I admit it. I'm a fan.
Maybe you have to be of a certain gender, age, and emotional maturity to sit through two screenings of the just-released remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still -- why listen to critics and "disappointed" sci-fi fans? -- and come away from the experience confident that the $14 and change was well worth it.
(OK, so my local theater's free LARGE size popcorn refills helped persuade me. That's refills. Plural.)
Actually, I thought casting John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt was a stroke of genius. And I was flat-out delighted to discover that the good professor -- this time a Nobel laureate for his work in "biological altruism" -- still uses a blackboard and chalk to work out those pesky polynomial equations at home. There wasn't a laptop in sight. Bach played softly in the background. It didn't bother me at all that one of the most memorable lines in the history of sci fi films ("Gort! Klaatu barda nikto!") never made the final script.
What interested me most, well beyond the special effects and nods to the original 1951 classic (which I've seen several times), was the new film's take on the extraterrestrial visitor, Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, and particularly his mission. It was my motivation for going in the first place. And because I subscribe to the view that human beings tend to think of ETs in human terms, reflecting human needs and fears, I wasn't disappointed to see some important differences in tone this time around.
In the original, the visitor from another planet, played by British actor Michael Rennie, looks human and soon adopts an alias ("Mr. Carpenter") as he more or less blends-in with Washington, DC, society. Klaatu wears a suit and tie; gets to know a few locals before being hunted down and shot dead; is carried into his flying saucer by Gort, a robot protector; is brought back to life; and then delivers this stern warning to an ethnically diverse multicultural crowd before leaving Earth:
"I am leaving soon, and you will forive 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 . . . 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."
Well, forgive and forget, apparently.
Fifty-seven years later, in the remake, Klaatu has no alias; looks human only after losing his exterior placental ectoplasm; still wears a suit and tie; still gets to know a few locals before being hunted down; but he doesn't blend-in very well and he isn't shot dead and brought back to life by a robot. Nor does he make a speech to any large wide-eyed ethnic groups in front of, or away from, his spacecraft.
The new Klaatu is not comfortable in his adopted human form. "This body will take some getting used to," he says. When asked what he really looks like, he replies that the answer would only frighten us.
More importantly, this time around, Earth's destruction begins in earnest -- only to be arrested by Klaatu during the film's climax, when he finally becomes convinced there is hope for humanity, after all.
Unfortunately for football fans, his realization comes too late to save Giants Stadium. But it's arguably the most dramatic difference between the original and the new character: this Klaatu learns over time to be more open-minded about the fate of our species and takes action to prevent the worldwide extermination of human beings, not knowing if he can or will succeed. Michael Rennie's Klaatu talks about dire consequences, declares that our fate is up to us, and then flies away.
I don't know about you, but I'm relieved that someone else, and especially some being far more advanced than us, is willing to take care of a big problem like assured human annihilation.
Something else I like about this remake are the perspectives that broadly reflect our cultural biases and lack of understanding (understandably so) about technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings: as a result of their discovered presence around the world there are references to global market freefalls; mass evacuations motivated by fear; attempts by the U.S. government to control information about the "invasion;" several U.S. military responses (of course); and generalized, all-around "apocalyptic" panic on the part of world citizenry. Additional touches of realism are inserted via archival footage of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Pope Benedict XVI. The heads of state object to America's unilateral decision-making. The Pope calls for "understanding" amid the chaos.
The original Klaatu expressed impatience, fear, and at least a small degree of consternation over our specie's capacity to self-destruct. The Reeves character is almost completely void of emotion ("Your problem is not technology. The problem is you.") and in the end dispassionately acknowledges an all-too familiar human reality ("Your professor was right. At the precipice we change."). He was referring to his own last-minute realization that humankind is capable of nurturing Earth back to health, apparently because we are capable of nurturing ourselves.
Despite the destruction of human property and life that occurs late in the story, in the end this is a hopeful film. Certainly more so than the original. In 1951, entertainment easily trumped hope. We weren't in the trouble we are today.
As an audience member and species representative I appreciate the film's updated message. Adding an astrobiologist to the story makes good sense in 2008 (Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, was the film's astrobiology advisor). So does swapping-out a single flying saucer for multiple luminous Earth-like spheres as the transport vehicles of choice for deep space travel. They're not something we expect. The same for Gort, the protective robot. In the new release he's much larger and more menacing that in the orginal, an enforcer completely beyond our influence. Yet his shape is our own. We might vaguely recognize ourselves in him, but unlike us, we know he's unstoppable.
Finally, I also appreciate this comment from Klaatu, delivered in a New Jersey cemetary:
"Nothing ever really dies. The universe wastes nothing. Everything is simply . . . transformed."
The pause adds weight to the line and the word transformed hints at a worldview held, or at least hoped for, by many human beings.
What's not to like about that?
Happy Holidays to all.
Next stop: Protocols
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter