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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Recommended Missing: The Day The Earth Stood Still

by Bruce Bethke

It's not often a movie makes me glad I blew off paying work, but the recent DVD release of last year's remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still does just that. In spades.

But first, some background.

Last Fall, I pitched a webzine on the idea of running a comparative review of this version, the 1951 version, and the original 1940 short story upon which both were ostensibly based, "Farewell to the Master," by Harry Bates. The editor I pitched the idea to liked it and gave me the assignment, but then something else came up and I missed the movie on opening weekend. Two weeks later, when my schedule had finally cleared enough that I could get back to the project, I found it had already vanished from the local cineplex.

Disappointed, I blew off the assignment, and resigned myself to catching the movie later, when it came out on DVD. Last Friday I finally got the chance to do so, and now that I have seen this movie in all its bluish-tinged CGI glory, I can say with complete confidence that the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is—oh, how shall I say this?

It stinks? It sucks? It stinsucks? I'm not certain, but I believe a new word may be required in order to describe just how bad this movie is. There was very little reason to remake this movie in the first place, and absolutely no reason to butcher the story so very badly in the process. Clearly, Michael Bay Syndrome is far more widespread than previously believed.

How does this movie stinsuck? Let me count the ways.

1. Can we have a moratorium on movies shot entirely through blue filters in order to make them look cold and creepy? It's been done. And done. And done some more. Enough already.

2. John Cleese, standing in for Sam Jaffe, who in turn stood in for Albert Einstein in the 1951 version, is absolutely squandered in this film. If you're going to put John Cleese in a movie and put his name in big letters in the credits, give him something to do.

3. It's The Phantom Menace problem all over again. In the big climactic scene, bluish-tinged CGI bugs attack bluish-tinged CGI soldiers defending a bluish-tinged CGI city while Jennifer Connelly cowers in a tunnel and screams and the Secretary of Defense watches it all on a TV screen and gapes in either horror or boredom, I can't tell which. And we, the audience, are supposed to care.

4. Speaking of those CGI bugs, in this version, CGI G.O.R.T. is at least thirty feet tall, considerably more fluid, and, it turns out, composed entirely of nanoscopic robo-cockroaches. In the grand finale, and in a sequence probably close enough to Michael Crichton's Prey to be actionable, CGI G.O.R.T. dissolves into a vast swarm of CGI nanobugs who devour their way from bluish-tinged CGI New Jersey to bluish-tinged CGI New York, presumably killing millions in the process. Gee, what a shame. Good thing they were only CGI.

5. But about those people and those nanobugs. We've seen people pixellate into nothingness before, in The Mummy, War of the Worlds, X-Men III, and probably plenty more movies that blessedly, I forget now. Surely the CGI software that does that effect is paid-for by now, and we can give it a rest. But if you're damned and determined to use that effect anyway: when the nanoroaches start by devouring someone's legs, shouldn't he, like, fall down?

Or when a swarm of flying nanolocusts descends upon some poor hapless schmuck and pixellates away his skin, where all the sensitive nerve endings are, shouldn't he, like, scream? Before all his intestines fall out on the floor?

6. In the original novella—oh, never mind the original novella, I can get carried away writing about the original novella, so I've deleted that entire digression. In the 1951 movie version, Klaatu is a compassionate and sympathetic character, come to Earth to warn humanity to give up our nuclear weapons before it's too late. In the 2008 version, Klaatu is not here to warn us: he's here to oversee the collection of an ark full of biological specimens, before he exterminates humanity. Isn't this exactly the same thing the unspeakably evil Dr. Totenkopf, the villain of Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, was trying to do? And yet this time around, the filmmakers expect the audience to feel sympathy for Keanu Reeves' Klaatu?

Sorry, Charlie, no deal. Kill this Klaatu. Kill him soon. Kill him a lot.

7. Oh, yeah, forgot to mention. In the 1951 version, Klaatu comes here because of nuclear weapons. In the 2008 version, Klaatu comes here because of—get this—global warming. See, his mission is to fill up his space ark with samples of all of Earth's genetic diversity, after which he's going to exterminate humanity (apparently, our genetic diversity doesn't count), and then restore Earth to its Eden-like pre-Homo sapiens state. (Hey, Klaatu! Better play it safe and whack all the great apes, too. No telling what they might evolve into in another few million years!)

You know, every time I run into some ninny who earnestly believes that Earth would be a peaceful paradise if it just weren't for all those pesky humans messing up the place, I want to take them camping. In the Rockies, or Alaska, or maybe the Sierra Nevadas. Yes, they have to wear the necklace of pork chops. The reason why will become clear shortly.

8. Finally, and this is the big one: in this movie, there is no frickin' day on which no frickin' Earth stands still! The entire focus of the original 1951 movie was on leading up to the title event, in which Klaatu demonstrates his capabilities and the seriousness of the situation by shutting down all electrical activity on Earth for one hour. In the 1951 film, it's a powerful and dramatic scene, but it wasn't until 9/12/2001 that I really understood how terrifying a silent city could be.

No such scene in this movie. No such dramatic peak. Nothing of the kind. The title event does not happen in the 2008 version, thereby making the title completely meaningless.

Anyway, that's my short list. I could go on and on, but this will do for now.

Your thoughts?
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