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Movie Tuesday: The Day the Earth Stood Still (PG-13)

Alien Evasion
The end of the world is really none of our business
By Jared Peterson

An object traveling a few million miles an hour is headed straight for Manhattan. Within hours, the government has mobilized its edgiest soldiers and prettiest scientists to contend with what they expect to be a catastrophic impact event. But on approach the object politely slows down. As what looks like a large, pulsating pearl touches down in Central Park, it becomes clear that we have guests. Standing still yet? On we go.

Among the responders is Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist and professional contemplator of little green men, who stands front and center for the first close encounter. From the sphere’s otherworldly glow emerges a pale, faceless humanoid that extends an ostensibly friendly hand to her before being shot by a nervous grunt. This act of violence unleashes the craft’s other passenger: a three-story-tall silver automaton with laser beams shooting from its single red eye (naturally). The wounded alien calls off its robotic guard and is then brought to a secure location, where lies down and molts into Keanu Reeves.

Keanu is Klaatu (that was fun to type), an extraterrestrial envoy with an important message for the people of Earth. He’s tight-lipped about the details, though, and these days that’s reason enough for the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) to have him drugged and interrogated. Klaatu does some Jedi-type stuff and escapes; but rather than head to the UN or Oprah to get the word out, he does something inexplicable, something no human being would do—he walks to Newark. Anonymous among the panicked crowds, he falls ill, and Helen eventually tracks him down. With her wary stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) in tow, they wander the Tri-State, on the lam from the feds, as vague details of the visitor’s true mission gradually come to light.

What, I wonder, would be the opposite of directing a movie? Scott Derrickson would seem to know the answer. Fully engrossed in computer-generated waves of destruction and slick ads for model-2009 attack helicopters, he lets pesky things like motivation and logic flap in the breeze. And the actors—the poor, poor actors. The main players seem to have been instructed to worry… hard; the rest are left to look down at their nametags and act accordingly. Reeves, meanwhile does even less with less, content to sit, stare and emit a fluorescent hum of extraterrestrial condescension—his performance here makes The Matrix’s Neo look like Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski. Screenwriter David Scarpa (adapting an equally dry 1951 screenplay by Edmund North) further enables the neglect by playing a huge game of narrative keep-away. Nobody seems capable of giving a straight answer, which too often results in bunches of overserious people having elliptical conversations while the world falls apart—which was fine on The West Wing but which seems awkward in the presence of actual apocalypse.

Of course, a wider slice of human emotion might have let us feel the doom instead of just root for it. I didn’t particularly like Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, but it certainly gave you some sense of just how much it would suck to face extinction. But despite endless news footage of faceless rioters and fleeing victims, The Day the Earth Stood Still denies us access to the guilty fear of the doomed, to say nothing of the cathartic pleasure of watching someone—anyone—endure a total and completely understandable freak-out.

In keeping with the somber proceedings, there is little profanity and not a trace of sexuality here. When doctors first treat the wounded alien, we see some eewy-gooey close-ups of a scalpel cutting into alien tissue and gloved hands removing pale chunks of blubber from its metamorphosing skin. Shots of snakes and scorpions creeping around a landed alien sphere may give the heebie-jeebies, as might the huge swarms of tiny alien nano-locusts that eat matter and crawl beneath skin. Most human deaths are implied by the destruction of surrounding structures, but when one poor soul is hit by a car we’re not spared the contortions of his broken body.

If the last fifteen years of event films have taught us anything, it’s that the end of the world should be delicious. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, I’m afraid the juice is hardly worth the squeeze.

At a December 13th screening, the following films were previewed: The Spirit (PG-13), from the makers of Sin City and also based on a comic book; Coraline (PG), a stop-motion-animated fantasy from the Nightmare Before Christmas crowd; Star Trek (not yet rated), which I can’t be sure but I think is about total awesomeness; 2012 (not yet rated), an apocalyptic thriller from Roland Emmerich, who has done this before; Taken (PG-13), an revenge drama with Liam Neeson; and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (I’d bet PG-13), a prequel to the X-Men films starring Hugh Jackman [Yaaaaaay!–Editor] and his mutant sideburns.

Jared Peterson means the people of Earth no harm. Take him to your leader by way of http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.

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