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Keanu as Klaatu

Helen's road trip

Gort makes Earth move


The Day The Earth Stood Still
cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, and John Cleese

director: Scott Derrickson

105 minutes (12) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
Remakes - don't you just love them? Name me one, just one, which works better than the original. Tom Cruise in War Of The Worlds? Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes? Not a chance. Maybe David Cronenberg's The Fly? That one works. Or John Carpenter's The Thing. But, on balance, the odds are not good. So what are the chances of re-imagining the trash-culture totemic The Day The Earth Stood Still? Its 1951 progenitor added "Klaatu barada nikto" to the SF lexicon. The control-phrase spoken to halt giant-robot Gort, which was termed 'the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial', by no less an authority than Arthur C. Clarke.

References or coded variants of the phrase have been infiltrated across an astonishing array of subsequent media ever since. From the early digital movie Tron in 1982, through Return Of The Jedi into Sam Raimi's Army Of Darkness. Some may recall there was a 1970s progressive rock band called Klaatu who minted Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft for the bland Carpenters to cover. Further, there's a 1974 Ringo Starr album cover with the ex-Beatles drummer emerging from the flying saucer onto the White House lawn, standing in for Michael Rennie beside the massive metal figure of Gort.

In sci-fi mythology this is the movie racked up there as one of the first to travel outside the drive-in creature-feature shocker-circuit and be taken at least part-ways seriously by movie critics. Remake director Scott Derrickson has shifted its thermo-nuclear Armageddon superpower-confrontation frisson with "a smart update" into an eco-fable. With enough set-piece continuities to satisfy wingeing purists, he creates "a message movie in the same spirit" as the original. In 1951 the galactic federation - "a group of civilisations all around you," was intervening to save the human race from itself, melting Cold War terrors. Now Klaatu arrives as its emissary to save the Earth again, only now he's saving the planet's bio-diversity from human despoliation. "The planet is dying," explains Klaatu, "the human race is killing it."

"You came to save the Earth... from us?" protests astro-biologist Dr Helen Benson. It's a shift of emphasis that works. After a brief pre-credits sequence set in the Kara Koram mountains in 1928, it follows the original template. A powered object is identified beyond the orbit of Jupiter, "not following a gravitational freefall trajectory," which soft-lands in New York. The 1951 saucer is now updated into a giant illuminated sphere with swirling chaos-theory interior storm-patterns. In the bonus feature the director explains how, what would have been the comic absurdity of Keanu Reeves emerging from the sphere is defused by a more gradual revelation. As in the original, the suited alien is shot down by an over-eager trooper and is rushed to casualty. Once there it morphs from its coating of placental tissue to take on the human form imprinted from the 1928 close encounter.

"This body will take some getting used to," winces the new Klaatu, exhibiting the David Bowie quality of blank disconnected alienness. Jennifer Connelly is strong as the Princetown University astro-biologist requisitioned as advisor, who volunteers to interrogate the alien in order to protect him from other, less sympathetic hands. "Are you a friend to us?" she probes. "I am a friend to the Earth," he answers, evasively. Not that Klaatu needs help. He reverses the lie detector so that he can extract information from its Jerry Springer look-alike operator, enabling his escape. But why does he then choose a McDonald's to link up with Mr Wu, the alien's agent on Earth for 70 years, who reports to Klaatu on the 'destructive' race he has come to love?

Kathy Bates is a power-dressed presence as the unsympathetic Secretary of Defence who justifies her security clampdown on the basis that lesser races always suffer from contact with more advanced civilisations. Only this time it's the human race itself facing slavery or extermination. And, as if to confirm her darkest fears, Klaatu uses extraterrestrial mental powers first to extract a tuna sandwich from a dispenser, then to disable and wreck two helicopter gunships dispatched to recapture him. "There's nothing you can do," he coolly informs Dr Benson, as they attempt to avert the alien's plan. John Cleese is a joke-free zone as Professor Barnhardt. As in the 1951 version, Klaatu corrects his equation on the chalkboard, and finds beauty in the Bach on his sound-system. Inadvertently, Barnhardt and Helen become attorneys "for the human race." Jaden - Will Smith's real-life son, as Helen's adopted son, also helps demonstrate the human virtues of nurturing love and self-sacrifice to the wavering Klaatu.

Meanwhile, Gort - the giant robot, has been encased in a flash-chamber where it dissolves into a swarm of ravenous metal-locusts that begin devouring cities. And it's not difficult to think of numerous business parks and shopping malls that could be improved by such purification. The Pope and Vladimir Putin appear on TV as giant Ark spheres, rescuing endangered species, ascend from the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. In the original movie, Klaatu made 'the Earth stand still' by temporarily paralysing all electrical power as an abrupt warning to Cold War warriors. Now Klaatu concedes "your Professor was right. At the precipice we change." The human race is reprieved, at the price of its polluting technology being stilled, for ever. The traffic in London stops. So... no change there. And... no happy ending either. I guess the inexorable slide into global warming halts, but bio-diversity will proliferate only as billions presumably starve and die in a new post-technology age. A second chance, a new start for a changed world. A new metaphor, for a new time. Remakes - don't you just love them?

DVD extras: deleted scenes, plus featurettes Re-imagining The Day: The Making Of, Unleashing Gort, and Watching The Skies: In Search Of Extraterrestrial Life.

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