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Dustin Putman

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The Day the Earth Stood Still  (2008)
1 Stars
Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, John Cleese, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Rothman, Sunita Prasad, Juan Riedinger.
2008 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and disaster images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 9, 2008.
This holiday season's big-budget sci-fi answer to "I Am Legend" (which was released on the same weekend last year), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a hammy update of the classic Robert Wise original. That 1951 film may appear a bit dated to modern audiences, but it was something of a groundbreaker back in the day, one of the first features to treat the end-of-the-world scenario with seriousness and skill. In remaking it, director Scott Derrickson (2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") has been burdened with a clanger of a screenplay by David Scarpa (2001's "The Last Castle") and a non-event conclusion that screams of post-production tinkering. If this was, in fact, the ending planned all along, then it was a bad idea that should have been fixed before filming got underway.

When widowed astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is suddenly taken from her home by the government authorities and grouped together with a ragtag team of hand-chosen scientists, they are informed that the earth is about to be hit by a cataclysmic object headed straight for Manhattan. Upon arrival, however, a large, green-tinted orb instead lands in the middle of Central Park. From it comes an alien lifeform that soon sheds its protective covering to reveal a regular-looking man. His name is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), and he informs Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) that he has come to take back the earth from a human race that is little by little destroying it. Klaatu, along with the giant G.O.R.T. (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology), are capable of destruction beyond anyone's wildest dreams, but Helen senses that she may be able to convince Klaatu that there is still hope for us yet. With Helen's fatherless stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) in tow, she and Klaatu go on the run just as other orbs begin landing across the globe. "If the earth dies, you die," Klaatu tells her, referring to the planet's population, "but if you die, the earth survives."

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a cautionary tale that forgets to send Klaatu's message of peace out to more than a couple of lead characters, thus defeating the whole purpose of the movie. The film, then, becomes a long 95-minute setup to the end credits, leaving viewers perplexed about what the point was. For a sci-fi action pic laden with uneven but copious visual effects, the picture never takes off and barely shifts out of first gear.

The opening half-hour is intriguing enough, depicting the initial invasion, but things soon go awry. The upheaval of the rest of the globe is glimpsed on televisions, but lacks the grandeur and sense of immediacy and impending disaster necessary to raise tension levels. And by the time the plot turns into an on-the-lam road movie mixed with the cornball story of a mother and stepson coming to terms with the loss of their loved one, it loses interest just when it should be gaining speed. The climax, as it were, is wimpy and irresponsible in its view of states-wide destruction, choosing to show a truck and a football field being turned to dust while skimming over the unavoidable notion that millions of lives are being lost along the way.

Keanu Reeves (2008's "Street Kings") has never really been given a fair shake as an actor, and his monotone performance as Klaatu won't be winning him many new admirers. Nevertheless, that is exactly how this otherworldly character should be portrayed, and Reeves brings along with him a commanding, authoritative presence. He isn't given all that much to do, but he does well with the limited confines of the role. As Helen Benson, Jennifer Connelly (2007's "Reservation Road") continues her string of straight-faced dramatic parts. She is a wonderful actress, very good here, and helps a little to bring levity to the otherwise cloying subplot between herself and stepson Jacob. Jacob, by the way, is one of those unctuous movie kids written with cutesy affectations and little realism. Jaden Smith (2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness") does his best, but he's more annoying than sympathetic.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a chilling and provocative title, and the film it is being used for isn't worthy of it. Ending with a whimper rather than a bang and failing to provide a suitable epilogue—or any epilogue at all—that might suggest Klaatu's visit to earth wasn't in vain, this is one production that could have used a few more rewrites, if not a total reworking of a plot handled with more gusto over five decades ago. Fans of the original will not be satisfied with what the new "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has to offer, and those unfamiliar with the story will not be getting the thrills or the impact that the trailers and television ads promise. It's much ado about not much at all.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman