Click to viewFor years I got blank stares when I told people that The Day the Earth Stood Still was my favorite movie. "It's this black-and-white science-fiction film from the 1950s," I'd say, and when they just gazed back at me, I'd finish with "look, just watch it, okay?" Little did I know that something far more sinister was in my future — now when I talk about The Day the Earth Stood Still, people will think I'm lauding the performance of one Keanu Reeves. The very thought makes me want to hurl the contents of my stomach all over my keyboard.There is no reason to remake something that is absolutely perfect. A big reason for that is that there are hundreds of thousands of unproduced screenplays which will never see the light of Harvey Weinstein's desk, and there's a good chance that a couple thousand of those screenplays are actually brilliant. But there's another reason nobody should ever remake a movie as wonderful as 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that's because it is an affront to everything good about humanity. Remakes insinuate that there was something deficient about the original movie, that it's somehow necessary to update the film for today's audiences. The vast majority of the cinema-going crowd will watch the version with the actors they know in an instant, and never bother to rent the first one. I'm no exception: I've never seen the 1960 Ocean's Eleven, 1969's The Italian Job, or even every episode of the British The Office. In those cases, that's probably okay — heist flicks work better with shinier cars and newer cameras, and the American workplace has its own set of unique frustrations and comedic opportunities. The Day the Earth Stood Still, however, is still painfully relevant in every way. Julian Blaustein, its producer, read over 200 short stories in the science fiction literature of the day; his selection of Harry Bates's "Farewell to the Master," and screenwriter Edmund H. North's adaptation, doesn't miss a beat. We're still fighting all the time — the petty squabbles of our nation's leaders still prevent us from reaching any kind of agreement that would, say, stop genocide in Darfur, for example. A culture of fear and greed persists, especially in Bush's America, making it entirely plausible that an alien landing in D.C. would be subject to imprisonment, thievery, and — oh, yeah — hasty gunshots. We might be afraid of terrorists now instead of communists, but we still haven't managed to end nuclear proliferation and create lasting worldwide peace. I think there's still quite a lot to The Day the Earth Stood Still's message that we might pose a threat to the rest of the universe if we can't get a grip on our violent tendencies; and I think Klaatu's non-destructive way of shocking humanity into action is even more brilliant today.
Sometimes the reason to remake something is that the idea is still golden, but the execution of it was limited by the times. Well, I really don't see anyone convincing me that that is the case here. The special effects did just what they needed to do; maybe Gort vaporizing military weapons wasn't as advanced as liquid metal crawling its way up Neo's body, but Gort's thing shot a chill through my spine much faster. The seamlessness of the spaceship, which was recreated with the painstaking application of putty for each shot, added such a fantastic thrill — that simple effect is more meaningful than a thousand flashy explosions. The attention to detail reaches an admirable level that I almost never see in entertainment today; for example, Professor Barnhardt's chalkboard equations actually contain terms that are relevant to momentum conservation and dynamics, and Klaatu's explanation of his error makes total sense. Most filmmakers today would simply throw up a sine and a cosine and call it done.
The rest of the production was a cut above, too. Bernard Herrmann's amazing soundtrack marks some of the first use of electronic instruments in film, and those theremins have my ears ringing with sci-fi delight years after my first viewing. Even the cinematography was gorgeous; the use of shadow and light patterns created a delightful spooky mood to most scenes, and nobody can miss the visual hilarity of watching doctors chainsmoke while wondering how the hell aliens live so much longer than we do. Michael Rennie's alien, by the way, is an example of a truly flawless and understated performance; anyone who thinks that Keanu Reeves can show that up should stop reading now to go smack their head against a wall a few times. I don't want to see any current child actor try to replace Bobby Benson; Billy Gray's adorable portrayal of The Most Fifties Boy Ever will warm my heart for all time.
I suppose the one complaint you could have for a 1951 film is about sexism and racism — except for the fact that there were certainly world leaders of all races in the final scene, and the character of Helen Benson is crucial to the plot. She's a bit of an annoying mother, perhaps, but she stands up to her way-more-annoying boyfriend to save the day — and the world. As far as diversity goes, there's only one non-white star in the 2008 cast, so I guess things haven't changed much. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a treasure; it's one of the best films we humans have ever managed to produce. It was fabulous in 1951 and it's only matured with age, like the finest sci-fi-themed wine in all the world. The movie packs a huge amount of vision about human identity and aspirations — in fact, it's almost impossible to believe it was made eighteen years before we Earthlings reached the moon. So why in the name of everything beautiful would a person want to taint those waters with a totally unnecessary rehash? Apparently this remake is happening because 2008 director Scott Derrickson admires the work of 1951 director Robert Wise. Hey, Scott, you know what would be a good way to pay your respects to Wise's work? Tell people to watch his movie, and then stay the fuck away from it. Images from Wikipedia, twm1340 at flickr, and Vintage UFO.