie is that an alien comes to Earth to save it because it's a planet capable of sustaining complex life -- something that's apparently quite rare. Humans are killing it and in the grand scheme of things, one species versus all of the species on earth is a no-brainer. So the alien decides to destroy all humans.

It's a chilling concept, honestly; as a science fiction fan, I'm used to all kinds of justification for human behavior: we're more evolved, we're smarter, we're self-conscious, we have souls, we have love, we have courage... but here, the alien, named Klaatu, makes quite a reasonable argument. Humans are killing the Earth. If the Earth dies, everything dies; if humans die, everything lives. Humanity isn't the good guy here... and it's hard to find any argument for us being the good guy other than the urge to root for the home team.

The movie certainly doesn't make that much of a case for us, either; the instant Klaatu lands, we shoot him. Then when he asks to talk to someone, we try to drug and imprison him. I couldn't help but wonder if this was for two reasons -- one, to make us look critically at humanity and what we've become post-9-11, and two, to criticize everything going on in the real world as a reaction to 9-11. A character in the movie discusses the preparation for what they think is an asteroid strike and even claims that it's all "theater," a word often used to describe airport security. It's all a charade designed to make us feel better.

In a way, the movie could be read as saying, "Here's the situation. The world is dying. You're doing it. You're ignoring it for entertainment."

There are a few other bits in the movie that contribute to the image of ruthless humanity: a thief in the airport, a fight with a man that ends with him on the ground with a heart attack (though the people who try to help him are conveniently ignored), a ruthless Defense Secretary, a violent president, a ruthless politician who condemns a man to death, a trigger-happy colonel in the Army... there are plenty of examples. Like I said before, the movie isn't trying to make humanity out to be the good guy.

The movie does a splendid job in building atmosphere between the color, the music, and the tones the actors use. It's almost enough to make me want to like the movie, but unfortunately there are too many plot holes for me to give in.

The first one is the most jarring one; the spaceship is originally believed to be a large object heading for the Earth and scientists are assembled to deal with the aftermath of the impact, which is supposed to be in Manhattan. This is fair enough; I can believe an emergency response team. What I can't believe is the idea that the government would make a response team, toss it on a chopper, and then send that chopper to the estimated impact site.

What's the point of that? You want to plan for mass devastation from an asteroid impact and then you put your planners at the impact site?

Not only that, but so close that they can see the object come down?

As long as you don't think about it too much, it's convenient for moving the story along, since the main character is right there when the spaceship lands.

Interpersonal relationships also suffer a lot; people come and go without any real sense of relation or background. You learn pretty quickly that the two main characters, a scientist named Helen and her step-son, have issues. The main characters come out and read some of those back issues for you. Nothing's hidden -- they just bring everything out and put on a parade, sledgehammer-style. The boy's father died, and so did his mother, so he's living with a step-mother and has lots of problems. There's a good scientist who shows up when he's needed, a decent politician motivated by fear who does what she thinks is right, a trigger-happy Army man... pretty much all of the stereotypes you need for a movie like this. There's even an alien who's been on the planet long enough to come to love the human race, as flawed as it is. Aww.

What we don't get, though, is a story.

The idea is that Klaatu sees the human capability for self-sacrifice and love in the face of danger and stops armageddon with a sacrifice of his own. I can buy that; it's something that's been done well a few times. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those times!

Helen and her step-son fight for the entire movie, and she pleads for his life in the end. That's about the whole of the story arc there.

The alien is resigned to destroying humanity for the entire movie, then makes a sudden reversal in the end. That's about the whole of the story arc there.

So ultimately, the movie wasn't all that effective. I felt like there were a lot of scenes cut for length that might have made it a better, smoother movie. There was a lot that could have been done with this movie to turn it into a more allegorical tale, considering the time it came out (2008). It would have been very easy to turn the alien(s) into an allegory for America -- coming in, doing what they think is right because they think someone else is wrong, using force to stop violence.

Perhaps it was really meant that way and it just didn't come through clearly enough.

This movie has a lot of unfulfilled promise and could have been a lot more interesting. As it is, it's worth watching over dinner, but hardly fodder for longer discussions.

Final Score: A Sour Note

Final note: John Cleese with a moustache has a very uncanny (and eerie) resemblance to a skinny James Doohan.


  1. Definitely should check out the original, I reckon. I believe you know where to find it.

    In any case, after reading a lot about dinosaurs lately, I'm convinced Planet Earth is well beyond our means as destructors. Earth is impervious to humanity, and it is (like Malcolm says in JP), pure vanity that we fancy ourselves the great race with the power to crush life on Earth.

    The extinction that killed the dinosaurs wasn't even a major extinction. It was small potatoes compared to the one that occurred prior to the dinosaurs, which in turn allowed the dinosaurs to evolve. We could probably nuke every inch of Planet Earth a hundred times over and there can be little scientific doubt that creatures would evolve right up out of the radioactive dirt, feeding off of it and thriving in it. Maybe it'll take a hundred million years, so what? The Earth doesn't care about time.

    'Course is mankind the hero? That's a different question....

  2. I don't think people really worry about "killing" Earth so much as changing the biosphere so much that it's essentially unrecognizable and humans will no longer be able to live here.