Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hard to stand this remake

To be perfectly blunt, the remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is dull, dull, dull. That’s right, that is three dulls, so in a way it is a bargain: Viewers get three times the boredom for the price of one ticket. How’s that for an endorsement?

In the original, an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrived on Earth with his eight-foot robot Gort to bring a message of peace or else. This character didn’t care about the squabbles of humanity, but warned if our weapons were pointed toward space then “this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

In this new version, Keanu Reeves steps into the role of Klaatu, but this time his robot Gort is the size of a building and his message is an environmental one. Since “only a handful of planets are capable of sustaining complex life,” Klaatu, who represents a sort of intergalactic United Nations, can’t allow the human race to destroy the planet.

This Klaatu doesn’t come bearing a warning. He is willing to attempt talking to someone of authority, but when his request is dismissed by a narrow-minded secretary of defense (Kathy Bates), he gives up this pursuit and sets off to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth.

It is too bad there wasn’t a genuine filmmaker with a true vision behind this film because the idea of a remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is not a bad one. The update in the message is relevant, but the execution is all wrong.

Remakes don’t need to be exercises in futility. Steven Spielberg’s remake of “War of the Worlds,” while not perfect, at least had moments that thrilled and created a mood. Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” was perhaps too long, but had heart, humor and scares. A talented director can do a remake well.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” has Scott Derrickson, whose directing credits include “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Hellraiser: Inferno.” He drenches the film with a visual sameness that just sits on the screen daring you to fall asleep.

As was true with the original, Klaatu goes out into the world to interact with humanity. In both films Klaatu becomes closest to a widow and her son, played in the update by Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”).

The original was very much about these interactions, but in the remake they are never given a chance to develop as they are constantly being intercut and undermined with how the American government and military are responding to this threat.

Much of the new film’s screen time is given to Smith, and his character is an obnoxious brat. In 1951 the boy was precocious and befriended Klaatu; today he has a chip on his shoulder and wants to kill Klaatu. Oh, how times have changed.

The middle part of the film is Connelly’s attempt to convince Klaatu that humanity can change if given a chance. Unfortunately, aside from one good and all too brief scene with John Cleese as a Nobel Prize winning professor, this chunk of the film is largely uninteresting with strained, repetitive dialogue and a slow pace.

The final act gives over to special effects that aren’t that special. We’ve seen mass destruction of the planet on the screen too many times over the last decade or so and this film offers nothing new. So even as a spectacle the film fails to excite.

Reeves is often accused of being a wooden actor, but given this reinterpretation of Klaatu as cold and emotionless, this complaint actual works to the advantage of the performance. Reeves dials down even more than usual to the point of, at times, being overly subdued, but had the film around him been stronger, his performance would have been more effective.
It doesn’t help that Klaatu has been given special powers that allow him to manipulate electrical devices. There are a couple moments that can’t help but recall “The Matrix,” which makes it seem like all Reeves is doing is once again playing a variation on his Neo character.

Connelly is a fine actress and she brings a lot to the film in terms of class and credibility, but she’s given little to do. She more or less has to play the same two or three scenes over and over again.

The film would have been greatly improved if it were half an hour shorter. It would still need a drastic rewrite to be a good film, but at least it would have been improved.

No comments: