*****FLYING SAUCER-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
The Source Novella.
The 1951 Robert Wise-directed sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was based on a 1940 novella by Harry Bates. I first bought “Farewell to the Master” in a collection of other stories at a secondhand bookstore some 20-odd years ago. Already very familiar with the 1951 classic film adapted from the story, I was surprised at the many differences between the movie and its source. The 1951 film diverges so much from Bates’ 40-odd page novella that they have little in common, save for a handful of ideas. In fact, the 1951 movie far exceeds its literary source. Bates’ novella begins with the fateful landing of an alien ship in Washington DC. It also features the arrival of the humanoid alien Klaatu and his 8 ft. tall, green metal robotic companion named Gnut (iconically renamed Gort for both film adaptations). Shortly after introductions are made, Klaatu is shot by a mad sniper among the assembled onlookers and is killed.
Intrepid reporter Cliff Sutherland discovers that the otherwise immobile robot Gnut re-enters the spaceship every night unobserved. After printing his story on the robot’s activities, the military tries to immobilize Gnut by encasing it in a hard translucent substance called glasstex (just as we see in the film). Gnut breaks free of course, and goes to the local mausoleum to find Klaatu’s corpse. Once there, it discovers a recording made of Klaatu’s voice and creates a fatally flawed copy of its humanoid companion from this imperfect recording. When the Klaatu copy dies, Sutherland allies himself with Gnut, suggesting to the robot that it examine the original recording device itself in order to create a more faithful copy. Gnut accepts the offer. Later on, before the spaceship departs, Sutherland offers his apologies on behalf of the human race for the death of Gnut’s “master,” to which the robot replies, “You misunderstand. I am the master.”
The novella would make a decent “Twilight Zone” episode, but there’s not much meat for a feature film.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951).
Directing legend Robert Wise’s feature film had a lot more to say than the original novella, yet it still clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Edmund North (“Patton”) with a memorable theremin-rich score by Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane,” “Psycho”, “The Twilight Zone”), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is rightly remembered as a sci-fi classic. Watching it digitally projected on a 6.5 ft. screen for this review, it still impresses today, despite a minimum of visual effects.
Note: The film wouldn’t be the late Oscar-winner Wise’s last foray into science-fiction, either. Though better known as the director of colorful, lavish musicals such as “West Side Story” (1960) and “The Sound of Music” (1965), Wise would go onto direct “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) as well.
On a busy afternoon in Washington DC, reports come in from all over the globe of a ‘flying saucer’ apparently en route to the US capitol. The DC lands at the capitol grounds, as Army and National Guardsmen mobilize and quickly cordon off the area surrounding the large, featureless flying saucer. Emerging from an elegantly protracting ramp are two beings; an apparently humanoid alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his 8 ft. robotic companion, Gort (Lock Martin). Tensions are high as all pistols and mobile assault batteries are trained on the two visitors.
Note: Actor Lock Martin played the Gort character whenever the robot is in motion. In static scenes, he was replaced by a large prop. The 7 ft. 7 inch tall actor was working as an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now the TCL Chinese Theatre) in Hollywood when he was discovered for the role.
The helmeted Klaatu, his human facial features obscured, produces a small cylinder which is immediately mistaken for a weapon by a hair-triggered young soldier who shoots the alien in the shoulder. Immediately, the powerful Gort retaliates by vaporizing several of the mobile gun platforms with high-powered energy beams emanating from a visor in its helmet. Before the robot can continue its attack, it’s called off by the wounded Klaatu in their mutual language. The wounded alien is then rushed to Walter Reed Army Hospital as the powered-down robot stands in a silent immobile vigil by the spaceship. At Walter Reed, Klaatu’s arm is in a sling and he is dressed in Earthly hospital garb when his convalescence is interrupted by a government representative named Harley (Frank Conroy).
Klaatu tries to be patient with the remorseful bureaucrat, and tells Harley that he urgently needs to speak to all heads of Earth’s various governments at once, and that failure to do so might result in tragedy for our planet. Using a concealed salve from his own planet, Klaatu quickly heals his bullet wound. Later, the alien is visited once again by Harley in his hospital room; Harley has submitted Klaatu’s request to the president and the UN. Naturally, the bickering nations of Earth can’t even get their acts together enough to agree on a time, date or location for the meeting. Frustrated, Klaatu wants–needs to learn more about the people of this world before passing judgment on them. Realizing that the military police guarding his room have locked the door, a smirking Klaatu casually (and inexplicably) slips out of his hospital window. He then mysteriously acquires a suit and bag from another Walter Reed patient named “Major Carpenter” and walks out into the streets of DC; his human form (and mid-Atlantic accent) concealing his alien origins.
Note: The name “Carpenter” is part of the none-too-subtle Christ analogy (as in ‘Jesus the carpenter’) given to Klaatu in the film; that he carries a message of peace for all humanity from a higher power further only reinforces this point. British actor Michael Rennie also bears a passing resemblance to Charlton Heston, who would later star in a few big Hollywood Biblical epics, including “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “The Ten Commandments” (1956). More on the Christ-analogy later. In another interesting coincidence, one of the first Americans to fly into space in Project Mercury was a Navy pilot/engineer named Scott Carpenter (1925-2013).
Walking the streets of DC under cover of night, Klaatu comes across a vacancy at a nearby boarding house. He walks into the house’s common area just as all eyes and ears are glued to the TV set’s news of the ‘escaped spaceman.’ With quiet dignity and confidence, he charms the room; with no one suspecting he is the “three-eyed monster” from outer space. His room is adjacent to war widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray). Immediately, Klaatu is taken with the maternal strength of Helen and the curiosity of her son. The following morning, Helen’s beau Tom (Hugh Marlowe) arrives to take her on a day-long date when Helen realizes she has no one to look after Bobby. Klaatu, realizing Bobby would make a terrific tour guide, offers to look after the boy. Helen accepts the offer, sensing an innate goodness in “Mr. Carpenter.” With the whole day ahead of them, Bobby takes Klaatu to his late father’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. Klaatu tells Bobby that there are no wars where he comes from. They also tour the Lincoln Memorial and other iconic DC sites, as Klaatu learns of the potential for goodness in Earth’s people through the “great words” of Lincoln and the generosity of young Bobby. Wanting to treat the young boy, Klaatu naively offers Bobby some of his planet’s diamonds for the price of two movie tickets (!). Bobby takes a genuine liking to the eccentric but wise Mr. Carpenter, calling him “a real screwball.”
Note: The scenes between Bobby and Klaatu are some of the best in the film, and the genuine chemistry between Billy Gray and Michael Rennie really clinches the characters’ bond. That “Mr. Carpenter” gently piques the boy’s imagination without arousing fear or hostility is exactly the way Klaatu hoped to communicate with the more fearful adults of Bobby’s world. I’m not a religious person, but once again, Jesus’ quote from the New Testament comes to mind: “For it is to those who are childlike that the Kingdom of the Heavens belongs.”
After the movie, Klaatu asks Bobby who is the wisest person living today. Bobby directs him to the home of “Professor Barnhart” (Samuel Jaffe), who is basically the movie’s double for Albert Einstein. Arriving at Barnhart’s home, Klaatu sees a complex equation in celestial mechanics on the professor’s chalkboard through a window. Quietly entering through a window (we never see exactly how Klaatu undoes the locks), Klaatu leaves a few parting bits of “advice” on the absent professor’s chalkboard in order to help him solve the equation. Leaving his address with Barnhart’s disapproving secretary, Klaatu and Bobby slip away. Returning to their boarding house, Bobby tells his mother of the great time he and Carpenter had together. Soon afterward, a mysterious courier arrives to take Klaatu to see the professor. Arriving back at the professor’s study, Klaatu makes his true identity known, and an awed Barnhart quickly dismisses the guard outside. The alien and scientist immediately talk shop, as Klaatu helps Barnhart solve his mathematical dilemma in exchange for an arranged meeting with scientists from all over the world. Realizing that scientists won’t be enough to sway self-absorbed politicians, Barnhart asks Klaatu if he could arrange a potent but non-lethal ‘demonstration’ of his planet’s power in order to persuade world leaders to listen. Klaatu smiles, and takes the professor up on his interesting challenge—he promises Barnhart that there will be a demonstration of some kind at exactly noon the following day.
