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.