Click to view Forget about whether the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is true to the original. It isn't. But it does give us a compelling picture of futuristic alien civilizations.
Some spoilers ahead.
Unlike the rather slow and thoughtful 1950s movie that Earth Stood Still is based on, the remake opening today in theaters across the U.S. is closer to a typical actioner in structure. I love the original flick, but there's nothing wrong with making an action-packed homage to it. The question is whether the new flick works on its own terms. The answer is partly yes.
But even when it fails, Earth Stood Still manages to do something most other science fiction movies do not: It gives us convincing imagery of post-Singularity technology. And its relationship to the first movie is actually a lot more complicated than you might think. Here are three ways of looking at Earth Stood Still for you to tuck into your brain and take with you to the theater this weekend.
1. It's a cool alien science nerd movie that goes off the rails in the second act
Setting aside the question of whether director Scott Derrickson managed to do justice to the original - which I still maintain is the wrong question - Earth Stood Still is an uneven flick at best. For the first half of the movie, you've got a well-paced, visually arresting movie about the first alien contact between a mysterious creature and the human race. Keanu Reeves works nicely as Klaatu, the slightly robotic alien getting used to his new human body, and Jennifer Connelly is very believable as Helen, a brave astrobiology nerd caught up in an event she never expected to deal with.
Everything associated with Klaatu's arrival, including the gorgeous mystery globe ship, his biological spacesuit, and his scary-unknown powers, are pitch-perfect. You really feel like you're watching serious science fiction that's asking the same hard questions about humanity that a good drama would. Klaatu has come to decide whether it's time to scour the Earth of humans because we're killing off everything that makes the Earth valuable to the "civilizations" he represents.
But as soon as Klaatu meets another alien agent in a McDonalds, things start to go downhill. Instead of exploring the idea of the alien civilizations who've been watching and judging us for decades (centuries?), we go caroming off into a seemingly-pointless tour of some upstate New York forests and get a very superficial bad-Star-Trek-episode look at why Klaatu changes his mind about the "destructive" humans he wants to wipe out. There's a lot of unconvincing sentimentalism and Helen's kid (played by Jaden Smith) does a lot of acting with his hair.
The best thing you can really say about the second half of the movie is that Smith is not as annoying as most kids in movies like this. And there is some good action with Gort the giant robot, but scenes with him seem oddly wedged in between the scenes about Klaatu's moral dilemma. So you'll begin this movie with a sense that you're about to watch something really terrific, and end feeling like you just watched an episode of Star Trek where some alien realizes that humans aren't ugly bags of mostly water because they have religion, or music, or love, or feelings in general.
I mean, I love humans too - but do you really think a couple of boo-hoos are enough to convince a highly sophisticated alien race that it's worth risking a mega-valuable planetary resource on us?
Alright, let's move on from that to think about what Earth Stood Still gets right.
2. It's a way of imagining the Singularity
One of the best parts of this movie was the care its designers took with the futuristic alien technology we see - and luckily, we see a lot of it. One of the pleasures of good science fiction is feeling the way it jogs your imagination to think about what our machines will look like after the singularity, or after tech becomes so different that we can no longer recognize it.
Klaatu is obviously from a group of civilizations that have fine-grained control over matter and their genomes. He comes to earth encased in a biological spacesuit, and his consciousness has been placed in a still-developing human body. There are a few interesting scenes where he has to "get used" to things like drinking and eating, and of course in this updated version of the film our alien has some slightly preposterous but fun superpowers. He controls the behavior of electrons and photons with his mind, taking control of computer networks and projecting his mind through wires.
During the iconic interrogation scene which you've probably seen in previews, we even get a hint that there is something sublime about Klaatu's consciousness. He needs information from his interrogator, so he seems to project his mind into the other man's mind via the wires of a polygraph machine - when he finally says, "I'm leaving you now," the man is weeping as if sensing Klaatu's mind was both a beautiful and terrifying experience.
This post-Singularity technology can be seen in the updated Gort, who is made up of millions of microbots.
But perhaps most interesting of all are the hints about Klaatu's post-Singularity culture. We know he represents many worlds, and is seeking an audience with the U.N., perhaps because that international body reminds him of his own cultures' government. His culture also, it seems, believes in covert ops. They've had another hidden alien planted among humans for the past 50 years.
We assume, because Klaatu's on a mission to save Earth, that his culture must be somehow benevolent. But actually things are much more complicated than that. They're bloodthirsty, willing to wipe out an entire intelligent civilization to save "a planet capable of sustaining complex life." Instead of engaging in a technology-transfer program with humans so that we could develop sustainable energy, his civilization's first impulse is genocide. So Klaatu's culture may not be all that different from human's - in fact, in some ways, it seems more primitive.
I was pretty taken with the idea that this supposedly benevolent, save-the-Earth Klaatu was actually a member of the shock troops ready to scour Earth so other aliens could colonize it.
Now I have one final thought about the movie which might intrigue you if you liked the first film.
3. It's a sequel set 50 years after the first Klaatu fell to Earth
Obviously Earth Stood Still isn't really a remake, since it's set in the present day and our alien has such different capabilities from the Klaatu of the original. I would suggest that one way to look at it would be as a kind of sequel to the first film, taking place 50 years after the first Klaatu came to Earth and decided to blend in and live among us.
Though the first film ends with Klaatu coming out and meeting with world science leaders, imagine that another Klaatu stayed as an observer (we learn in the new movie that there are possibly many of them). Again, this is in keeping with the first movie's spirit, where Klaatu wants nothing more than to blend in among humans to get to know them. That's how he meets Helen and the kid.
Also, in the first movie, it appears that Klaatu's mission is more observational - he's come bearing a warning about our uses of atomics, but he hasn't been given the task of deciding whether to destroy humanity. He merely comes to see what humans are like, and it's only under duress that he offers a display of his civilization's power. Old Klaatu shuts off Earth's electricity as a peaceful way of demonstrating what his people could do: And he's careful to leave power on in airborne planes and in hospitals.
Consider the Klaatu of the new flick to be the guy that the aliens send after the first guy hasn't been able to convince humans to change their ways. He's the cleaner, the assassin. He takes the advice of the Klaatu who has been on Earth already, and initiates the homo sapiens destruct sequence only because the first Klaatu says humans are destructive and can't be changed. It's not new Klaatu's job to save humanity, or determine if it can be saved. But he winds us saving us anyway.
So there must be something radically democratic about Klaatu's society, after all. One lone assassin, chosen to destroy humanity if needed, can make policy decisions that change the course of our whole civilization. The problem with Earth Stood Still was that interesting ideas like this got left to lurk beneath the surface, and the plot we were stuck with was just too predictable to make our imaginations soar.
The Day the Earth Stood Still opens throughout the United States today.