The typical excuse you'll hear when a filmmaker decides to redo a classic, especially a science fiction classic, is that he wanted to tell an old story that reflects modern concerns. You'll never hear him say, "I wanted to spiff up the special effects," (unless, of course, he's George Lucas) or, God forbid, "I thought I could do it better." Nope, he's gotta say "Modern Concerns" -- the scifi buzzword that's guaranteed to net you a $100 million budget, regardless of whether you actually have something to say. Enter Robert Wise's 1951 The Day the Earth Still, a taut, human thriller about fear and paranoia that perfectly reflected mankind's petty ignorance during the Cold War. And then there's director Scott Derrickson's (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) clumsy version, which perfectly reflects... his desire to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still.
For those who don't know, the original story begins with a flying saucer touching down in Washington, D.C. From it emerges a humanoid alien, Klaatu, who says (in the purest scifi fashion), "Take me to your leader." Along for the ride is his robot pal Gort, an omnipotent bodyguard that can melt weapons with his Cylon-esque eye -- and bring back the dead. The same goes for the remake, except sub in New York's Central Park for D.C. and a giant marble that looks like it was borrowed from the set of Men in Black for the flying saucer. All the humans behave as you would expect: Shoot first, ask questions later, and drop every cliffhanger platitude you can find from the first draft of Independence Day's script along the way ("How do we know it's hostile?" "Because it just shut down our defense satellites...." Dun, dun, duuuhhh!).
That is, all the humans except Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), who actually bothers to listen to what Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) has to say and takes him on a path of human discovery with her stepson (Jaden Smith). And here's where the movie really, predictably, falls off (prepare for Modern Concerns insertion): It seems Klaatu and his alien buddies have been speeding around the universe at 3x10^7 meters per second (that's one zero off of the speed of light) and only hit their breaks when they saw that mankind was trashing the planet. Forget that we're arming suborbital missiles with nuclear warheads -- which was, incidentally, why the first Klaatu intervened -- Keanu's really concerned about global warming. The beauty of the original was that it shined a light on how petty mankind's differences were by placing them in an infinitely broader context. This movie does the exact opposite, attempting to scare us out of complacency by aggrandizing the planet to a cosmic level. You mean to tell me that in all the vastness of the universe, the Earth is so significant that aliens need to swing by to stop us from killing it? If that were true, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, it would be an awful waste of space.
The premise isn't the only problem. Michael Rennie's Klaatu wandered the Earth with the wonder of a child, which allowed for his relationship with a young boy to blossom and eventually change his perception of mankind's potential. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, is as stiff as Gort and as flat and emotionless as Neo -- which is fine when he's decked out in leather and wielding an Uzi, but doesn't exactly warm your heart when he's chatting with mini-Will Smith. Forget his motivation for killing the human race; even more confusing is his eventual decision to call the whole thing off. I still can't figure it out. Then there's Gort, who this time around is a bizarre conglomeration of a zillion microscopic metal bugs that, when put together, could rival I Am Legend's vampires for least realistic CG job ever. As an added bonus, CG-Gort's name is now an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology. I guess when you're dealing with a serious name like Klaatu, calling your robot Gort would just be silly.
Moviegoers have put up with a lot of smugness from Hollywood lately, most recently in the form of a little trash compactor robot that warmed our hearts along with the globe. But The Day the Earth Stood Still isn't smug -- it's just stupid. Nowhere in its blunt scolding about the environment does it inspire hope about civilization the way the original -- or for that matter Wall*E -- did. Instead we're bombarded with the latest cause célèbres while Derrickson force-feeds us borrowed footage from every scifi movie of the past 20 years. A remake needn't reflect Modern Concerns -- Steven Spielberg's totally serviceable War of the Worlds proves that. By the same token, remakes that do successfully invoke Modern Concerns can work spectaclularly (see Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica). But when your only motivation is to re-up Gort with some CG and an acronym, tacking on a "deep message" comes off as pretentious. The Day the Earth Stood Still is shallow storytelling at its worst -- totally exploitative and bereft of all sincerity. If this were the measure by which Klaatu judged mankind's potential, we'd all be dead already.