Saturday, December 13, 2008

"The Day the Earth Stood Still": hardly a peak experience


First, the review below goes in the regular movies blog, not the “disaster movies” blog which tries to pull together films that really depict plausible threats to our civilization. Popcorn sci-fi doesn’t quite fit there.

I’ve often thought that one could make a compelling film about just what would happen socially and politically if there were absolutely uncontestable proof of an alien landing, with ambiguous evidence of hostile intentions. No movie has ever done that, really; not “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, not “War of the Worlds.” Actually, Shyamalan’s “Signs” gives a much more effective rendition of what it might be like.

The 1951 Fox version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” with the hokey music and crisp black and white photography did convey a bit of this (and it has some of the urgency of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” of the same era). Based on the story by Robert Bates and directed by Robert Wise, it gets us into the game quickly with flying saucers over Washington, and the landing of the ship, the man Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and robot Gort, the meetings between Klaatu and the fibbies (I like his saying he’s 78 and looks like Jack Benny), and his going on the lam. Of course, the message is transparent enough: the world had better control nuclear weapons. There’s a great line about substituting fear for reason (like the title of Al Gore’s book “The Assault on Reason”).

The Christmas 2008 remake from Fox (directed by Scott Derrickson) really doesn’t hold up at all. It’s too corny to hold up when blown up with modern special effects. This is not an expanding universe with red shift. This time, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, not as convincing here was he was as Neo in the Matrix movies) is born on earth once he crawls out (and is shot) as a fetus covered by a synthetic placenta, from a fuzzy globe that looks like the inside of a black hole – in Central Park, of course. He goes on the lam, and pretty soon he tells astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) that he is here to save the planet, but not its beings. Read between the lines if you will.

Alls not well that ends well here. There are more globes all over the world, taking in animals like arks (a bit of “Signs” here, maybe), and then the attack starts. It looks like a sandstorm, but the particles are nano-insects, in a stream that sandblasts buildings into rubble (it starts with New Jersey Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands). ("Cloverfield" does a much better job of destroying New York, and has much more "streetsmart" suspense.) Oh, all over the world, there is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that turns off everything forever (a nuclear weapon from a 200 mile high orbit would do that, they say). The world will go into the stone age; the planet will not become another Venus with greenhouse gasses emitted by fossil fuel burning, and the invaders will claim Earth and colonize it on their own at a time of their choosing. I don't think that the Earth stands still here; it just gets reformatted and loses all its old data.

"The world isn't ending. We are!"

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