[In the L's Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven't Seen, banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let's see how we did. Here, Henry Stewart, who wrote the one on The Day the Earth Stood Still, compares his preview to his actual response.]
That thoughtful 50s parable on the dangers of Cold War arms racing has been remade by the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. And the writer of The Last Castle. To look like War of the Worlds II. Merry Christmas! Love, Fox! Because nuclear weaponry is soooo 20th century, D.T.E.S.S. (as it’s been re-titled for today’s busy reader) now concerns the environment — and it’s as thought-provoking as The Happening. Keanu leads the some-star cast as a stiff, humorless alien; where does the actor end and the character begin? Right? Right?
The Day the Earth Stood Still does more than simply look like The War of the Worlds: it adopts that Spielbergian conceit about destroying the world in order to reunite an estranged family, too. Could anything be more selfish and, well, American? Metal-munching space flies (really) are reducing the earth to wasteland and all the filmmakers care about is: will Will Smith’s son stop worrying about his (movie) father’s death and learn to love his step-mother, Jennifer Connelly?
To be fair, the filmmakers also care about how cool it looks to see shit get blown up! To the detriment of boring old things like pacing and storytelling, both as "last century" as the original’s A-bomb anxiety, director Scott Derrickson ensures that every cent of the film’s $100 million budget turns up on the screen — even though the CGI, like that used to create the Doctor Manhattan-sized Gort, looks like it’s out of the late 80s (or an Xbox).
But the SFX, the techware, the weaponry, the copious extras, the intricately dressed sets and all the other expenses are, without a compelling context, a bore. Even worse, long scenes of scientific mumbo-jumbo about DNA decoding and other nonsense, presumably meant to break up the movie’s explodomania, weigh it down, just as they did Jurassic Park. (Derrickson has borrowed only the worst from Spielberg.) The film also frequently observes high-level meetings about What To Do. Talk talk talk. BOOM! Yak yak yak. BAM! Though the movie promotes the importance of changing people’s minds by appealing to their emotions, it only goes after mouth breathers’ spectacle-awe with simpleminded speeches, shiny colors and sappy family dynamics. That it ends in a Central Park tunnel, as Cloverfield did, only reminded me of how emotionally immediate that film was. And how dull this one is by comparison.
It’s too bad that the bombing missions and war room briefings distract the filmmakers, because the central Keanu story is, at least relatively, sort of captivating. And so is he. Reeves is no thespian by any stretch, but he has certain strengths as an on-screen presence, a steely blankness that directors can play up, as Richard Linklater did in A Scanner Darkly. Here, he’s a confused but unemotional extraterrestrial named Klaatu, and he speaks in cool riddles while maintaining a stiff resolve; it’s the kind of part for which he’s best — his agent has been pushing for the role since the Speed days — and he plays it like a real A-list movie star. Not to mention that Klaatu sounds like Keanu.
I feel a bit guilty about disparaging the movie, even though it’s such a bore, because at least it’s politically responsible, a counterbalance to Iron Man‘s deplorable Set Arabs on Fire philosophy. The Dayâ€¦ is the first blockbuster of the Obama Era: the plot hangs on whether or not the human race can "change," which of course it ultimately does, or promises to. ("At the precipice," Keanu says, "we change." Sorry McCain!) And the movie is neocon-critical: the Americans refuse to allow Keanu to address the United Nations, so he sets in motion the planet’s destruction; the president insists they attack the aliens’ glowing orb, which backfires. The film is a call for diplomacy over violence; for the most part, those in the movie who resort to violence are the ones who meet violent ends.
But while it’s nice to see a filmmaking team promote such radically Communist ideas at the multiplex, the movie handles them clumsily — especially its environmental concerns. The Happening, at least, boasted campy, B-movie pleasures; The Day the Earth Stood Still, instead, has soporific lectures. It takes forever for the movie to make a point, and when it finally does, it’s with the maturity of an IMDb commenter. "You treat your planet as you treat each other." "[Humans] are not a reasonable raceâ€¦they are destructive." And so on. Most problematic — how seriously can you take an environmentalist screed that shamelessly plugs McDonald’s and LG?