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REVIEWS

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

RICK MULLIN, C&EN NORTHEAST NEWS BUREAU

The Day the Earth Stood Still Trailers

Science, government, organized religion, rationalism, and Giants Stadium take it on the chin in Twentieth Century Fox's remake of the 1951 science fiction classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still." In fact, all of humankind and culture are once again on notice with the arrival of Klaatu, the spaceman, and his ineffably weird robot homunculus, GORT.

But things are a little different this time. Whereas the original movie played on Cold War fears, with Klaatu's rather conflicted admonition that the human race join the rest of the universe in peace or be destroyed, the 21st-century Klaatu, played by a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves, comes with a warning keyed to contemporary fears of worldwide environmental catastrophe. And the stakes are a bit higher. This time, after Klaatu is shot at and denied his audience with the leaders of the world, the end-times process actually gets under way.

There are many interesting similarities and differences between the two films, all of which speak to differences in the worlds in which they were made. A shifting view in the perception of science is also evident, as is the more palpable post-Sept. 11, 2001, concept of invasion and mass destruction. This is heightened by most of the activity in the new film taking place in New York City and northern New Jersey. In both films, Klaatu comes to evaluate humanity, and humanity, with a few significant exceptions, lets him down. Klaatu, however, leaves under different circumstances in the two films.

Most interesting, perhaps, are the divergent takes on reason. That bulwark against mankind's self-destruction in the age of better living through chemistry in the 1951 film gets put in its place alongside faith as only one aspect of the new movie's heroic force—the human spirit. The older film's arch Hobbesean universe, in which robots like GORT were created to steer presumably nasty, brutish, and short space beings from their innate violent tendencies, is refuted. Instead, the individual earthling—whose life Thomas Hobbes describes as a directionless morass without the control of a sovereign elite in his 1651 seminal tome of rationalism, titled "Leviathan"—wins the day by acting on her freedom and ability to change, perhaps the ultimate act of faith.

Don't worry, though. There is a lot of fun science in the new film as Earth is invaded by a fleet of spheres that look almost Earth-like with cloudy blue atmospheric surfaces. The mother sphere lands in Central Park in New York City—a little closer to the United Nations than the mall in Washington, D.C., where Klaatu landed in 1951. The main earthling, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is an astrobiologist. Her mentor, Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), has been awarded the Nobel Prize in biological altruism.

The plot is heavily greased by phenomena that can best be described as bio-metallurgical, and there are some fascinating medical flourishes at the intersection of colliding worlds. The depiction of Klaatu's rapid development from a whelping, nearly fetal human exhumed from a coating of blubber to Keanu Reeves is graphic and engaging. But the wonderful thing about critiquing the science in science fiction, of course, is the enormous leeway afforded by the creativity and imagination that pushes science ahead of current best practices. Anything goes, unless it comes off as garishly illogical or looking too ridiculous. The science world of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is intriguingly portrayed and an easy enough buy-in.

Both the 1951 and 2008 films pivot on Klaatu's encounter with Barnhardt. In both, the spaceman challenges the eminent earthling scientist at a heavily scrawled chalkboard and wins. Klaatu also gets his urgent message across to Barnhardt in each of the films. But there the plots diverge, with the 1951 Barnhardt inviting Klaatu to address an upcoming international symposium of scientists he happens to be hosting and Cleese's present-day character backing off from science altogether.

In fact, once he steps away from the blackboard, the new Barnhardt proves to be quite adept at the variety of existential philosophy espoused by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, whose book "Man and Crisis" addresses change as a human phenomenon that only occurs when man is at the precipice. Understanding humanity's immediate crisis in the film, Barnhardt asks Klaatu to "judge us not by what we deserve, but by our potential." He later advises Benson to keep working on Klaatu. "Change his mind," he advises his student, "not with reason, but with yourself." Cleese's very serious and convincing performance probably won't get him an Academy Award, but there is always the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.

The film's special effects play a big part in making very strange things seem either believable or acceptably beyond belief. One kudo for the designers is GORT. The original movie's visuals are, of course, rudimentary compared with today's standards, but the strange images of GORT and the flying saucer are enduring cultural icons. The saucer is replaced by spheres in the new movie, and GORT is much larger and less creaky. But the robot's basic design, especially its visor and laser eye, is essentially the same—an effective salute to the accomplishment of the 1951 effects crew.

Perhaps most important, the remake manages to address man's dangerous intrusion on nature without any overt environmental moralizing. The highly effective "show, don't tell" approach is taken, for example, at the point when all the world's power is sapped and cars, oil rigs, army tanks, factories, and refineries are shown grinding to a halt around the world. The opening scene speaks eloquently—a high-altitude mountain climber who is about to be genetically sampled for the later creation of Klaatu is shown melting a scoop of mountain snow over a Sterno can in his tent.

The possibility of life beyond Earth provided a fresh perspective to the Cold War-era classic. At a time when most U.S. films pitted Western standards of good against a thinly veiled metaphor for the Soviet state as evil, the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still" managed to step back from the canvas. It portrayed the evil "other" as us. All of humanity. That perspective is rather hard to get in 2008, given the global jumble in perceptions of good and evil. Instead, the remake reaches from the outer galaxies into a seemingly doomed world and pulls forth something purely good. And it's us.