Klaatu Barada No-Remake!

A review by Elliot Strong

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly
In theaters December 12, 2008 (not yet rated)

Fifty-seven years ago a science fiction film called The Day the Earth Stood Still was released which would go on to become a classic in its own right, not just of the 1950s science fiction genre. It had all the (what can now considered campy) characteristics of a ‘50s sci-fi film:

giant robot, Theremin soundtrack, a very large flying saucer, ambiguously threatening humanoid alien, and a damsel in distress. It is listed in IMDB’s top 250 best films of all time and it stands out in the genre for its quality of production, direction, story, themes, timeliness, and yes, even its special effects.

Go forward fifty-seven years and three months from the 1951 release and 20th Century Fox is planning to release a remake of this classic. Judging from the trailer and segments of the film being teased to the public, it is an update for our times, modifying the themes of the 1951 film to resonate with the anxieties of an audience in 2008.

But is it really a necessary one? In the last couple of years a common complaint lobbed against the American film industry is that it has resorted to remakes and sequels to churn out the hits and rake in the (hopefully) resulting profits. In this case, since the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is still recognized as a great film on its own merits, a remake seems superfluous.

When the film was released it addressed many issues that the world was facing at the time, the obvious ones being the potential for continued nuclear weapons development, the resultant possibility of nuclear war, and at the same time a realization of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. But in many ways the film was ahead of its time. Russia had tested its first nuclear bomb in 1949, but the Cuban Missile Crisis was still 11 years off in the future, and the development of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles and space exploration were still further off. On a practical level, the visual impact of the film had the power to frighten audiences, especially with Gort, the giant robot who had seemingly limitless power.

At the same time the story contained a Christ allegory in the form of Klaatu, the human-looking alien who emerges from the UFO that lands in Washington, DC at the beginning of the movie with a message (or warning) of peace. Michael Rennie, the British actor who played Klaatu, was specifically chosen for the role because he was a virtual unknown in the United States at the time. Director Robert Wise, in an interview on the 2003 DVD release, stated that he did not pick up on the savior theme while filming; writer Edmund North said he had inserted it intentionally but meant it to be subliminal. It was quite an accomplish-ment for an aliens-and-robots sci-fi film of the 1950s to tread such serious and groundbreaking territory, or for any film made by the American movie industry at the time.

While the ‘Hollywood is running out of ideas’ claim is nothing new, the trailer for the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t provide much ammunition against that position. The remake appears to be very self-aware with its seriousness. However, its themes are not subliminal in the least but rather spelled out in exquisite detail by a very grave Keanu Reeves, full of ominous proclamations about the future of humanity. And unlike Michael Rennie, anyone who has been at least tangentially involved with American pop culture for the last 20 years knows who Keanu is.

Here he seems to be reprising his Neo persona from The Matrix, dark suit and all. He even appears to have Neo-like powers over this world’s physics and technology, a weak modernization of the 1951 Klaatu who commanded tremendous technological power, but the only extraordinary characteristic he personally possessed was his genius-level intellect.

And rather than dealing with the bipolar reality of the Cold War and potential destruction by intentional warfare, this version seems to put forward a Shyamalan -like environmental allegory of impending doom, summed up in a pithy quote from Klaatu/Keanu: “If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives.” Don’t worry though; Gort still makes a brief appearance in the trailer, death ray angrily flashing. This may all be too harsh. After all, the remake hasn’t been released yet, and even though Keanu Reeves can make for an easy critical target, director Scott Derrickson who took on the controversial The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005 may yet offer some surprises.

Still, in many ways it is discouraging to realize how little progress has been made in over a half-century of human history. We still have the same self-destructive tendencies as we did in 1951, perhaps manifested in different social anxieties of the day, but we certainly don’t seem to be losing any problems, only finding or trying to make new ones to worry ourselves with from decade to decade.

  1. ckage

    “Keanu Reeves can make for an easy critical target”, particularly when said critics are set on diminishing him. Some of them, don’t even mind distorting images in order to do so. Then, Neo’s black-leather, trench-coat cyberpunk apparel can easily turn in to a dark blue suit-and-tie(?!!!). And Klaatu’s characterization as a menacing, strong presence versus the inquisitive, unsure Neo gets ignored, because, Oh Dear, the alien has powers.