Note: The scene of the elderly Barnhart finally meeting a person from outer space is dramatically powerful. Sam Jaffe, who once costarred as an elderly Shangri-La resident in “Lost Horizon” (1937), plays the film’s Einstein avatar (compete with wild hair) with a quiet dignity and confidence; never once losing his composure. Sadly, Jaffe was one of the actors blacklisted during the anti-communist “Red Scare” days of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when power-mad Senator Joseph McCarthy and his “boy wonder” Roy Cohn (later an attorney for Donald Trump) stirred up an anti-communist frenzy in the entertainment industry and many other walks of life. The senator’s intransigent position ultimately became his undoing, as he directly challenged the US Army itself (during the Korean War, no less) and soundly lost public support.
Also of note: The 1980 TV series “Galactica 1980” directly steals the scene of Klaatu fixing the professor’s equation. In the episode “Galactica Finds Earth, Part 1”, Galacticans Dillon (Barry van Dyke) and Troy (Kent McCord) break into the lab of nuclear physicist Dr. Mortenson (Brady dad Robert Reed, sporting a curly silver ‘do) and change an equation on his computer; the scene is less of an ‘homage’ and more of a direct theft.
Coming home to the boarding house later that evening, Klaatu asks Bobby if he could borrow a flashlight. The curious boy asks why, and Klaatu tells him the light in his room is out. Sneaking out of the boarding house, with Bobby on his tail, Klaatu quietly walks to the park where he sees his spaceship lightly guarded by a pair of military policemen (MPs). Using Bobby’s flashlight, he signals the dormant (but powerful) robot Gort to render the guards unconscious so that he can sneak aboard the saucer and arrange his ‘surprise’ for the following day. Klaatu speaks a few commands in his native language into his ship’s computer. Back at the boarding house, Bobby races back home to tell his mother Helen and her disbelieving boyfriend Tom (who’s a bit of a douchebag) that he saw “Mr. Carpenter” entering the spaceship after the robot knocked the guards unconscious. Helen desperately tries to convince the boy he was merely dreaming. Nearly in tears, young Bobby tells his mother that he’d “never call her a liar.” Humoring the boy, Tom goes to Carpenter’s room and finds it vacant. Tom also spots one of Klaatu’s currency diamonds on the floor. Running back downstairs with the unusually cut gem, Tom immediately suspects that Carpenter might be some kind of high-end diamond thief, while Helen isn’t sure what to make of her new housemate. Helen is torn between fears for Bobby’s safety as well as her own good instincts about Mr. Carpenter.
Note: The character of Helen Benson is beautifully acted by Patricia Neal (wife/widow of Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid). During a time when most female characters in sci-fi movies were either pretty arm candy or a helpless damsels in distress, Helen is a self-reliant, hardworking secretary and single mother upon whom the success of Klaatu’s entire mission rests. Considering that this film was made 70 years ago, this is a phenomenal role for an actress, and Neal throws herself into it with one hundred percent conviction. Had the part not been written for an unfairly stigmatized sci-fi movie, Neal probably would’ve received an Oscar nomination.
Learning that Bobby was telling the truth about what she saw, Helen is still unconvinced that Carpenter/Klaatu is malevolent. On her way to a lunch date from work with her beau Tom, she is met in the lobby by Klaatu with whom she shares a service elevator. In the elevator, Klaatu drops the pretense and tells her the truth; Helen isn’t fearful, either. Like Bobby, she has a great trust in Klaatu, and she believes him when he tells her the truth of his mission; if Earth’s leaders can’t contain their hostilities from entering outer space, Earth will be destroyed. Suddenly, the elevator’s power dies, and Klaatu realizes it must be noon. He calmly tells Helen that this is the nonviolent demonstration he arranged to convince the leaders of Earth that he’s not screwing around—a worldwide electrical blackout. We then see multiple shots of immobilized factories, vehicles and devices from every country (where it’s always daytime, strangely enough). Klaatu tells Helen that the worldwide blackout will continue for exactly one half hour. Power then resumes at 12:30 pm, as promised. After the elevator arrives on the ground floor, Helen rushes out and desperately tries to persuade Tom not to turn Carpenter over to the authorities. But the selfish Tom is only interested in becoming a “hero” and “writing his own ticket.” Seeing his true motives, Helen breaks off their relationship on the spot, while an indifferent Tom rats Carpenter out to the Feds. As the authorities begin to track the Klaatu, he and Helen share a taxicab back to his spaceship in the park. As a mobilized military convoy closes in on their cab, Klaatu asks Helen to repeat three critical words to the robot Gort if he’s captured or killed: “Klaatu Borada Nikto.” After Helen memorizes the words, Klaatu exits the cab and makes a run for it, but he is gunned down in the street by the military police and killed. With the MPs attention on the murdered alien, Helen manages to slip away to the park…
Note: The actor playing Tom is actor Hugh Marlowe, who would later play a scientist seeking contact with visiting aliens in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956), until he learns of their malevolent intentions and works in developing weapons with which to defeat the invading “saucer-men.” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” was another iconic sci-fi movie of the 1950s, featuring amazing stop motion-FX work by Ray Harryhausen. With multiple shots of invading alien spaceships using heat rays to obliterate multiple world landmarks, the film was a clear predecessor to 1996’s “Independence Day.” Both movies carry the exact opposite message of “Day the Earth Stood Still.” Marlowe also had a supporting role in the 1964 political thriller, “Seven Days in May,” which was adapted for the screen by “Twilight Zone” creator/writer/producer Rod Serling.
Encased by the military in a block of lucite material, the dormant robot Gort reactivates and melts the block off of itself with fantastic heat. Freed of its encasement, the giant robot then uses its heat-vision to vaporize two MPs who pull their pistols on it. Despite her own fear of the machine, Helen approaches Gort. As the robot begins menacingly lumbering towards her, Helen screams and stumbles backward, before regaining her composure long enough to commandingly speak the words “Gort! Klaatu Borada Nikto!” Immediately the robot breaks off its would-be attack and carries Helen safely aboard the saucer (inspiring the movie’s misleading poster image… see: bottom). Tracking Klaatu’s body to a local jail cell, the robot walks right into the city (can’t imagine how or why it wasn’t followed by crowds of onlookers) where it vaporizes the outside wall to Klaatu’s cell. The robot then picks up Klaatu’s lifeless form and carries it back to the spaceship.
Note: There is a scene where Gort lifts Helen and carries her to safety aboard the spaceship. You can easily see a network of black wires supporting Patricia Neal as she’s ‘carried’ by actor Lock Martin, who wasn’t terribly strong, despite his size and height (the somewhat feeble Martin died only eight years after the film was completed). The visible wires are a minor technical gaffe in this otherwise sterling film. While most scenes are shot with near documentary frankness, cinematographer Leo Tover occasionally indulges in strong contrasting shadows and under-lighting to give specific ‘alien’ moments in the film a heightened film-noir quality. Much like “Psycho” nine years later, black & white helps enshroud the entire film with mystery and paranoia.
Returning to the saucer, Klaatu places the dead Klaatu upon a medical examination table, where a series of shrieking electronic sounds restore him to life. Helen is aghast, and she wonders aloud if Klaatu’s people have power over death itself. Klaatu assures her that he is as mortal as herself, but that the clinical definition of death is different for his people than it is for hers. Fully healed from his injuries, Klaatu is aware of a growing crowd around his spaceship. Outside the saucer, military men inform a disappointed Barnhart and the assembled scientists from around the globe that their meeting with Klaatu will have to be postponed for security reasons. Just as they crowd gets up to leave, they see Helen exiting the saucer, followed by Gort and Klaatu. There is much commotion as they see Klaatu now dressed in his spacesuit as he prepares for departure.
Note: Once again, Leo Tover’s cinematography aboard the saucer is very shadowy and mysterious; giving it that aforementioned film-noir look. The under-lit floors and shadowy lines projected along the walls of the saucer’s interior suggest a space that is both orderly and mysterious at the same time— as advanced technology would seem to a primitive mind. For a 20th century person to try and grasp the saucer’s workings would be like a cat trying to understand a coffeemaker. The art direction by Addison Hehr and Lyle Wheeler is first-rate, and gives the film a genuine sophistication missing from most sci-fi films of the 1950s (“art director” was a credit that existed before the position of “production designer” became officially recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
Klaatu delivers his final speech to the humans of Earth: “I am leaving soon and you’ll forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first signs of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple; join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
Note: Bates’ novella had the twist ending of the robot Gnut (aka Gort) being the master, and that ‘shock reveal’ is largely eliminated from Edmund North’s screenplay. However, since the “other planets” (of which Klaatu is an emissary) have surrendered absolute authority and control to their “race of robots,” it can be argued that the twist ending is still intact; it’s just diluted. Gort’s robotic race of galactic policemen are still “the masters” over biological life in their corner of the universe—they just don’t advertise it. At the end of the day, both the threat of atomic war and living under the iron thumbs of killer robots amounts to the same thing. It’s really just a substitution of one threat for another. In fairness, Klaatu does admit that “we do not pretend to have achieved perfection,” so I give his flawed argument a pass, because the movie is just so damn good in every other way.
After the speech, Gort and Klaatu go back inside of the saucer, as its powerful motors hum to life and it lifts off from the park in Washington DC and heads towards the stars once again, surrounded by an aura of pulsing light…
The Day the Earth was Remade.
In December of 2008, the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” came to theaters, and I saw it. My feeling at the time was that it did a few things well, but overall I had a nagging sense that it really missed the mark. Keanu Reeves does his best Mr. Spock impersonation as Klaatu, while Gort has been transformed into an impossibly large Silver Surfer-like creature who looks like he’s coated with the same material as some of my kitchen cookware. I won’t rehash the entire plot (again), I’d just like to point out some key differences between the two versions.
Keanu Reeves does a very memorable job of portraying an unemotional alien. When I compare his performance to that of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, it’s meant as a compliment. Reeves’ detached, truly inhuman interpretation of Klaatu is one of a handful of intriguing elements in this otherwise ill-conceived remake. While he lacks Michael Rennie’s charm and grace, one could argue this is a very different kind of film, and that Reeves’ performance better fits the parameters of this particular story.
Note: What are the odds that both the actor and character have names beginning with K and ending in U?
The most important difference between the two films is the message: the 1951 version was about curbing humanity’s aggression before it reached out to other inhabited planets in the universe. In other words, “don’t play with your dangerous atomic toys on our lawn.” The 2008 version has an ecological message (admittedly a vital one for our times) that is somewhat botched in execution. In the new movie, a decision has been reached by Klaatu’s galactic civilization that humans are killing the Earth, and that we have to be exterminated in order to make way for more promising races. Klaatu’s line, “I’m a friend of the Earth” deliberately misleads us into thinking he’s humanity’s ally.
One of the major flaws of the newer version is that it fails to acknowledge that Earth makes human beings—humans are a by–product of this planet. If you clear out humans, another dominant species will simply take over, just as we mammals did after the dinosaurs perished. This new species might possibly evolve into intelligence, and they might even make many of the same mistakes. And if Klaatu’s race has the power to exterminate humans en masse via flying nanobot insects, why not use that same technology to terraform other worlds into habitable ones? That’d be a lot simpler, and infinitely more humane, than trying to wipe out a naturally occurring side-effect of Earth’s ecosphere (i.e. human beings). Klaatu’s civilization clearly has the level of planetary engineering technology to make new Earths all over the galaxy, so is murdering humans truly the better option? Why not simply terraform barren planets into more habitable ecospheres?
Jennifer Connelly now plays the role of “Helen Benson,” but instead of being an office secretary in Washington DC, she’s now a nationally important Princeton University exobiologist who’s highly sought after in a first-contact scenario. Making her a professional scientist was a nice upgrade, though putting her in the thick of the story’s action right immediately also takes away some of the every-person quality of Patricia Neal’s incarnation. Neal’s incarnation offered more of the ‘common person’ perspective that Rennie’s Klaatu was seeking out in the original. Both versions of the character are still single mothers and military widows, though Connelly’s Helen is now saddled with a nightmarishly rotten stepson named Jacob who is an unlovable little monster.
Helen’s stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) is willfully disobedient, duplicitous and just plain mean. The kid never shows even the slightest bit of affection to his stepmother, whom he calls “Helen.” Yes, Jacob grieves for his dead father; I get it. “Bobby” (Billy Gray) also grieved for his dead father, yet he wasn’t such a pain in the ass. A perfunctory attempt is made to have Jacob bond with the alien Klaatu much later in the film (in a reshuffled repeat of the original film’s cemetery scene), but it’s too little, too late. Even Klaatu doesn’t seem terribly fond of the kid, though he does save his life a few times. At the end of the day, Jacob has none of the generosity, kindness or naïveté of the original film’s Bobby, who was one of Klaatu’s windows into learning about humanity.
Note: The decision to reinterpret Helen’s son as a miserable brat is especially disappointing since young Jaden Smith was phenomenal in 2006’s “Pursuit of Happyness” (2006). In that film, Smith played precisely the kind of sweet, supportive, loving child that we saw in the 1951 original (albeit a bit younger), so it’s not as if the actor is incapable of playing that sort of character. For some reason, screenwriter David Scarpa (“The Last Castle”) and director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) made an arbitrary (and ill-advised) decision to turn new Helen’s kid into an evil little creep.
Another issue I have with the movie is well… Gort, aka “G.O.R.T.” (now an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology). Turning GORT into a towering Silver Surfer clone takes away much of the original Gort’s human-scale menace. This Chrysler Building-sized GORT is an almost impossibly large CGI abstraction, with none of the real-world threat of actor Lock Martin in his inscrutably featureless robot suit. It also makes zero sense that the military has all the necessary hardware and laboratories standing by to move such a massive, skyscraper-sized robot into an equally cavernous underground research lab. Were giant robots really an invasion scenario planned for by the US military in this universe? Why the hell did this US military have giant panels and huge mechanical movers exactly the right size to move this thing if they had no idea that a GORT was coming?
Note: Yes, I realize the 1951 version had a scene where the military absurdly encased an 8 ft. robot in lucite (one of the few elements from Harry Bates’ novella to survive into Edmund North’s screenplay), but that’s not nearly as bananas as the military having a giant, ready-made GORT receiving lab tucked away somewhere…
The climax of the movie sees GORT breaking up into gazillions of tiny nanobot-insects hellbent on removing humans and our architecture from the planet. Once again, I get it—people bad, animals good. But why do all of our structures have to go as well? Nature would just grow over most of them, anyway. Didn’t writer David Scarpa ever see NatGeo’s “Life After People” TV series? When Klaatu calls off his deadly attack at the end of the movie, we see these “silver locusts” of the apocalypse fall to the ground. Great. Now the Earth is covered in dead metallic insects, and Klaatu just takes off for the stars. Yet we humans are the ones who don’t clean up after ourselves, right?
Note: While the first movie featured Klaatu disguised as a man named “Carpenter” (aka the Nazarene carpenter) on a message of peace from the stars in a Christ-like analogy, the new movie seems much more obsessed with Deuteronomy and the bit about locusts swarming the Earth.
