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The Day the Earth Stood Still

I feel compelled to begin this review with full disclosure.  I missed some of “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” because I was snoring.  No, really – sorry, guy on my left.  This despite the fact that I’d driven two hours to see the film in IMAX, paid a premium ticket price, had a large cup of coffee in me as a hedge against this very thing, and was joined by a gorgeous friend who’s great company.  I tried, really I did.

The last time the narcolepsy kicked in was during “I, Robot”; not a coincidence.  I have a great love of science fiction, especially the classics, and to see them butchered, well – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – I fear that my medulla oblongata will leap up my throat and strangle my cerebral cortex if I don’t flee into unconsciousness.

Mistake the first: if a movie is perfect, leave it alone.  SF fans and movie lovers consider the Robert Wise “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) a classic for very good reasons.  The special effects, dated today, were ground-breaking at the time.  And the original film, which now plays slow and preachy, marked a significant departure from the hostile-aliens-take-over-the-world films that had typified the genre heretofore.

Mistake the second: the kid.  Yes, the kid – before we even get to Keanu.  You can’t blame a child actor, you have to blame a director for not knowing how to handle him.  One look at this year’s masterpiece “The Fall,” and you can see how delicate and beautiful a kid performance can be, if evoked correctly.  One look at Stephen Spielberg’s nightmarish “Hook,” and you have the other end of the scale.  In “Earth,” Jaden Smith, who plays Jacob, son to Jennifer Connelly’s single scientist mom Helen, is a whiny little pretty-boy brat, insufferable all out of proportion to what the role called for.  If the future of the human race really hung on alien Klaatu (Reeves) warming up to this little punk, we’d all be fricassee.

Mistake the third: Keanu.  Look, he’s often been unfairly maligned; Keanu is actually a talented physical actor, even expert.  Take another look at the forgotten “A Walk in the Clouds” to see what I mean.  And in the right role, his jet-black eyes and hair, his handsomeness, and his James Stewart bearing make him an appealing and sexy lead.  He was the perfect fit in “The Devil’s Advocate,” an unsettling, blackly funny thriller, in which he played a slick lawyer losing his soul.

But he has a range as narrow as Kevin Costner’s; cast him outside it and you cast him into the stygian abyss.  With Keanu, it’s the voice that dogs him.  He can’t help trailing off into surfer dude, which worked great for “Point Break,” in which he played a — surfer dude — but was ludicrous for the Shakespeare of “Much Ado About Nothing”.  In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” he combats this tendency to self-parody by plunging down in to a gravelly monotone that can put you to sleep.  But we’ve already established that empirically.

Mistake the fourth, the last I have space for: sub-par, illogical special effects.  As Reeves’s career as a big-budget SF lead has withered on the vine, we have at least been able to count on some imagination, or at a bare minimum, technical competency from the special effects his films command.  “Constantine,” as scattershot as it was, as much as its director couldn’t compose a shot, at least had a Hell-scape out of Breughel that was unforgettable.  

But the best “Earth” can muster is an 18 wheeler being consumed, unconvincingly, by a cloud of metallic nano-bug things.  After hostile remake aliens twisted apart a freeway and split open a church in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (2005); after the throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks bonanza of “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004); it’s hard to accept this great leap backwards.  And if the evil nano-bug cloud is so corrosive it can dissolve a football stadium in five seconds, how can a person last for almost a minute without being eaten?

As a policy, I do not ordinarily review films I have not screened completely.  But in this case, please consider my physically-manifested disdain an integral part of the review.  If you need to catch up on a nap, I suggest a park bench — more comfortable than most movie theater seats, and a whole lot cheaper.

Peter Noble Kuchera

Originally from Columbus, Indiana, Peter moved to Bloomington in 1998. He completed four years of film study at the University of Minnesota and two years of film production in the Film Cities in St. Paul. He began reviewing movies for WFIU in 2003 and began producing on-air fundraising spots for WTIU in 2006. In 2008 he received a second place award for Best Radio Critic at the Los Angeles Press Club’s First Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2008. Peter passed away suddenly on June 8, 2009.

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  • Mike Kissel

    I rented this movie with some trepidation due to the casting of Keanu Reeves and the history of botched scifi remakes. Regrettably Peter is right, and I did doze off intermittently myself, although I managed to see the ending. A thoughtful intriguing story was rendered into a senseless travesty of nonsense. I own the original classic and it still holds up.

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