Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still


Continuing the Hollywood trend of producing an endless stream of remakes, here comes a 21st century version of the 50's classic sci-fi movie. Reactions to the new movie have been mixed, with reviewers generally having a low opinion of it. I saw both versions (the 1951 movie and the 2008 remake) recently, and the 2008 version had a very different message. While I don't mind the new movie, the story in the remake doesn't appear to be as coherent as the original. It is an average sci-fi flick, when considered on it's own. It's watchable if you want to kill some time in the afternoon. Massive spoilers follow in this post, so stop reading now if you haven't seen either version.

I have no particular attachment to the 1951 version, as I've only seen it the same week I saw the remake. It feels dated and quaint now, and Klaatu's suggestion that we submit ourselves to the authority of giant killer space robots was quite disturbing. The older movie was made in a climate of fear around nuclear weapons, and the message reflected that. Today's version is the threat of ecological damage to the Earth, and Klaatu is here to remind us that we haven't been very nice to our planet.

The new movie opens with a random hiker (played by Keanu Reeves) getting his DNA sampled by an alien snow globe in 1928. Cut to the present day, where Helen Benson is an astrobiologist working for Princeton (in the original, Helen Benson was a secretary). She lives with her son, Jacob, who is an annoying bratty little kid. Government agents show up at her door and whisk her away to a lab where scientists have discovered that an object is on a collision course for Earth. This part is reminiscent of the opening scenes to Michael Bay's Armageddon, albeit not as badly directed. We later find that the object is a spaceship which doesn't collide with Earth, but lands softly in Central Park in New York. The ship looks like the alien snow globe we saw in the introduction, and a team of people consisting of armed military personnel and a bunch of scientists (Helen included) prepare to make contact. A figure appears from the ship, and as Helen approaches him, the alien gets shot by a jumpy officer. This causes a giant robot (the modernised Gort) to appear out of the ship to neutralise the weapons of the military. The injured alien is then taken to a guarded government hospital, where he is found to be a human-looking being (Keanu Reeves) in a spacesuit. This part pretty much follows the original, except that we now know why the alien's form is human-looking; he looks exactly like the hiker that got his DNA sampled in 1928.

The alien introduces himself as Klaatu, and he has an important message for the leaders of Earth. The US Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (played by Kathy Bates) will not have that, and detains him in the hospital. Klaatu escapes with the help of Helen Benson, and now he must find a way to accomplish his mission. Helen. Jacob and Klaatu end up on a road trip where Klaatu meets another human-disguised alien, and a professor by the name of Barnhardt. Helen learns the true purpose of Klaatu's visit; to eliminate humanity to ensure the continued survival of Earth. To this end, he unleashes his giant robot which is actually a swarm of nanobot insects clustered together in humanoid form. Several Earth species are saved in little glowy bubbles before the killer robot termites are activated. When the nanite swarm is unleashed, it devours everything in its path, and it is implied that more nanites are created out of the things the swarm eats.

Now Klaatu has second thoughts about destroying all humans. His alien friend has grown to love humans, and Helen and the professor both try to make him change his mind. Klaatu listens to Bach and thinks it's pretty cool, and finally Jacob's adorable antics make him decide to stop his genocidal alien robot storm. He tells Helen that saving humanity comes at a price, and when he zaps the bugs with his alien sphere, all of Earth's electrical systems grind to a halt. Disappointingly, I could not hear the classic line "Klaatu barada nikto" uttered at all during the film, although Wikipedia says it's in there somewhere.

After contemplating the motives, of Klaatu, I find that the main plot does not make much sense to me. Wiping the Earth clean of human beings is as potentially damaging to the ecosystem as it is a very sudden and disruptive change. Perhaps that is why they needed to save some Earth creatures. However, doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of trying to save the Earth? Klaatu chastises humanity for being damaging and destructive, and there he is doing exactly that. Perhaps the aliens think it's better for the long term with humans out of the picture.

If you're a fan of the old movie, you may not like the new one. They've changed the plot and the kid is annoying, but otherwise it does do a decent job at being a passably entertaining sci-fi movie.

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