Some solid actors populate this movie, such as “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm as Michael Grainier, a colleague of Helen’s, and an authoritative Kathy Bates (“Misery”) as Secretary of State Regina Jackson, who is a much more reactionary version of the “Mr. Harley” character played by Frank Conroy in the original. Bates could’ve just as easily played the US president for my money, but I guess making her a reactionary version of Madeleine Albright was good enough for everyone involved. Too bad. Kyle Chandler (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) is also on deck as a civilian scientist working with the military on an ill-fated plan to crack open a GORT. Once again, this is a solid cast, but none of them are allowed to play particularly exceptional or memorable characters.
Despite my many issues with the 2008 remake, there are a few scenes that are memorable for one reason or another. For instance, the interrogation scene where Klaatu is hooked up to a lie detector machine. He sends a feedback loop into the machine which somehow allows him to Jedi mind-trick his interrogator (David Richmond-Peck) into letting him escape… and to give him his three-piece suit. This is a bizarrely-comical reinterpretation of Klaatu’s previously ambiguous escape from Walter Reed Hospital in the original. It’s also one of several scenes that reinforces Klaatu’s lack of human emotion or empathy; an interesting choice.
There is also a terrific scene between Klaatu and “Mr. Wu” (veteran character actor James Hong) when they meet at a New Jersey McDonald’s (there is a ton of product placement in this movie—a distracting amount, in fact). Keanu speaks Mandarin with the old timer, who is an alien from Keanu’s home planet living on Earth for the past 70 years. Wu has “gone native,” and he insists that while Earth people are very troubled, they also have a great capacity for love that redeems their worser traits. This is a great message, even if it foreshadows much of what Helen tells Klaatu later (arguably undermining some of Helen’s purpose). There’s also a humorous bit when Helen asks Wu’s utterly clueless grandson (Ed Fong) if he’s also “one of them.” James Hong (“Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China”) imbues the Mr. Wu character with the sort of warmth and kindness that is largely absent from this film. It’s also a kick to hear Keanu Reeves speaking in rigid Mandarin. No surprise that this little moment between Mr. Wu and Klaatu is my single favorite moment in the film.
Note: My wife and I met James Hong at San Diego Comic Con 2012, and I’m pleased to say that in addition to being taller than I expected (over 6′) he has a lot of warmth and charm. Lovely human being. If he were a few years younger, I could’ve easily imagined Hong playing Klaatu in a version closer to Rennie’s interpretation.
Another memorable moment is a recreation of the Professor Barnhart chalkboard scene from the original; despite the modernization of everything else, I was surprised to see they didn’t turn the chalkboard into a dry erase board or a computer monitor (ala “Galactica 1980”). Prof. Barnhart is recast with Monty Python veteran John Cleese, who does the role justice, playing him more as a softer-edged Richard Dawkins rather than the original’s Albert Einstein-clone (Sam Jaffe). Like Wu and Helen, Cleese’s Barnhart also pleads humanity’s case before the court of Klaatu, but to no avail—though he does get the single best line in the entire film: “You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.” At the risk of blasphemy, that line may be the best line of either version, as it perfectly applies to both.
Day After Day.
At the end of the “Day…”, it’s no surprise that I prefer the 1951 version. You can’t go wrong with Robert Wise’s crisp direction, Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score, Leo Tover’s film-noir “alien” look, mold-breaking performances from Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie, as well as a timely message against humanity’s aggression that has aged surprisingly well, especially with modern democracies such as the US and the UK lapsing further into tribalism. It’s a classic that won’t be easily superseded.
That said, the 2008 does get a few things right; an important (if botched) ecological message, a more diverse eye in casting, and a few intriguing original scenes. I think the seeds of good ideas are planted here and there, but they never quite come to fruition. Ultimately, I can’t tell anyone which version they should watch, of course—as Klaatu would say, “The decision rests with you.”
Both versions of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951/2008) can be rented for streaming on Amazon Prime video for $3.99 or purchased contact-free from Amazon.com on Blu-Ray or DVD (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are at over 512,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe. Klaatu, Borada, Nikto!