Day the Earth stopped mattering
Remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still has no heart
In alien-invasion films, the line between good guys and bad guys tends to be pretty clearly drawn. Us … them. Them … us. Only the most bitter Scientology foe would want big, bad beasties to crush Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds. It would take some feat of filmmaking to make an audience root for the annihilation of our species.
Take a bow, Scott Derrickson. Armed with a ham-handed screenplay, he’s turned The Day the Earth Stood Still into a successful argument against human life on our planet.
In this remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, a meteor-like object is headed toward Manhattan. Among the scientists dispatched to handle the emergency is astromicrobiologist Helen Benson. We know she’s someone we’re supposed to care about for several reasons: She’s played by Jennifer Connelly, she’s a recent widow, and she’s a stepmom who’s devoted to a typically indifferent preteen (Will Smith’s son, Jaden). We don’t learn any of this gradually; it’s all thrust upon us in a few quick scenes.
The meteoroid, not surprisingly, is actually a ship. This being 21st-century America, police and armed forces promptly encircle it, and when an alien cautiously approaches our wide-eyed heroine, its hand outstretched in friendship, a sniper shoots it in the chest.
Welcome to Earth, E.T. Next time, wear Kevlar.
Fortunately for mankind, the alien race is much more restrained. They dispatch a ginormous robot who looks like the love child of Iron Man and a Cylon, but it refrains from wiping everybody out. Not only that, it lets these same humans cart off the gunshot victim to who-knows-where.
Turns out the alien is an ambassador of sorts, a “friend of the Earth.” Not of everything on Earth, mind you; Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, in all his stone-faced glory) already wasn’t particularly predisposed to liking humans before he got shot, and he’s none too impressed by the diplomacy of Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), the highest-ranking Earthling he’s allowed to meet.
The aliens have a plan for our planet that doesn’t include us. After seeing all the recklessness and stupidity encountered by Klaatu, who could blame them?
If we don’t care about someone, we don’t care about their fate. The makers of Independence Day understood this—they took the time to flesh out their characters, rather than just placing them in stereotypical circumstances and expecting us to relate by reflex.
Derrickson and screenwriter David Scarpa do the latter. As a result, The Day the Earth Stood Still is visually exciting but far from compelling, and a message with merit gets lost in the mess.