Wednesday, December 17, 2008

KIaatu Barada Nikto

This past Sunday night, I visited the remake of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The present version features Jennifer Connelly as a scientist who befriends an alien visitor on the run from the government. His name is Klaatu and in his current form he is played by Keanu Reeves. Also appearing in the film are Kathy Bates (as the Secretary of Defense), John Cleese (as the professor whose chalkboard equation Reeves completes), and Kyle Chandler as the guy best qualified to gaze in horror at his oncoming doom.

The original 1951 film, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, still comes off surprisingly well today, in spite of the thick layer of camp that has settled over it. The writing is still strong, the music is unique, and the actors manage to keep the hamminess typical of B-movies in that period to a deli-shaved thinness. At that time, when our world was in the throes of the Cold War, the message was that mankind must either learn to live peacefully or perish. Today's version features an updated message straight from the desk of Al Gore. To wit: "The only way to save the earth may be to exterminate mankind." Unless, that is, we change our ways quickly & seriously.

My overall feeling about this movie could be summed up in three words: "Oh, spare me!"

I found the characters difficult to sympathize with. Having Gort (the laser-eyed, giant robot who accompanies Klaatu to earth) turn into a swarm of metallic locusts was an interesting touch, but I really missed the storyline climaxing with Patricia Neal tearfully begging Gort to "barada nikto" just in the nick of time - and not before she herself questions whether mankind is worthy. Not content to remake a classic, this film rips off a wide selection of sci-fi masterpieces, including 1996's Independence Day (which is still recent enough that today's viewers might spot the similarities). And while Klaatu's new powers are very impressive, I rather preferred the well-meaning desperation Rennie's characterization gave him to the coldblooded scariness of the Reeves incarnation.

But ultimately, what murdered this movie for me was its ardent shrillness. Surely its makers must have noticed that the 1951 film's presentiment of worldwide doom turned out to be baseless. Yet they presented their own variation on the same theme with an equal lack of irony and of humility. When the third version of the movie comes out in 2065, the 2008 edition will look that much sillier for it, if it is remembered at all. I add that last quibble simply because both the 1951 and 2008 versions take aim, and I think not subtly, at the structure of western culture. For the ills they address, both films lay the blame at the wrong feet. But if they and the propaganda machine of which they are parts succeed in their mission, they may hasten the disintegration of that culture which has made so many wonderful things - including cinema - possible.

No comments: