Cinema Spotlight – Scott Derrickson (Part 2): ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’
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When we last left Scott Derrickson, his debut film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was a success.
It performed well at the box-office, won Jennifer Carpenter an MTV Movie Award for Best Frightening Performance, a Saturn Award for Best Horror Film (Saturns are basically the Oscars for all that is sci-fi, horror and fantasy) and despite a mixed reception from critics, the reviews were mostly positive. For his next film Derrickson shifted gears, or in this case genres from Horror to Science Fiction, specifically a remake of a 1951 classic.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, which premiered in December of 2008, followed the storyline of the original about an alien named Klaatu who arrives on Earth to deliver an important and crucial message to the planet. In this version he is played by Keanu Reeves, who also starred in John Wick (though many may recognize him as Neo from The Matrix). Upon arrival, Earth’s government officials immediately see him as a threat and it doesn’t help when Gort, an enormous robot that acts as Klaatu’s bodyguard, intervenes with lethal force.
On the run, Klaatu blends in with the planet’s inhabitants as he embarks on his mission while also getting to know the people he encounters including an astrobiologist (Labyrinth‘s Jennifer Connelly), her son (2010’ Karate Kid Jaden Smith), a NASA official (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) a physicist (Monty Python’s John Cleese) and the Secretary of Defense (American Horror Story’s Kathy Bates). Given the notorious reputation of remakes, could Derrickson pull off what very few filmmakers achieve and deliver if not a great, but decent remake?
Visually, the film looks nice from the cinematography, action set pieces, and to an extent the visual effects, especially the alien spheres, and Klaatu’s human transformation, but much like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 retelling of the War of the World’s, it enhances the scale from sets and visuals, but the plot and characters fall flat. The original had heavy themes with a focus on Klaatu and his earthly encounters, seeing the good and bad in humanity and an acknowledgment that the world is cruel, but still has hope.
In this movie the focus is all over the place that Klaatu and its themes are almost an after thought. The human characters only fuel his reasons on how humans are dangerous, especially an unbearable Jaden Smith that I’m inclined to agree with him. There is so much more focus on the darker aspects of humanity and very little mention on the goodness that I expected it to end with everyone dying.
I could go forever on how the original succeeds where the remake fails, but for the sake of this paper I’ll keep it brief. First there’s the portrayal of Klaatu, in the original he is wise, benevolent, crafty and never engaged in a fight even against his oppressors; he had Gort to handle that. He was careful to hide his secret identity, expressed both perturbation at Earth’s horrors and fascination at its wonders. This version of Klaatu is more hostile and has no problem harming humans without the need of Gort and immediate on the idea that humans are a danger to the planet.
While on the subject of Gort, despite knowing that it’s a man in a giant rubber suit in the 50’s version it still had an intimidating presence with its practical feel and eerie soundtrack than the 2008 CGI hybrid who plays out more as Transformer eye-candy.
What I appreciated in the original and in Derrickson’s previous film is that the religious aspects were subtle and not spoon-fed to the audience. That’s exactly what happens here with Klaatu waving his hands in a stigmata and walking on water for no reason other than the plot says so.
To make a long story short this film is what Man of Steel was to many, all spectacle, a misinterpretation of a well-known character in a dark and grim retelling and obvious Jesus imagery that made no sense and got annoying. I’ll give the movie this; it introduced me to the 1951 version and I enjoyed it ten times better for its story that has surprisingly aged well.
If you like explosions with overstuffed CGI and are not impressed by the original with its retro look than you might like this remake. While not the worst movie of all time and I can tell that Derrickson put a lot of effort into the making, it’s definitely his weakest film so far.
What’s Derrickson to do next? What could show that he has what it takes to make a good movie? The solution: it involves a Super 8 film camera and the ominous content that it contains to all who come across it…all on the next issue of the East Texan.