Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Earth may be doomed -- again

With the end-of-the-year mired in pre-Oscar seriousness, I found myself looking forward to "The Day the Earth Stood Still,'' a remake of Robert Wise' s 1951 sci-fi classic. I should have known better. Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly are a long way from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, and director Scott Derrickson is no Robert Wise.

This newly minted edition shifts the peril from the threat of atomic warfare to destruction of the Earth via man-made pollution. Fair enough, but the movie's attempts to mix the naivete of '50s sci-fi with a more contemporary approach too often winds up looking either portentous or cheesy. And as Klaatu, a stony-faced visitor from another planet, Reeves has never been more expressionless -- and that's saying a bunch. Maybe he's somber because only the most misanthropic Earthlings could be glad to see Klaatu, who's supposed to begin the destruction of humanity, a task made necessary by man's environmental negligence. Connelly portrays a microbiologist, and Jaden Smith plays her stepson. They try to convince the skeptical Klaatu that humanity can change.

The movie features many floating spheres and a hulking, giant robot, as well as an equally gigantic product placement for McDonald's. In all, this edition of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" makes it feel as if time is standing still. The movie, however, is notable for casting a woman (Kathy Bates) as the U.S. Secretary of Defense and for allowing Jon Hamm (as one of Connelly's scientist colleagues) to try his hand at something other than advertising. Hamm stars in "Mad Men," the well-received AMC series.

Just for the record, a few things that Wise understood that seem to have eluded the current production: how to compose an interesting shot; how to get a nuanced performance from Rennie, the actor who played Klaatu, how to infuse touches of irony into a few scenes; how to develop a real relationship between Klaatu and the boy in the story; and -- most importantly -- how to keep a film short. The new version runs one hour and 43 minutes; Wise's movie lasted 92 minutes. Of course, Wise's movie is dated, and, yes, a bit clunky. Derrickson and company have added more menace and updated the effects, but haven't accomplished much else.

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