The 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still essentially tells the same story as the iconic 1951 sci-fi film about an alien sent to Earth, not to invade, but to warn them about the dangers of their own behavior. Characters have the same names, scenes parallel ones from the original, and it follows the same basic framework. Although, whenever a movie takes this kind of route, you really start to see the inefficiencies when they’re present.

There’s one moment in particular that serves the same purpose for both stories but plays out in a much different way in the remake. It’s when the Secretary of Defense first meets with Klaatu in the hospital. In both films, this is the point when the alien visitor realizes that his mission on Earth will be much different than he thought.

In the original, Michael Rennie’s Klaatu meets with the government representative, who leaves and comes back, providing him with letters to and from different world leaders—proof that they are not willing to cooperate with one another. Klaatu hints to the Secretary why he’s there, but never divulges the whole message. There’s an understanding made for why he wants all the leaders of the world gathered together. And moreover, we know why he’s waiting to give his warning.

In the remake, Kathy Bates plays the Defense Secretary role, and just simply denies Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) permission to meet with all governments herself, stating that he’s now property of the United States; she doesn’t want to share the “discovery.” Instead of being a messenger for humanity, she’s now the voice of humanity. Right off the bat it’s clear that this remake is less concerned with Klaatu learning about Earthlings than it is with his mission. He makes up his mind rather quickly to destroy the planet instead of wanting to learn about humans firsthand. He already seems to know about our tendencies, and so he doesn’t feel the need to observe us.

In the 2008 film, Klaatu is a flawed individual, yet director Scott Derrickson has Keanu Reeves playing him with much less humanity. Rennie’s Klaatu is charismatic, full of joy and wonder, and has an earnestness from the start—yet he’s not a character in need of growth. Although we see things from his perspective, we follow him in order to learn about ourselves—not him. Here, Reeves’ version of the character is just as enlightened, but lacks the warmth that would contrast the ominous message that he brings.

I should also point out that at no point is it ever clear if Klaatu is simply warning humanity or the one making the call to destroy it. Rather than providing any advice on how we can change, he waits until it’s too late and arbitrarily decides that it’s time to annihilate Earth. This version of Klaatu doesn’t appreciate humanity any more than the stereotypical alien invaders of other sci-fi films.

Where the original leaves us with a call to action, this one has the alien hero saving the planet in the belief that humanity can, in fact, change.

There are two moments in the film that surpass the film itself. The first is when Klaatu meets with James Hong’s Mr. Wu in a McDonald’s—which in itself is the least dry aspect of this entire movie. Mr. Wu is a fellow alien who has lived among men for decades, at least. He explains to Klaatu that he’s grown to love humanity and Earth. The scene is so good that it makes us wish we were in an entirely different movie altogether—one where we could follow this character’s story instead.

The second sequence is a recreation of the one between Klaatu and Professor Barnhardt, played here by John Cleese. While nowhere near as grounded or wonderfully out-of-place as the McDonald’s scene, it also features the most authentically incisive dialogue of the movie. This version of Barnhardt is making a plea with the alien to spare humanity. He explains that it’s when people are on the brink of destruction that they find the will to change and evolve; it’s when they’re pushed to this limit that they are able to truly prove themselves: “This is our moment. Don’t take it from us.” The exchange feels like it’s from a different movie entirely; one that is more realized than this.

There are times where the filmmakers seem to be clear on the point of the original film, yet simultaneously don’t understand what it is that made it so effective. Robert Wise, who directed the 1951 movie, uses very little audience manipulation, relying only on performances and dialogue to conjure much of the suspense and emotion. At times he removes the (brilliant) score by Bernard Herrmann to let the content speak for itself. And it works! Here, although doing a fine job visualizing the story, director Scott Derrickson resorts to standard conventions to drive his emotional punch. I suppose, given the glossy production, a more minimalistic, artistic approach may have been off-putting.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is simply not effective as a commentary on society or the toxicity of fear. The Earth does, indeed, stand still by the end, but this little detail seems thrown in as a formality rather than a crucial plot point—a miracle where people suddenly have an epiphany. The environmental spin introduces some new issues which can’t be tied to any specific catalyst like the anti-war message of the original was able to provide. Inferior to the 1951 counterpart in literally every way, the film might be somewhat inspired, but ultimately lacks the vision on how to carry out that inspiration.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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