REVIEW 2: The Day The Earth Stood Still
(Editors Note: Sometime's two people from the massive staff of Screenjunkies review the same movie, and the best review wins. This is one of those occassions. Here's Thomas Anderson's. Max Power's review can be found here.)
I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for any good old fashioned sci-fi trip, even if said sci-fi trip involves some overused clichés and a plot that doesn’t entirely make sense. These flaws can be forgiven if the rest of the show gives enough thrills, special-events driven destruction, and Keanu Reeves.
Mr. Reeves hasn’t seen live action sci-fi since The Matrix Revolutions puttered out of theatres five years ago, and though he doesn’t know any kung fu in this one, he gives a performance that’s actually one of the best parts of the movie – it showcases his stoic brand of acting in a role that makes excellent use of it, despite being surrounded by a whole slew of underwhelming performances that look like they popped right out of a late night Sci-Fi Channel movie.
The Plot in 13 Words
Mysterious alien spheres land on Earth and threaten all of humanity (once again).
What I Thought
Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is a widowed college professor (her husband was a soldier who died in combat) taking care of a reluctant and bitter step son Jacob (Jaden Smith from Heroes). One day after work she comes home to find Jacob at home playing World of Warcraft, and as she starts to cook up some eats, a phone call interrupts her; a knock on the door, a few miles down some deserted miles of highway in a government escort, and a military huey ride later, she finds out why: some weird shit is going down.
The government has gathered a whole bunch of scientists together, and one civil engineer, and none of them can figure out why (neither can the movie – we never really find out what exactly all these scientists are being used for). They’r taken to a super top secret facility (sound familiar yet?) and shown the facts: some asteroid-like object is approaching Earth’s orbit devastatingly fast, and will kill everyone on it when it hits. As they’re leaving the facility in some choppers, they see the object land: it’s a giant blue-green sphere, and it docks right in the middle of central park. From the sphere emerges an alien form, and eventually we learn his name is Klaatu, and he’s here to save the Earth. Meanwhile, a 25-foot tall metallic-like being, nick named G.O.R.T. (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology), stands guard at the sphere as other smaller spheres fall like raindrops from the sky all around the Earth.
The preliminaries to Klaatu being revealed as the aliens’ messenger to Earth are all pretty bland and boring, the exact same block-headed military antics that you’ve seen in every other alien invasion movie: shoot first, ask questions later. The movie never even really needs a reason to tell the military to fire when ready; it’s just taken for granted that we’re a trigger-happy crowd, which, granted, has a ring of truth to it, but this army makes the dumbasses in Independence Day look like geniuses. For example, after a few hundred bullets fail to do the slightest damage to Gort, why would you bother firing missiles at it? Twice? It’s Godzilla all over again. At one point they’re even stupid enough to try to drill through Gort’s skin with a diamond drill – until it fractures. Well, obviously, Gort’s skin is way too hard to penetrate, so would you continue to use the drill? No, silly, if you’re the smart military, you’ll simply repair the drill and try again. There’s no way it could crack twice, right? Not to mention that even after it is evidenced that Klaatu can kill people with his mind and go anywhere he wants, the military leaders still think they can contain him and flat out deny his requests to talk to the UN – no reason, of course.
Almost worse than the military stupidity is the sometimes laughingly inane dialog coupled with earnestly B-movie acting on the level of Cary Elwes in Saw. Kathy Bates as the secretary of defense, Regina Jackson, is stilted and far too mechanical to be either believable or even enjoyable – and it’s bad enough that she has some of movie’s worst lines. When a scientist tells her, ”This could be the greatest discovery in the history of mankind,” she fires back with this gem, “This could be the last discovery in the history of mankind!” Jon Hamm and Robert Knepper, as Michael Grainier, a scientist assigned to Helen, and simply “The Colonel,” respectively, are lost and seem to just have said, “Screw it.” Or maybe they’re just confused by some of the ridiculous places the script allows itself to go – during first contact, all the scientists are allowed to go directly forward to the giant threatening alien sphere, while the military stay behind them. Really? A bunch of college professors are gonna be the first to see and touch an alien life form and everybody else is gonna stay back and watch?
It’s really a shame, because the movie’s script isn’t weak across the board – there are few scenes, preciously few, where we see some places that it could have gone if it wasn’t so intent on shooting a bunch of special effects into our faces – as Klaatu reveals his intentions to protect the Earth at all costs, Helen realizes she needs to show him reasons humanity needs to live, and there’s a touching cameo by John Cleese in which he passionately entreats Klaatu to allow humanity another chance, as only on the brink of destruction do civilizations change. It’s the best written scene in the movie, and if we could have been able to see more of those (while still making time for Gort’s clouds of destructive dust), it would have been a good film across the board instead of just a mediocre film with a few highlights.
Keanu Reeves is one of those highlights - as Klaatu, is the best actor of the bunch, and yes I am talking about the Keanu Reeves. Jennifer Connelly doesn’t have much to do except worry about her stepson and the Earth’s fate, and though she’s just as gorgeous as ever, she’s not as interesting to watch as Reeves. When he first arrives on Earth, he’s threatening, dead silent, halting in his speech, and staring ahead with a blank, cold as ice expression. As we watch him throughout the movie, though, there are subtle changes to how hard his expression is set, the way he’ll say a word, how he’ll move his body as he walks, and the intensity of his glare. Reeves worked intently with the writers on his role, and his very dialog evolves as he becomes more accustomed to humans – this movie is worth watching for Klaatu alone, as long as you’re willing to put away your unoriginal Keanu cheap shots for a couple of hours.
The first film spoke to the Cold war sentiments of the time, with Klaatu warning the people of Earth that they needed to stop destroying each other, or else they would be destroyed. Appropriately, it’s been updated for an environmental theme, and the change fits snugly – this isn’t a manifesto, it’s a sci-fi action drama with some of these themes tucked in. It can be over-the-top, cheesy, and annoyingly unconcerned with many explanatory details, but it does have its subtle, strong, haunting moments too, and one of them comes when Regina Jackson asks Klaatu why he’s come to their planet. The look he gives her is simultaneously confused and sharply rebuking, and his answer, like some of the best cinematic lines, has a grain of truth and a shiver of theatrics: “Your planet?”
Overall Rating: 6/10