Still Life

After an action-packed start, 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' comes to a halt midway ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

December 12, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Filled with ominous, gaseous globes that suck up lower life forms and terrify most humans, The Day the Earth Stood Still passed my popcorn-movie test. Using the vast, expensive technology of a big studio production, it roused enough cheap energy to drive me to eat a bag of popcorn fit for a circus animal and wash it down with a quart of Diet Coke.

But it's what a screenwriter friend of mine used to call "high-calorie filmmaking": Every bit of entertainment is consumed and digested in the watching. It leaves no aftertaste of poetry or horror. When it ends, it really ends.

For 45 minutes or so, it promises to rethink as a dynamic action movie the stately, haunting sci-fi classic of the same name about a flying saucer that drops onto Washington's Mall carrying a lean, elegant alien called Klaatu and his big, mysterious robot protector, Gort.

In the earlier version, we learned they were part of an intergalactic mission to keep the cosmos safe for higher forms of civilization. Gort and his fellow robots would reduce "to a burned-out cinder" any planet that rockets into the spaceways without first reforming its violent ways.

Here, it's ecological catastrophe that Klaatu and Gort hope to avert when they land their globular, whirling mother ship in New York's Central Park. They want to save the planet even if they must destroy humanity in the process, because it's one of the few orbs capable of supporting complex life.

For a while, this Day The Earth Stood Still also seems capable of supporting complex life - at least life more complex than you usually get in a contemporary sci-fi movie. Gort has been reimagined as a sleeker, more elastic Cyclops, a masterpiece of bio-engineering rather than a mechanical creature. And the movie cannily utilizes Keanu Reeves' otherworldly impassivity as Klaatu, now an alien in a human body. It makes sense that he seems to sound out every syllable of his dialogue.

In fact, the film benefits the most from players who can actually impersonate real human beings. They include Jennifer Connelly perfecting her recurring role as a beauteous Brainiac (in this film, a Princeton microbiologist named Helen), and Jaden Smith, as her stepson Jacob, proving that his effectiveness in his dad's The Pursuit of Happyness is no fluke. That's a crucial plus for a film in which they must win over Klaatu with their humanity in order to save all of mankind.

If the film falls down midway, it's not from bad faith, but from failures of energy, invention and imagination. The original's director, Robert Wise, contained the action to D.C. He derived the haunting mood from exploiting the contrasts of a city jarringly disrupted in broad daylight and spooked into ominous silence at night. The new chase-film contours that send Klaatu, Helen and Jacob from New York to the backwoods of New Jersey fail to provide similar tingles.

The moviemakers occasionally pull off a good change of pace, as in a droll, charged meeting between Klaatu and a confederate at a Jersey McDonald's. But the most enjoyable sequence in the latter half is the alien's meeting with a Nobel Prize winner named Barnhardt (wise and wild-haired Sam Jaffe in 1951, a portly John Cleese here), and their bonding over equations on a blackboard is taken right from the original.

Michael Rennie's Klaatu had a quiet eloquence and irony. After reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, he said, "That's the kind of man I would like to talk to." Reeves' Klaatu doesn't talk: He makes and gets reports. I think moviemakers may underestimate this eccentric star: Writer-director Nancy Meyers proved he could be credible and charming as a smart young doctor in Something's Gotta Give. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, his monotone wears thinner as the movie goes on; it's as if his batteries are running low.

What shatters your hope for a new classic, though, is the movie's descent into semicoherent spectacle. It involves enormous swarms of "nano bugs" that get under humans' skin and replicate as they gorge, threatening to remove unwanted life and leave the Earth behind. Klaatu may try to gather them up, but he can't gather the threads of the film together once these 3 trillion bugs emerge from Gort.

Even as a destruction derby, the climactic action is both too much and not enough. Perhaps out of care for contemporary sensibilities, the only landmark that gets devoured is Giants Stadium. Cleese's Barnhardt argues to Klaatu that civilizations change and become sane and ecological only when they realize they're perched on a precipice.

On its own precipice, though, this movie loses its grip. Seeing a mass of flying nanos devour a truck and trucker is less of a thrill without Connelly's high-toned Helen turning to the giant and saying with firmness and clarity, as her predecessor Patricia Neal did: "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!"

The Day the Earth Stood Still

(20th Century Fox) Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence. Time 103 minutes.

Online Watch a preview and see more photos from the Day the Earth Stood Still at baltimoresun.com/movies

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