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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Day the Earth Stood Still (The)

I’ve been living in terror for over forty years, absolutely sure that the time was coming when I would be called on to utter the words I first heard on tv when I was no more than five, and even at that tender age I could tell how desperately important they were for all mankind’s safety just by the looking into Patricia Neal’s terrified eyes. Well, her eyes, and that scary-ass visor that belonged to the alien robot Gort she had to say them to. Say them with me now. “Gort. Klaatu barrada nikto!

You can believe I went to bed that night turning those words into a personal mantra that would last for decades. And I knew I wasn’t alone. In the mid-70s I saw a hippie in San Francisco hanging out in Golden Gate Park wearing a tie dye tee shirt with KLAATU BARRADA NIKTO in bold white letters on it. I was so relieved to know I wasn’t humanity’s only last hope because, let’s face it, I’m a flake, and I wasn’t sure if the aliens arrived and threatened to destroy the earth that I’d be able to give up that day’s episode of “The Young & The Restless” to muster the cojones to walk up to a big old robot and take a chance at being vaporized just to save Kevin Federline’s ass. Or Balthazar Getty’s. Or Eva Longoria’s for that matter. There are just so many people out there that are wasting precious natural resources like oxygen that could be used on something more intelligent, like plants or hermit crabs. Now, at least I had an out, and so I knew that if the flying saucers landed I could wait a few hours and hope once he came down from his buzz, the guy in the tee shirt could save humanity and I’d be off the hook.

So now, though I may be decrepit (and old), my memories of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still are as fresh and as frightening as ever. Oh sure, my version of events may seem much warmer and fuzzier than what you’d expect to find if The Earth Stood Still today and you’d be right, but in 1951 people were a lot more innocent and saw things mostly in black and white. Heck, even the people in the movies were mostly black and white. Well, they were mostly all white, but you know what I mean. Back then black people didn’t exist except in historical movies like Gone with the Wind or in African movies like King Kong where “natives” were needed to be sacrificed so the white people could be afraid for their lives. It’s tacky, but it’s true.

In 2008, fortunately this is not a problem. In director Scott Derrickson’s (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) new version of
The Day the Earth Stood Still, race is such a non-issue that so-pale-she’s-practically-translucent Caucasian actress Jennifer Connelly (Blood Diamond), as microbiologist Helen Benson, is the guardian to her dead husband’s son, Jacob, played by African American child actor, and son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, the precocious Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), and not once is there a mention made of their racial differences. That’s probably because they, at least, are human. Their biggest problem is that they’ve gotten themselves wrapped up with extraterrestrial visitor Klaatu (Keanu Reeves; Street Kings), who has come to Earth to talk to the leaders of the planet and has only gotten as far as the US Secretary of Defense, Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates; P.S. I Love You) before things go south. Now he only has Helen and Jacob to rely on to get his message out.

As usual, it’s the military that interferes and soon Klaatu, Helen, and Jacob are on the run, although the exact rationale for Klaatu’s wanting to go renegade doesn’t make a lot of sense since he has made it clear that he has only one purpose ~ to eradicate the human race from the face of the
Earth. Why he can’t just go ahead and do that from where the Army goons squirreled him away in the first place is beyond me, but it’s all good because it gives us a chance to meet up with the always delightful John Cleese (Shrek the Third) as Professor Barnhardt, a Nobel Peace Prize winner Helen just happens to hang with in her spare time. In the original, Sam Jaffe, best known for his role as ‘Dr. Zorba’ on tv’s “Ben Casey” played the professor, and he of the curly hair and “Marty Feldman” eyes made for a typical ‘mad scientist’ caricature. Cleese, who is such a skillful comedian, does a surprising turn, and approaches the role with a perfectly grim seriousness and, in doing so, brings the film its only real sense of gravitas.

Actually, that’s not fair to say. Reeves is also deadly serious throughout, but when isn’t he? It’s a rare moment to see Keanu laugh on screen in the last twenty years or so ever since Bill and Ted quit smoking whatever it was that made their adventures so excellent. Here, Klaatu is supposed to be devoid of human emotions and attachments, so it makes this a role written as if it was meant for Keanu to play. Too bad he and scripter David Scarpa (whose only other credit is 2001 The Last Castle) didn’t pay more attention to the source material and realize that even though Klaatu doesn’t necessarily care about the human race it doesn’t mean he can’t have a certain tenderness and charm, as imbued by actor Michael Rennie (The Robe) with lines from the original script by Edmund H. North (The Outcasts of Poker Flat). His Klaatu may have thought of mankind as a bunch of animals, but he apparently saw us as cute little puppies in need of potty training more than simply deciding to euthanize us right off for piddling on the cosmic rug as it were.

The BIGGEST change in the past (Holy Crap!) 57 years is that Gort has grown up considerably since his first appearance. When he visited in 1951, he was about 7 or 8 feet tall, which was
menacing enough even if when he walked his knees looked like foam rubber when they bent. His open visor could shoot out a laser light so powerful it could melt tanks, cannons, and men with a single touch. This time around he has become an unconvincing CGI version of his former self but he is now closer to 30 feet tall and rippling with a muscle builder’s physique. He also has apparently developed other transformative abilities that would make the folks at tv’s “Heroes” proud, but they don’t have much to do with the logic of the story. Worst of all, Gort is no longer his given alien name, but an acronym assigned to him by the American military in response to their testing on him: “Genetically Organized Robotic Technology.” Ick.

I’ll admit that I desperately wanted to love
The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original was and is a classic piece of cinema that still rocks today, directed by the brilliant Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music; The Sand Pebbles) with a memorable score by always incomparable Bernard Herrmann (Psycho; Citizen Kane). With such an impressive pedigree I really expected an updated version had to be just as good if not better. There were only three things a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still needed to maintain the integrity necessary to make it as memorable for the next six decades as Wise’s has been:

1) Gort had to still be around and still look and act like Gort;

2) There actually had to be a show of power by Klaatu to the entire planet showing everybody he meant business by his making “the Earth Stand Still”; and

3) The leading lady had to damned well say “Gort, Klaatu barrada nikto!” before things were over.

Okay, so Gort sort of looks the same in a bastard-child-you-hate-to admit-your-husband-fathered-with-his-very-very-very-tall-and-unattractive-slut-of-a-secretary way. And yeah, the power goes out and the Earth stands still, but not to rock the world with Klaatu’s skills, so that’s a cheat, but the bottom line, and worst of all, is that there is no “Klaatu barrada nikto!” No “Klaatu barrada nikto!” Would you remake Forrest Gump without "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get"? Or The Godfather and not include “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”? They wouldn’t be the same. Picture The Wizard of Oz without “Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore” or “There’s no place like home.” I think you get my drift, my bitter, tear-drenched, drift. Next time the aliens land I hope they frigging blow this rock to hell, starting with David Scarpa’s house.

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