Remakes are the bane of many a film fan's existence. Some are strident in their wholesale hatred, while others take a "wait and see" stance before eventually dismissing the attempted upgrade. Of course, by doing so, they have ignored quite a few quality films (Cronenberg's The Fly, Jackson's King Kong, Scorsese's The Departed). Yet in general, when a modern filmmaker takes on a considered classic, they run the risk of embarrassing themselves and the material being remade. A true masterwork from the '50s, Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still is considered "verboten" by purists. An update stands as a disaster waiting to happen, right? Actually, no.
When a huge spherical object lands in New York's Central Park, a first response team led by members of the military and scientific community set out to explore its purpose. Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) makes contact with a strange being exiting the orb, but said creature is accidentally shot by a soldier, mandating immediate medical care. Eventually, the humanoid-looking alien named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) explains his purpose. Mankind's lack of environmental concern and overall violent nature has led other civilized planets to mandate the destruction of the entire population. While the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) plans an armed solution, Helen helps Klaatu escape, and along with her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), she tries to convince the extraterrestrial emissary that humanity is worth saving. Article continues below
Divorced of its now archetypal precursor, and bucking the post-modern trend towards avoiding "serious" science fiction, The Day the Earth Stood Still is actually a very fine film. It contains a role perfectly suited for Reeves' detached iconography, proves that Connelly doesn't have to be morose and virtually comatose in every adult role, and reinvents enough of the Wise original to avoid a sense of derivative déjà-vu. This is a movie about ideas, debates, and the really tough questions of a 21st century civilization. Certainly, at the end of the day it's still an alien invasion movie (with the help of an oversized robot) bathed in "go green" pronouncements, but its success as entertainment overrides any of its Buck Rogers cheesiness.
The first 45 minutes concentrates almost exclusively on the panic that the appearance of an extraterrestrial orb has on the current world order. In between scenes of looting and mass hysteria, high-minded scientists struggle to keep the government (the U.S., specifically), from using its arrival as a War on Terror talking point. There's even a reference to the effect such a calamity in the making would have on the fragile psyche of a 9/11-weary New York. Yet once Reeves arrives in his full human form, the movie grows intimate. Many of the scenes stay centered between our space messenger, the intellectual driven to protect him, and an angry urchin of a stepchild who keeps interfering with the pair's mutual self-discovery.
Unlike other recent examples of the genre, which trade ideas for indulgent CG special effects and interstellar shoot-'em-up antics, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains somber and serious in its approach. Director Scott Derrickson does a fine job of maintaining a sense of suspense without going overboard in the eye candy department, and his cast is uniformly excellent, even in what amount to minor cameos roles (John Cleese, James Hong). There will be some who still crave action and adventure, who want the world to go out with a bang, not a well-considered cinematic sigh. If you're devoted to the original, nothing here will lift your veiled contempt. But if you're willing to go in with an open mind and some filmmaking forgiveness, you'll find this a Day well spent.