Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

This new 2008 version by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005) departs from the original in numerous ways but the core scenario is the same. An alien named Klaatu lands on Earth with a giant robot guard who only attacks when Klaatu is threatened. Klaatu has come to Earth to speak to the leaders of the world in order to warn humanity about its inherently destructive ways but the message gets lost amongst all the hysteria and aggression that his arrival has caused. It is up to one woman to help Klaatu avoid the military in order to get his message to the scientists of the world.

One of the most fascinating elements of the original film is how politically subversive it was. While most other science fiction films of the 1950s played on Red Menace fears by portraying the aliens as invaders who threatened everything that America stood for, The Day the Earth Stood Still portrayed the alien – the ultimate symbol of a cultural outsider – as a benevolent figure who came to help us but was instead treated with hostility and irrational fear. At a time when American society was gearing for a war with the Soviets and dismissing all calls for peace and diplomacy as being part of a Communist plot, portraying the peace-loving alien as the hero was an extraordinary thing to do.

This new film contains the same ideological stance and like the original film it is a highly critical portrayal of violence and mob mentality. However, this 2008 version is perhaps even more damning than the original film was. In the original film Klaatu was faced with a somewhat sympathetic government representative who reluctantly informs him that getting the world leaders to all meet in one place is impossible. The American government is thus seen to be sadly powerless in its ability to bring the nations of the world together. However, in this new film the American government is aligned directly with the military, as the governmental official sent to confer with Klaatu is the United States Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) who flat-out refuses Klaatu’s request to address the United Nations. Furthermore, while the dangerous mob mentality that Klaatu must avoid in the original film stems from fear and ignorance, in this new film he faces a government, military and society with an aggressive and ruthless pre-emptive strike attitude. In 1951 people were afraid and suspicious of Communist infiltration. Now people have an aggressive shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality where violent action is a justifiable first option for dealing with a potentially harmful situation.

The final major thematic change from the original film is Klaatu’s warning to humanity. The 1951 films plays on the Cold War fears of nuclear warfare. Klaatu bluntly informs his audience that the rest of the universe couldn’t care less what humanity does to each other but if they start messing around with nuclear weapons then they will endanger other planets and that is not something that he can allow to happen. In this 2008 film Klaatu is now concerned about the damage that humanity has done to the environment. Klaatu makes it clear that he is a friend of the Earth and all of its inhabitants. If the Earth dies then humanity dies with it, but if humanity dies then the Earth may stand a chance.

In both films acts of violence from the human race are punished severely by the giant robot sent to protect Klaatu. The new 2008 robot is an impressive combination of sound design and special effects while maintaining a nice retro look that pays homage to the original film. Unfortunately not all the updated elements in the 2008 film work as well as they did in the original. Despite initial interest in casting Hollywood mega star Spencer Tracey as Klaatu in the 1951 film, director Robert Wise cast the then unknown actor Michael Rennie in the part to enhance Klaatu’s mysterious aura. For the 2008 film they have done the exact opposite and cast Keanu Reeves who does a competent job but carries the baggage of being a big name actor, not to mention an actor who is frequently (and sometimes justifiably) derided for his wooden acting ability. Most disappointingly is that while the original film was a carefully constructed drama that utilised its special effects sparingly, this new film is much more action oriented and eventually becomes a chase film. There are many issues to be explored in this new film but the emphasis on action and spectacle means that they are not given the depth that they deserve. Finally, part of the tension in the original is the fact that the audience knows Klaatu has the power to destroy humanity but we never find out how. In this new film, we learn how and although the idea is inventive, it does diminish from the overall effect, which is not at all helped by the film’s incredibly abrupt ending.

Nevertheless, there is much to like about this new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The deliberately mysterious and tense atmosphere during the open sequences of the film deliberately creates false expectations of an alien invasion film like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), which are of course wonderfully undercut. The landing of Klaatu’s ship is lit beautifully and the off kilter music evokes the sense of wonder from science-fiction classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). Helen Benson (played by Patricia Neal in the original and now played by Jennifer Connelly), the woman who helps Klaatu, is now a scientist and given a lot more to do in the film. John Cleese even gets to play the small but crucial role of the Nobel Prize Winning scientist Professor Barnhardt, who is rather nicely described in this new film as a real world leader, as opposed to the American government and military officials that Klaatu encounters at the beginning of the film.

This may be a contemporary film with up-to-date special effects and more action, but it is still essentially a 1950s film where scientists, who represent knowledge and reason, are privileged over government officials and the military, who represent simplistic aggression. In trying too hard to be an all encompassing message and big budget entertainment film, it falters where the original 1951 film succeeded, but the 2008 take on The Day the Earth Stood Still is a decent remake with a message that is as relevant to today’s audience as the message from the original film was to a 1950s audience.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008