    What this tells me is that, sometimes, the problem is not with the remake per si; it’s the distortions some people make around it.

  2. D. Taibi

    I agree with Elliot’s skepticism about remakes, especially in the sci-fi genre. Most have ranged from mediocre (War of the Worlds, Solaris, Stepford Wives), to terrible (Godzilla, The Fog, various iterations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not including the good 1978 version). If you’re going to remake a movie that was well-done in the first place, you’d better have a clear intention on why an update is needed. One rare success I can name offhand is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978, which updated 1950s paranoia to circe-1980 anxiety about the ongoing Cold War.

    I think it’s quite fair to assert that Keanu Reeves is becoming stereotypical in his roles, and that this might not serve the remake well. Maybe he doesn’t save the world as often as Will Smith, but he does tend to play black suit-clad heroes with extraordinary powers – Constantine, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrixes (yes, in the sequels he did wear a non-leather suit, with a Nehru jacket). But it’s all conjecture until the movie comes out. All that being said, I would be pleased if it were a good movie.

  3. ckage

    So, let me get this straight: a role is nothing more than the garments an actor wears, and viewers are so obtuse, that if an actor looks remotely similar on two or more roles, they are completely unable to tell apart each character. Never mind the fact that the attitude displayed by the character Constantine had absolutely nothing to do with that one of Neo: they were wearing black, so they were the same. Is that it?

    Also, Keanu Reeves is becoming stereotypical: so tell me, where is the black-suited super-hero in roles like The Lake House or Street Kings? I don’t mean to sound obtuse myself, but I think that, at times, people are so set on pigeonholing this particular actor, they don’t even look at his work; they simply pull out abstract notions out of vox populi of what Keanu’s supposed to do, not what he ACTUALLY did.

  4. D. Taibi

    It is not my intention to critique Keanu Reeves’s acting chops or suggest that anyone is obtuse. Sure, I’ve seen him in films where I though he did a good, non-stereotypical job (The Gift, Little Buddha).

    What I am saying is that, in this era of celebrity, the aura around a certain celebrity can greatly influence the role. Reeves, like any actor, chooses a range of roles, but he is particularly well-know his Neo-type roles. The choice of casting a well-known actor, rather than an unknown, and imposing on him an appearance similar to his other sci-fi roles is going to impact the effect of the film. I think it is quite fair to question whether the casting of a certain actor is best for the film as an artistic product or whether it is mainly aimed at box office draw (if studios are lucky, both are true). Constantine was a prime example of poor judgment in this respect. Anyone who has read the Hellblazer comics knows that casting Reeves was entirely wrong for the character. This has nothing to do with pigeon-holing an actor, but does call into question the judgement of the producers, directors, etc.

    My skepticism does not rest on Reeves’s shoulders, but rather on the Hollywood machine for offering warmed-over, mediocre redos rather than fresh material. It’s entirely possible that the casting of stars like Reeves and Connelly will take the remake in the new direction it needs. You’re right in that we do have to be careful about jumping the gun and assigning judgment too quickly. As I said, it would be nice if Reeves and company deliver a well-done remake.

  5. ckage

    Hum… I still think that if people go to see a movie about, say, an archeologist who gets in adventures and is afraid of snakes, but refuse to see anything else on screen but that old guy who’s married to Ally McBeal, I say the problem is more with the audiences being too lazy and one-sided; not “blame” the actor for still wanting to work and producers and directors for wanting to work with him.
    As for Constantine, that would be opening an all new can of worms: though I’ve read some stories from the comic, and am aware the character portrayed had some physical and philosophical differences, I don’t get why is it such a complete outrage that a film does not follow the source it’s based on to a T. Specially, when the fact that the film doesn’t follow a source does not detour from the possibility it might be a good film. Constantine is a good example of this: many people that have no idea about the comic think it’s a pretty decent flick, and don’t get the bad press it got.

  6. D. Taibi

    Fair enough. Yes, faithfulness to source material is another can of worms, but probably worth discussing too at some point. Thanks for the discussion!


  7. Natalie

    On a lighter note, here’s something to possibly wear while going to see the movie: http://www.topatoco.com/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=TO&Product_Code=WIGU-KLAATU&Category_Code=WIGU-SHIRTS

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