Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Day the Earth Fell Ill, Stood Pat, and Sat

You don't have to be a sci-fi buff, campy nostalgia eBay trader, or part-time planetary improvement hobbyist to be lulled into last week's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Your enjoyment/enrichment rides on your willing suspension that the next two hours hold any elevated wisdom or enlightenment that a 21st century citizen can use to understand, deal with, or even engage the challenges of our day.

The highest suspension is "not" that smarter beings are cast in the role of celestial guardians and interstellar police beings. The real nosebleed make-believe is the baptismal slate-cleaning that our race is "now" only being cuffed, booked, tried, and convicted of all our loopy human frailties and excesses. Name a change. Pick any violation of logic. Any common standard of decency. Guilty as charged.

The problem is that these allegations undergo their own form of weightlessness in the complete vaccuum between the aliens' arrival and now -- when are they coming? They're almost here! Maybe if we had more time we could have summoned the collective responses that form around these big spherical speed bumps in our evolutionary roads. We see stock footage of lootin' and Putin. The only talking heads that roll are for fugitive Joe Klaatu -- he's on the loose! Never do we overhear any words on any streets about how today we're all moslems, jews, christians, hindus and all non-believing heathens not classified as islamic radical fundamentalists on some no-fly list.

If the producers truly wanted movie-goers to suspend their disbelief they could have made Klaatu ... well ... earthier. This time out Klaatu is even more detached and remote than he is pensive and aloof. He's not returning calls. Heck, he's not even talking to RAWPA Gort ("Retrofitted And With Plausible Acronym"). It might help to have included the term "neutrino." That would make him "Nort", a precursor to "Nano" and hence a little less menacing. If they wanted a cardboard eco sidekick perhaps they could have swapped out the big techie "T" for the earthlier "E" and changed GORT to GORE. Al could have suited up -- albeit in a larger suit.

Even the eco play seems stolen and unconvincing. Klaatu is likelier to develop a cat allergy than a warm fuzzy for the fishes in the deep blue sea. We see any number of frogs, snakes and winged subjects succumbing to the magnetic trance of the eco-spheres cum hybrid arks. The closest remade Klaatu comes to fondling our own magnanimous charms is when he huddles at the Mickey Ds rest stop off the Jersey Turnpike with a fellow alien-superior. There we learn that his tribal elder would rather die on earth with his coke and fries than shed his mandarin skin and climb back into the cradle of advancement.

I suppose the closest thing to cosmic headway here is the bottled lightening that bolts from John Cleese as the Einstein action figure with the same long, dangling math equation. He beseeches Klaatu to look at the race not based on 1st, 2nd, 3rd or infinite screw-ups but based on the last chance, backs-to-the-wall scenario. The same death door that knocked the Klaatunians back into line! The more immediate legacy translates better to mafia dialect than pep talks at half-time or motivational loudspeakers. In fact it was subliminally buried in an op-ed in today's NY Times.

In the original the space capsule handled like the UFO you saw in the dealer showrooms of its day. It descended with cushioning thrusters on the Washington DC mall at 3:47 EST. This time out stillness set in closer to 9:00-ish judging by a glancing watch piece. By then the credit crunch had put the brakes on the assembly line -- and the assembly.

If the updated time stamp and switchable departure / arrival gates are any indication this is a remake for which originality doesn't come easily. I was hoping for a sign or a banner. Maybe: Humans -- the earth's original earthlings? The interconnectedness of our sloppy emotions and complex trading systems never surfaces in the gathering of good-faith efforts. Some kind of public forum would have been particularly useful in this era where the spreading of anything -- whether it's wealth, germs, or financial risk is assumed to be contaminated, unmanageable, and far more valuable as an avoidance exercise.

There's no reckoning. There's no persuading a meeting of the UN General Assembly. Is the U.S. just too unitary? Is Kathy Bates too butch? Are folks too busy to have their medications lapse? Michael Rennie's Klaatu could have found the time to hit fungos and coach little league. Remade Klaatu is a free agent. He can't make any promises and he may not get back to us before our cardiovascular vessels are terminally bugged.

But how can we evolve beyond self-interest and stupefied hysteria unless Klaatu shows a little heart -- not just a change of one? Ultimately this is not a message movie. It is an instant movie and that's the instant message. That said you might be entertained for two hours. I'm not committing to it though.

