Friday, January 11, 2013

Cinema 2008: Sci-fi remake lacks punch, purity of original

On the day I saw Keanu Reeves in the remake of a 1951 science fiction classic, it was the audience that sat still. But I couldn’t tell if it was because they were depressed by the star’s atonal Chinese or stunned by cheesy CGI.

Scott Derrickson's 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does have some things to recommend it. No. 1 is the screen presence of Jennifer Connelly, who carries every scene she is in. Connelly — as Helen Benson, a professor of astro-biology or something — will make you want to go back to college and sign up for a full load of science credits.

When the impersonal feds swoop down on Benson's warm hearth, the placid countenance and restraint of the lead government agent are at odds with the force he represents. But the resultant cinematic tension is squandered when the tweedy types are whisked away in big choppers in a scene that conveys no power, no G-force, but looks cribbed from some failed video game.

Still, we are treated to iconic New York City bathed in light from the strange alien spacecraft, which lands in Central Park. Our scientists wear hazmat suits that look like Dior as they approach the spacecraft. Derrickson gives us human beings who look like aliens, an apt image for the disconnect between mankind and his exploited planet.

In the original, spaceman Klaatu lands in D.C. In 2008, he sets it down in Central Park after overflying St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Empire State Building, but not Ground Zero. That last would have been an appropriate image had Keanu's Klaatu been on the same mission as his 1951 antecedent, namely, warning atomic-age mankind to end war or face annihilation from outer space. Perhaps Hollywood felt war was good in 2008, at least maybe the Global War on Terror. At any rate Klaatu's mission focuses on the imperiled environment, even though the starman could have easily found WMD. As it stands in the remake, Klaatu has come to save the earth — and is prepared to destroy mankind (and Giants stadium) if that's what it takes to do so.

Many special effects are unconvincing — from the fake snow on the fake beard of the Reeves' character in the clumsy pre-story, through to the swarm of space flies unleashed to devour homo polluter and his sports arenas.

And is Derrickson supporting the troops when he shows them busting our awe-inspired eggheads' Central Park intergalactic love-in? Why not humanize the guys on the front line? Instead, a trained trigger finger lights up Klaatu, and Benson is there to assume, blood spattered, the pietà pose. It is a stunning visual.

Kathy Bates' role as secretary of defense is well written, that is until the entire film derails in its denouement. Bates' character is a savvy politico, and limns the conflicts inherent when pure science and pragmatic government collide.

She decides, clever girl, that the extraterrestrial noncombatant can be held for having violated U.S. air space. Security is everywhere, except in the lie-detector room where a lone lackey administers a polygraph test to the man from outer space with no one at all watching (= weak page in script). Klaatu easily turns the tables on the agent and with a Terminator-like trope, obtains Men In Black threads in the bargain.

On the loose in Manhattan, Klaatu is at first content to observe the "fumble of humanity." But it's no fun to be single in the city, so Klaatu reunites with Benson. In what passes for irony in Hollywood, Klaatu meets a fellow alien, a sleeper cell of sorts, at a McDonald's in Jersey to decide the fate of the human race.

All in all, Keanu's Klaatu is a drag. He has one good line: Get in the car. Unfortunately, without an Austrian accent it never quite caught on.

When Klaatu finally meets with a Nobel laureate (John Cleese in too brief an appearance) there is a moment of pathos when the two species commune via the language of math. The professor senses all is lost and basically advises Benson to bat her eyelashes at the alien. And why not? Work it baby, the future of the whole race hangs in the balance.

Klaatu is finally convinced to call off Armageddon when he observes a mother's love for her son. The sentimental spaceman even puts himself at risk to halt the destruction unleashed by his "automaton," as it is called. Come on, we all know it is a robot.

The original film is much purer and its moral is delivered with a thought-provoking punch. In the remake, after Klaatu calls off annihilation, takes his robot and goes home, you just don’t feel rededicated to improving the world by anything you watched during the previous 103 minutes.

Gort, now he was a great robot, shown here on an updated poster for the 1951 original, directed by Robert Wise.

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