Sometimes the original is so good, you should just leave it alone. Hollywood has been accused for quite a while now of not having an original idea and relying too much on unnecessary remakes. I have no problem with remakes as long as they offer something new that the original didn’t; another perspective or point-of-view. Unfortunately, the 2008 remake of 1951s The Day The Earth Stood Still is a prime example of where they should have left well enough alone. For those of us who love the original, the key problem with the 2008 version is you automatically start making comparisons. We judge the performance of Keanu Reeves as Klaatu versus Michael Rennie or old Gort versus new Gort. There just is no comparison so I’ll do my best to look at the 2008 version objectively.
Our movie opens up with a scene from the snow covered mountains of India in 1928. We see Reeves as a mountain climber who discovers a glowing sphere. Upon touching it, he loses consciousness only to awaken with a very noticeable scar on his hand. We then jump to modern-day as a group of scientists are gathered against their will. An object is traveling at one-tenth the speed of light and due to hit Manhattan. Here we are introduced to Dr. Helen Benson, played by Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer, Dark City, Hulk). We will discover that her husband died and left her with a rebellious stepson named Jacob, played by Jaden Smith (The Karate Kid). From their first scene together, it’s obvious their relationship is very strained. Jacob doesn’t respect Helen at all and is the total opposite of the character of Bobby from the original. Unfortunately, he does fit in with some people’s concept of modern-day children.
The object doesn’t crash but lands. The military is in full force, ready to kill whatever emerges without a second thought. An alien exits the sphere and, upon extending his hand, is shot on sight. Enter Gort, who is a much larger CGI robot in this version and seemingly more destructive. However, before Gort destroys everything, Klaatu says a quick and jumbled up version of the iconic phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto” and Gort stops. Helen is allowed to participate and witness the medical examination. The alien survives, shedding its outer skin to reveal the same image of the mountain climber in the opening scene. They’ve taken his form and its name is Klaatu. Klaatu is here to cleanse the Earth of the human infestation. We’re destroying the planet and, for the sake of all the other creatures that live on it, we need to be gone. The government doesn’t like that idea and the Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, Misery) is more than ready to interrogate him and do whatever it takes to stop him. Helen helps Klaatu escape, which Jacob does not approve once he discovers who Klaatu is. With everyone searching for Klaatu, they meet another alien on Earth named Mr. Wu (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China and Blade Runner) who knows we are a destructive race but has grown to love us and chooses to stay here and die with us. Klaatu also meets Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese, Monty Python alumni), who tries to get Helen to change Klaatu’s mind. Meanwhile, we learn Gort is actually comprised of nanites, which turn out to be the means of our destruction.
The threat of nuclear devastation in the original version is replaced here with a more topical discussion of how we are destroying our home planet. That change works but others do not. I found Reeves to be uneven at best in his performance as Klaatu. He seems truly alien at times but lacks the true acting chops to pull it off convincingly. Rennie was an unknown actor and allowed the audience to become one with the movie. Here, Reeves is too well-known and brings to mind images of The Matrix or Bill and Ted. While Jennifer Connelly is incredibly stunning, her performance here comes off very flat, despite the fact she worked incredibly hard to understand all of the jargon. I’m also not a big fan of Jaden Smith but can admit he is a fine young actor. However, Jacob is an annoying character who changes much too quickly to make it convincing enough. On the other hand, Kathy Bates does a fine job as her character is overbearing at the beginning and remorseful at the end. Although, she too seemed to change a little too quickly. It was nice to James Hong and John Cleese, both of whom are highlights in roles that went by too fast.
The 2008 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still does excel in some great special effects. Gort is impressive here but is lacking the character it had in the original. The spheres were done very well and the scenes of battle or destruction were fun to watch for what they offered. However, the music is forgettable at best and can’t hold a candle to the original Bernard Hermann score. Composer Tyler Bates went for a different direction, which was probably the best way to go. Unfortunately, he thought the audience wouldn’t even know it was a remake, a miscalculation that resulted in a very generic sounding score. The script adapted the original ideas nicely but the real issue here is the cast. I found that most everyone was walking through the roles, emotionless and unconvincing. The movie was a critical flop, with Jaden Smith’s performance being called the only bright spot. While it is fun eye candy, it lacks true substance and I can’t recommend it based on that. Go re-watch the original, or discover it for the first time, and call it good.