“The Day the Earth Stood Still,” from 1951, is considered a sci-fi classic in part because it eschewed the cheesy “invaders from Mars!” B-movie tropes of that era and didn’t have a lot of action — its focus was its ideas. The new remake, predictably, has washed out most of those ideas, but there still isn’t much action. Which is pretty strange — the one thing Hollywood can usually be counted on to do when remaking old films, especially when dumbing them down, is to boost their action quotient, and these guys have failed to do even that.
The new screenplay, by David Scarpa (“The Last Castle”), bears only a superficial resemblance to the original, with a few details included as a nod to the fans. The story concerns Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), a Princeton astrobiology professor who is summoned — more accurately abducted — by the U.S. government, along with experts in several other fields, when an unidentified flying object is discovered to be hurtling toward Earth. It turns out to be a spaceship, which lands in Central Park and whose occupants are Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), a human-looking extra-terrestrial, and his 35-foot robot bodyguard.
Klaatu, having been shot upon landing his UFO in Manhattan (New York parking enforcement is hardcore), is taken into custody by the military and questioned by Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), who naturally wants to know what he’s doing here and why he brought that giant robot with him. People who travel with giant robots are seldom to be trusted. Klaatu says he has a message, but he’ll only deliver it to all the nations of the world at once, not just one measly leader of one measly country. He also urges his captors to let him go.
He’s on the loose soon enough, don’t you worry — aided by Helen Benson, who believes he means us no harm, and by Helen’s stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), who is much more skeptical. “They didn’t come here to hurt us!” Helen tells him. He replies, “We should kill them anyway, just to be sure.” I believe that’s as subtle as the film gets in its commentary on international diplomacy.
It’s even more heavy-handed in other areas. Those ideas that the original film had, the ones that aren’t really present in the remake? They’ve been replaced by a generic “save the Earth” message that’s so hollow and mishandled it would embarrass even Greenpeace.
In the acting department, not much is required of Connelly other than looking awestruck and worried, and she handles that with the usual aplomb, while young Jaden Smith shows off the sassy attitude he picked up from his Fresh Prince father, who knows a thing or two about chasing aliens himself. Good actors like John Cleese, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, Jon Hamm, and James Hong are used for a few scenes apiece as scientists, colonels, and other alien-invasion-movie stock characters, then set aside. Meanwhile, as Klaatu, Keanu Reeves uses the fact that his character is an alien as an excuse to be even more wooden than usual, if such a thing is possible. He’s not inscrutable. He’s boring.
The first half of the film feels like it’s building to something, creating tension for an inevitable clash, and director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) finds suspense in the scenes involving the military’s interaction with the giant robot. The disappointment is when that clash never really comes, or at least not in great measure. The film builds to nothing, in other words — very little action, very few ideas, very little to recommend it. To paraphrase the original, klaatu barada nothankyou.
(Note: At no point in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does the Earth stand still.)
C- (1 hr., 43 min.; )