1 comment:

msolomon said...


That was a bad Day at the movies.

While perhaps undeserved, The Day The Earth Stood Still carried brand cache as a thoughtful sci-fi work which distinguishes itself from standard alien battle movies. I understand that movies need to show off cool special effects (the original also thought it showed off), but Allison, Ben and I left the movies confused.

What was that about?

Klaatu suggests that his mind was made up before he arrived. Why visit? He demonstrates that he does not need to be physically present to acquire more data. He says that he wants to communicate with world leaders. Why communicate, if he has made up his mind?

Klaatu demonstrates that he has the power to get what he wants. He wants to speak to the U.N., but he does nothing about Kathy Bates' insistence that she is the only one with whom he may speak. It quickly becomes clear that dialogue, not arms, is the only way to solve this problem, but our movies have not evolved from portraying wooden idiotic government/military personnel ordering futile attacks - collateral damage be damned ("New York, Drop Dead"). That low level colonel ordering disastrous strikes made me think of Consequences and Dr. Strangelove (Slim Pickens riding that bomb). Perhaps this would have played better, if it was aiming for laughs.

When Jennifer Connelly pleads - please please please, Mr. Blint - that Klaatu has yet to speak with the world leaders, she takes Klaatu to John Cleese for whom the movie lays no foundation. As she enters Cleese's office, Connelly points to a Nobel prize - for what? who cares? - to establish Cleese. Cleese apparently is some kind of mathematician, but what has that to do with Klaatu's purpose? What are we supposed to change and how might all powerful Klaatu help us do that? Jesus, who apparently spoke only in parables, was clearer. Klaatu claims that we did not listen. I claim that he did not say.

The movie would have benefited from following the kid device from the original. The kid got to ask all the questions that we have without the movie looking stupid. The kid built up Sam Jaffe, before we saw Jaffe, so that Klaatu's chalkboard visit made sense. In fairness, the kid here makes sense, when he criticizes Klaatu's hypocrisy for resurrecting the cop that Klaatu recently killed only to move ahead with plans to kill the entire human race within the next day. Klaatu's response is worse than the Grinch's to Cindy Lou Who. But we are more than two, and we are not buying it.

In both movies, Klaatu lacks a forum and struggles to get adequate attention for his message. In the original, Klaatu gets our attention through a demonstration - the title of the movie. In the new movie, we get no demonstration - it goes straight to destruction. It appears that the producers put most of the movie together, realized that they did not make the Earth stand still, and threw it in at the end.

To what end? How is the eradication of Giants Stadium going to solve an unnamed global crisis? Where were the New Yorkers to say, "no big deal, that thing was coming down anyway." Why not target symbols of the causes for Klaatu's vague concern - factories? petroleum reliance? carbon emissions? ozone depletion? overharvesting? And the stores closed down, and the cars stopped running, and the sky cleared day to day ....

The movie makes no effort to identify a message and does not deviate from shameless commercialism. The movie shows the arches, and the dialogue includes McDonalds which hosts a positive meeting experience. Note how clearly "Citizen" was in focus, when the camera lingers over a watch to establish time. That LG label popped on the cell phone for the crucial call. In this light, it is surprising that there are no soundtrack tunes. This movie is popular and could have scored merely by releasing a soundtrack of tunes which could have appeared as mere snippets on car radios during the movie. But I detected no snippets - not even joke DJs playing Mr. Spaceman, Rocketman, Calling Occupants, Space Oddity, Drops of Jupiter.

What did we learn?

After observing Connelly hug the kid, Klaatu determines to stop the destruction. Why? What positive behavior is being reinforced? And who knows? The climax is completely removed from any witness with any credibility. Should we expect that the world will listen to Connelly purport to deliver Klaatu's real post-visit message? Her biases will be exposed on The Factor.

This Day operates like a Douglas Adams story - purposeless, random cosmic destruction. Oops, Wrong Planet?

In sum, a powerful and destructive alien decided to visit. Fortunately, he decided to leave. Let's hope that he does not visit again, because we do not know why he came and we do not know what we did to convince him to leave.

Won't you give us a sign that we've reached you?


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