The Day the Earth Stood Still is not a terrible movie; it’s just not a very good one. It’s well directed (Scott Derickson), it’s kind of well executed, and it’s incredibly well cast, which is saying something when your lead is Keanu Reeves. Yet, despite his limitations, aside from his dreadful romantic comedies, he’s not a guy that’s really ever kept anyone from seeing his films. People may mock Keanu, but nobody dislikes the man. He’s a comfortable presence, likeable almost for his lack of acting ability, and when he’s called upon to play stoic, as he was in The Matrix trilogy, and as he is here, there’s hardly an actor more capable. It’s all he can do, people. And that signature Keanu face serves him well when he’s asked to depict an emotionless alien nonchalantly set to destroy the human race. Moreover, when you’re putting together the cast for a grim, dour, downer of a movie, you can hardly get any more grim and dour than Keanu, Jennifer Connelly, and Jon Hamm. They’re famous for their inexpressiveness, and that’s exactly what’s called for when you’re playing a scientist or an alien being trapped in the body of Keanu Reeves.
The biggest problem, in fact, with The Day the Earth Stood Still is the same problem inherent in most end-of-the-world flicks. When faced with a power large and strong enough to destroy the entire human race or the Earth itself, you can usually maintain a sense of listless engagement throughout most of the film, but you’re almost always cornered into some implausible conclusion, whether the sacrificial Bruce Willis is crashing his space-ship into an asteroid, or whether Will Smith is taking out a Earth-destroying UFO with a Mac and a little Philly attitude. The problem is exacerbated when you’re talking about saving the world with power of human emotion, and that’s where — I suppose — the cast’s limitations (which work well throughout most of the film) come back to haunt them, leaving poor Jaden Smith to do all the emotional heavy lifting. It’s hardly fair to ask a 9-year-old the carry the emotional weight of a film, and Jaden Smith is certainly not the kid to do it.
It doesn’t help, either, when your source material comes from the 1950s, back when Sci-Fi audiences didn’t need a particularly complicated or logical storyline to interest them. A microwave oven and a VCR probably would’ve sent them scurrying into their makeshift nuclear fall-out shelters. They paid their quarter and didn’t expect much more than a giant monster made from tin foil. I was nevertheless impressed with Derikkson’s approach to the material — he doesn’t try to make it campy. In fact, there’s not a single joke or light moment in the entire film, though there might be a smattering of unintentional comedy, particularly when Iron fucking Giant takes center stage in Central Park.
In the opening minutes of the film, Helen (Connolly) a biologist with a background in otherworldy microbes (or something like that), is whisked away from her step-son (Jaden Smith) (whose mother and father have passed) and into some DoD facility, where they are told that a projectile is hurtling toward the Earth, set to destroy all of Manhattan (and more) in 78 minutes. The projectile — which is actually a huge spherical something-or-another, however, lands softly in Central Park, and an alien walks out. Helen walks toward it, and holds out her hand to shake its hand (It sounds dumber than it appears onscreen, though not by much), and one of the military dudes takes a shot at it. The alien is then transported back to the DoD facility, where a doctor removes its whale-blubbery cocoon and the bullet. Beneath it all is Keanu Reeves, who makes one simple straight-out-of-1950s-Sci-Fi request, “I’d like to speak to your leaders.”
The request is denied, but he is allowed to talk to the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates), a skeptic who just wants to blow the sphere to smithereens and Guantanamo Keanu (the alien has a name, but it’s not important, and it’s not that dissimilar to Keanu, anyway). The problem is, the Iron Giant is protecting the alien sphere, and Keanu uses his alien powers to escape. Thereafter, the chase is on (a chase to or from what is not really revealed), and Helen and her son are the over-earnest passengers in Keanu’s plan to destroy life form on Earth. If you haven’t seen the original, I don’t want to spoil his reasons for doing so, but let’s just say that 1) it’s not because he’s a bad guy, and 2) Al Gore would probably do the same if he were a superpowerful alien life form.
In encapsulating the premise, I’m actually impressed now that The Day the Earth Stood Still is not as dumb as it sounds on paper. Oh, it’s dumb all right. It’s downright preposterous, but then again, so are the premises for most Sci-Fi flicks. But The Day the Earth Stood Still is fairly engaging in a completely detached sort of way. For about three-quarters of the running time, though you know it’s going to end in complete nonsensicality. But that’s what piques your curiosity — wondering just how obtuse the ending will be. Sadly, though it is lame-brained, it’s not fantastically so. There’s nothing to mock — no joy in its preposterous excesses. It just lifelessly meanders toward the credits, gently scooting you out of your seat with an expression on your face that says, “That was it?”
But then again, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not a very fun movie. It’s not really meant to be. Unfortunately, it fails at whatever it is that it is trying to be. It is neither intense, nor scary, nor heartfelt. It’s not even cornball or hammy. It’s just blah. But, as far as blah genre goes, I suppose you could do worse.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives withi his wife and son in Portland, Maine You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.
The Day the Earth Stood Still / Dustin Rowles
Film | December 12, 2008 | Comments ()