Click to view Forget about whether the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is true to the original. It isn't. But it does give us a compelling picture of futuristic alien civilizations.
Some spoilers ahead.
Unlike the rather slow and thoughtful 1950s movie that Earth Stood Still is based on, the remake opening today in theaters across the U.S. is closer to a typical actioner in structure. I love the original flick, but there's nothing wrong with making an action-packed homage to it. The question is whether the new flick works on its own terms. The answer is partly yes.
But even when it fails, Earth Stood Still manages to do something most other science fiction movies do not: It gives us convincing imagery of post-Singularity technology. And its relationship to the first movie is actually a lot more complicated than you might think. Here are three ways of looking at Earth Stood Still for you to tuck into your brain and take with you to the theater this weekend.
1. It's a cool alien science nerd movie that goes off the rails in the second act
Setting aside the question of whether director Scott Derrickson managed to do justice to the original - which I still maintain is the wrong question - Earth Stood Still is an uneven flick at best. For the first half of the movie, you've got a well-paced, visually arresting movie about the first alien contact between a mysterious creature and the human race. Keanu Reeves works nicely as Klaatu, the slightly robotic alien getting used to his new human body, and Jennifer Connelly is very believable as Helen, a brave astrobiology nerd caught up in an event she never expected to deal with.
Everything associated with Klaatu's arrival, including the gorgeous mystery globe ship, his biological spacesuit, and his scary-unknown powers, are pitch-perfect. You really feel like you're watching serious science fiction that's asking the same hard questions about humanity that a good drama would. Klaatu has come to decide whether it's time to scour the Earth of humans because we're killing off everything that makes the Earth valuable to the "civilizations" he represents.
But as soon as Klaatu meets another alien agent in a McDonalds, things start to go downhill. Instead of exploring the idea of the alien civilizations who've been watching and judging us for decades (centuries?), we go caroming off into a seemingly-pointless tour of some upstate New York forests and get a very superficial bad-Star-Trek-episode look at why Klaatu changes his mind about the "destructive" humans he wants to wipe out. There's a lot of unconvincing sentimentalism and Helen's kid (played by Jaden Smith) does a lot of acting with his hair.
The best thing you can really say about the second half of the movie is that Smith is not as annoying as most kids in movies like this. And there is some good action with Gort the giant robot, but scenes with him seem oddly wedged in between the scenes about Klaatu's moral dilemma. So you'll begin this movie with a sense that you're about to watch something really terrific, and end feeling like you just watched an episode of Star Trek where some alien realizes that humans aren't ugly bags of mostly water because they have religion, or music, or love, or feelings in general.
I mean, I love humans too - but do you really think a couple of boo-hoos are enough to convince a highly sophisticated alien race that it's worth risking a mega-valuable planetary resource on us?
Alright, let's move on from that to think about what Earth Stood Still gets right.
2. It's a way of imagining the Singularity
One of the best parts of this movie was the care its designers took with the futuristic alien technology we see - and luckily, we see a lot of it. One of the pleasures of good science fiction is feeling the way it jogs your imagination to think about what our machines will look like after the singularity, or after tech becomes so different that we can no longer recognize it.
Klaatu is obviously from a group of civilizations that have fine-grained control over matter and their genomes. He comes to earth encased in a biological spacesuit, and his consciousness has been placed in a still-developing human body. There are a few interesting scenes where he has to "get used" to things like drinking and eating, and of course in this updated version of the film our alien has some slightly preposterous but fun superpowers. He controls the behavior of electrons and photons with his mind, taking control of computer networks and projecting his mind through wires.
During the iconic interrogation scene which you've probably seen in previews, we even get a hint that there is something sublime about Klaatu's consciousness. He needs information from his interrogator, so he seems to project his mind into the other man's mind via the wires of a polygraph machine - when he finally says, "I'm leaving you now," the man is weeping as if sensing Klaatu's mind was both a beautiful and terrifying experience.
This post-Singularity technology can be seen in the updated Gort, who is made up of millions of microbots.