Fox // 2008 // 104 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // April 7th, 2009
"Are you a friend to us?"
"I'm a friend to the Earth."
The original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still came out during the Cold War. Underlying the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union was fear of the atomic bomb. The world had seen its terrible power in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World War II came to a close.
The 2008 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still came out in a world that's no longer divided between East and West, but still has a long way to go toward peace. We've also got a host of new terrors like biological weapons and the recent North Korean rocket test.
The DVD release of 2008's The Day The Earth Stood Still comes at a fortuitous time, within a week of a G20 Summit. Somehow I don't think world leaders would have been happy if an alien had arrived wanting to give a speech.
Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, Hulk), a Princeton prof, has ordered pizza twice this week for herself and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness), but tonight she's cooking a real meal. Unfortunately, there's a large contingent of law enforcement and military personnel at the door. Helen is whisked away to a briefing about Object 07/493, which is expected to crash into Manhattan -- almost immediately. Too bad for Helen's dinner plans.
Object 07/493 doesn't exactly crash. It lands in Central Park. Helen and a group of fellow scientists, in hazmat gear, head into the park to take a look, with police and military soon following. A lone figure emerges from the greenish glowing sphere that is Object 07/493. Helen approaches to greet it and is splattered with blood as it's shot by the overzealous authorities. Next comes a giant robot, later called GORT. The overzealous authorities start shooting at it as well. Too bad for them.
When the lone figure sheds its outer skin, it turns out to have a human form and an alien name: Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix). Like any good movie alien, Klaatu wants to be taken to Earth's leaders, who are meeting at the United Nations. Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, Fried Green Tomatoes) has other ideas, though. She turns Klaatu over to an interrogator. Too bad for the interrogator.
When Klaatu falls down in a train station restroom, still weak from the gunshot wound, Helen comes to pick him up, Jacob in tow. As the military battles his giant robot and the authorities start a manhunt for Klaatu, Helen and Jacob realize the alien's real mission. Too bad for humanity?
Klaatu never gets to speak to the United Nations. His message comes across in cryptic statements like, "If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives." In the features, it's suggested that it could be an environmental message or a caution against the human tendency to let fear override reason, an interpretation drawn from a line in the original. I'm not sure what Klaatu was going to say, or if he even had a speech prepared, but it leaves room for ambiguity. Recalling the original, I decided Klaatu's message was that we have a long way to go toward peace; at least that was the message that came through loudest as I watched the hostile reception Klaatu got. Watching Kathy Bates as Regina Jackson lose her taste for battle as the military sends everything it has after Klaatu and his giant robot pal -- and fails miserably -- should make you reconsider humanity's warlike qualities. The repetition of the futile attacks at times seems comical, at others just sad.
As you might have guessed, Keanu Reeves makes a convincing space being, stirring a matter-of-fact attitude toward his mission into an alien persona. He has a knack for comedy, shown early on as Klaatu uses his electrical powers to get a free sandwich from a vending machine and later as he corrects an equation for a stunned Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese, A Fish Called Wanda). But more often he comes across as menacing, as he smashes a car into a cop or calmly discusses finishing off the human race.
While there's a lot going on in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the debate over Klaatu's arrival actually takes place in Helen's car. While she's a true believer, sure that she can win him over to humanity's side, her son Jacob is a skeptic who favors Klaatu's annihilation. Both are sure that Jacob's late father, an Army engineer, would agree with them. Their discussion, playing out in front of Klaatu, will get you thinking about human nature.
The biggest surprise here is John Cleese. While he does a comic bit with Reeves, his role is dramatic, pleading humanity's case before the alien judge and executioner. He did good; the idea of Cleese as humanity's defender didn't turn out as scary as it sounds.
The next biggest surprise was that some of the outdoor scenes were shot on "amazing indoor sets" on a soundstage. There's CGI, of course, but indoor sets are a bit unusual nowadays. They're done well, though; I didn't realize what they were until I saw them in the featurettes.
Fox sent a check disc, but the effects looked good, with a surreal look that can be spooky, amusing, or breathtaking, depending on the situation. The mystical spookiness as the scientists in hazmat gear approach the sphere through the fog makes way, by design, for traditional thriller urgency as the police and military show up. As Klaatu raises a second sphere from a lake's depths, the flashes of all the other spheres across the globe create a sense of big-budget majesty.
I was reluctant to watch the commentary by screenwriter David Scarpa. With a movie that's ambiguous, too much explanation can ruin the experience. Scarpa uses the word "postmodern" way too much, but his explanation of his -- and the team's -- creative decisions is interesting. He acknowledges the tension involved in rendering a movie of both ideas and giant robots, made even greater by the big budget today, and suggests that the makers of the 2008 movie treated the original with a cautious respect. He also astutely notes that modern audiences might not have been willing to sit through a Keanu Reeves speech.
Around 80 minutes of bonus features are included. The most interesting is "Unleashing GORT," which shows the many ideas that the production team considered before going with the obvious: a larger variation on the original movie's robot. "Re-imagining The Day" looks at the original movie and compares the two. "Watching the Skies: In Search of Extraterrestrial Life" visits with researchers who investigate UFOs and signals from space; it's interesting, but once you've seen the movie, you may hope they don't find what they're looking for. "The Day the Earth Was 'Green'" promotes Fox's efforts to be carbon neutral. There are also three brief deleted scenes that were wisely excised.
The original The Day The Earth Stood Still's message was made more powerful by the fact that the atomic bomb had fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years before and that the Cold War was just heating up. With those events receding into the distance, the new movie could be a pointless remake or a more general allegory for any era, depending on your point of view.
While the original's simple storytelling makes it a classic that can't be topped, 2008's The Day The Earth Stood Still handles the contradictory mix of big-budget action and small-scale exploration of humanity well, with the pyrotechnics staying somehow related to the movie's plot and themes.
While my check disc only has the new movie, the ads tell me that the release features both versions, which sounds like a great deal. If you've only seen one or the other, be sure to check both out.
Not guilty. I think I'm just going to order pizza tonight, in case Klaatu was going to advise that planning out a real meal is just asking for interruptions.
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* 1951 Version
* Digital Copy