This botched remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seriously dishonors the seriously fine 1951 sci-fi landmark on which it’s based. While technically proficient, the new entry has not benefited from the kind of deep think necessary to justify a reworking, as the once-bracing premise of a superior power holding Earthlings to account for their misbehavior now seems familiar — if still valid — from numerous interim fantasy and disaster pictures. Decent opening biz will surely plummet once the holidays pass.
Robert Wise’s original film was based on a provocative screenplay by Edmund H. North, itself derived from the 1940 story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, which goes uncredited here. Pic arrived on the early cutting edge of ’50s sci-fi, effectively embodied early Cold War military jitters and proposed the notion that, short of a deity that might impose order, it might take an alien threat of annihilation to force humanity to stop squabbling and get its act together. The black-and-white feature was also graced by some unforgettable images, notably involving the sleek flying saucer that landed in the mall in Washington, D.C., and its occupants: the immaculately accoutred Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, and his robot guardian Gort. Topping it off was a chilling Bernard Herrmann score.
One of the new film’s many sins is its lack of any primal, defining imagery. Instead of a flying ship, Klaatu (the sufficiently alienesque Keanu Reeves) and his soldier (a skyscraping, perfectly sculpted male form with a destructive ray emanating from its noggin) emerge from a vaguely defined glowing sphere that lands in Manhattan’s Central Park.
Naturally, the Army’s first impulse is to shoot Klaatu and ask questions later. Unfortunately, the script by David Scarpa (“The Last Castle”) rotely retains key elements from the original — the U.S. government’s refusal to grant Klaatu’s request to speak with world leaders, a widow and (step)son as key contacts for Klaatu, the latter’s chat with a like-minded genius, all original screenwriter North’s idea — without giving them any interesting twists.
The widow this time, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), has been upgraded to a Princeton prof and high-end scientist, while her black stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), keeps missing his dad, who was killed in Iraq. Lots of military bluster, personified by brass-balls Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), keeps the hardware and special-effects team busy, but as the story increasingly focuses on Helen, Jacob and Klaatu mucking about in the foggy forests of New Jersey, the more it’s apparent Scarpa and director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) are lost in the woods themselves.
So many other, potentially more exciting roads could have been taken. Instead of denying Klaatu access to the United Nations, why not let him present his message and see where the chips fall? This is a global story, after all, so why not, in this era of globalization, genuinely make it one? There could have been three, four, five or more Klaatus — one for every continent — and the film could have intercut the fateful ramifications of differing international responses to his arrival.
Innumerable other dramatic possibilities lie latent in the basic material, but the filmmakers timidly ignore them in favor of sticking with very dull versions of the original film’s characters. Even when Klaatu is persuaded to alter his dim view of humankind’s potential to transform itself, it’s unconvincingly motivated.
The performers all seem left to their own devices and appear very far from their best. David Tattersall, who shot the three “Star Wars” prequels, seamlessly melds the live-action with the extensive visual effects, which were handled mostly by New Zealand’s WETA Digital. Given limited motivation by the lackluster action, Tyler Bates’ score is several notches above the norm for big effects-driven pictures.