Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) is a strong-willed single mother in a time when Harriet Nelsons filled both the large and small screens. And the alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), is a sympathetic character. An emissary of foreign worlds that have taken stock of mankind’s behavior and don’t like what they see, he brings both a dire warning and an opportunity for redemption, and he offers a glimpse of mankind’s future if we don’t straighten out, which, needless to say, we didn’t. The story’s strength resides in its Dickensian use of dramatic irony and theme of redemption. The uniqueness and impact of the movie’s special effects are heightened by their understatement.
Not so much the remake that opened this weekend with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly (and Gort – now G.O.R.T., rendered an acronym by his naïve and impotent would-be handlers, the entire Department of Defense, in a thin and transparent attempt at humor). The half-hour of trailers – and commercials – that preceded the movie offered an unwitting clue as to what was ahead: a lot of special effects. And it was clear from the opening scene that the movie-making efforts of director Scott Derrickson and writer David Scarpa in this remake went into spectacle and not into developing the story and characters, which is all the more a shame because they had so much handed to them; they didn’t even have to invent it.
Aristotle’s 4th-century B.C. critique of the drama in his Poetics describes and ranks six key principles of drama, with spectacle bringing up the rear, dead last:
“The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (my italics)
It’s amazing how well this ancient commentary holds up.
Ranked first and second of the six principles? The story and the characters, respectively.
Movie-makers have way too many toys these days. Anyone who’s gone to a movie recently knows that animated effects have replaced not only the magic of wondering How’d they do that? but the most essential elements, the story and its characters – and whether we care about them.
Even Gort had a profile beyond his monolithic presence in the original. And he didn’t need to be twenty stories tall to be ominous. The old-fashioned (I mean really old, ancient Greek old) technique of revealing a character’s nature by what other characters say about him or her had a stunning impact when Michael Rennie warned Patricia Neal of Gort’s destructive power. Greater by far than driving a couple of drone fighter-bombers into the ground in Central Park with a pair of lasar beams, without which any video game on the market won’t sell. In the current version, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) states flatly (as he states most of his dialogue) that G.O.R.T. is activated by the threat of violence. We get no hint from Klaatu of what that means, but we do get plenty of illustrations (literally).
The movie’s theme – even more heavy-handed this time around – turns on mankind’s destructive treatment of the planet. Surely a worthy theme, but treated without subtlety. As Ernest Hemingway said, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.”
Mankind threatens the environment, so mankind must go. Our fate has already been decided, and for some reason, Klaatu is here to tell us. His visit seems at best superfluous. Awkwardly woven into this theme is the “shoot first, talk later” post-Iraq aggressiveness of the Bush administration. Kathy Bates is perhaps the most interesting character of the lead cast as the U.S. Secretary of State, who recognizes before others the power of the aliens, their strategy for saving the planet from mankind, and the ineffectiveness of the administration’s response, even as she’s charged with carrying it out.
It’s difficult to forget that you’re in a theater watching a movie in this version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves playing Klaatu. (“Whoa!” as my daughter always blurts out instinctively at the very mention of his name.) In fairness, he’s handicapped by a weak script and a flat character. Ditto Jennifer Connelly. But if Klaatu does want to rub someone out who’s at least a threat to the movie, if not the world, he should go after the kid, Jennifer Connelly’s step-son. In this update of the single-mother theme, Connelly plays the white widow of an African-American man who died in one of America’s current wars, and who brought a child into this, his second marriage, after his first wife passed away. How’s that for a subtle update? And this is one irritating brat, whose only moment of sympathy is so overdone that it redefines melodrama.
One convincing moment in the movie, however, takes place at Professor Barnhardt’s home (yes, he’s back too, played sensitively by John Cleese and still using a blackboard and chalk to puzzle over math problems), when hearing Bach’s Goldberg Variations has such an impact on Klaatu that he begins to think humans might be worth saving, after all. But somehow, even though the aliens had the capability to upload the codes for our entire defense systems, they missed hearing even a snippet of Bach somewhere on late-night FM radio. Who knows, maybe they caught Britney Spears instead, and that put them over the top.
BTW: Internet surfers – forget about using Gort or Klaatu for a screen handle anywhere on the Net. They’ve long ago been taken by aficionados of the original movie.
As to the movie, rent the original and skip this version.