Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day the Film Stood Still



The title is The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the classic SF film from 1951. But you could've fooled me.

OK, this ain't a bad movie. Give it a B+. It has its moments.

I wanted to like it. But deep down inside, I knew I wouldn't.

The big damn, problem is pacing. Director Scott Derrickson, obviously, takes a page or two from Spielberg. Hell, he took the whole damn book: Spielberg's E-Z Guide to Creating Sense of Wonder in a Big Budget SF Movie through Backlighting and Cute Kids. Basically, ET and Close Encounters had sex and this movie is the result. And it groans under the weight of the sheer ponderous, philosophical signifance of it all. The Big Ideas come crashing down with the weight of Gort's robotic foot. Spielberg would've wanted it that way.

In his zest to ape Spielberg, the director forgets that a movie, even a movie jam-packed with Big Ideas, is still a ride. The film is stuffed with scenes that could be cut, overstuffed dialogue and explanations we don't need to hear. There's lots of show and tell. I.e.: we're going to show you stuff, and in case you weren't paying attention, we're going to tell you what we just showed you. For example ...

The female protagonist is spirited away by government types and rides in the back of a military vehicle with a bunch of other space scientists. (Having the military yank her out of her house would've made a great beginning — but there's a dead scene showing her teaching in a classroom first so we know she's a space scientist. I mean, that drooling idiot in the backrow might not figure it out.) The convoy drives. The various scientists wonder: What the Heck is Going On? Is this a war game, or what? Some dude says something to the effect, "No. This is no war game. I know it's for real." How does he know? He points to the road. There's traffic going in the opposite direction, but their side of the highway has been entirely cleared of traffic. We see it. But, wait, don't forget that idiot in the back row! so the dude says, "The road. It's been cleared of all traffic — except for us. The military cleared it. For us."

A great exercise for a first year student at Berkeley Film School. Cut 20 minutes out of this thing. Hell, cut 40. Make it snap, crackle and pop. Make the ride fun.

If you cut the fat, there's some pretty good stuff here. Unfortunately, there are also glaring logic problems.

Not the peripheral shit like, say, a mountainclimber on a snow-blasted mountaintop taking off his glove for more than five seconds.

Foundational story logic problems.

As the movie opens, an alien ship comes blasting at earth like a bullet, aimed straight at Manhattan. Homeland security thinks it's a doomsday asteroid -- which is why they've snatched up the scientists 'cause, you know, space scientists are good at cleaning up after asteroids. So, the scientists hover in helicopters over New York Harbor, waiting for the thing to hit as The Clock Ticks. (Ain't worried about that shockwave are you? Nah.) The asteroid turns out to be a spherical spaceship (paging Michael Crichton) that lands gently (but spectacularly) in Central Park. The purpose: Klaatu (Keanu Reeves this time) is going to deliver an alien ultimatum (hug the planet — as opposed to ban the nukes.)

Now, this is sorta like staging a home invasion — breaking down somebody's front door — then giving them a needful piece of advice. You're going to seem like a threat, dontcha think? Shooting the home invader is a logical response, dontcha think? Shoulda occured to the aliens if they had any knowledge of the human species ...

Well, gee, one of the soldiers shoots Keanu. Surprise.

Now, with all their unimaginably advanced alien tech, these dudes from space couldn't manage, say, a planetary TV broadcast first? One second you're watching a beer commercial. The picture crackles. It's Keanu Reeves!

KLAATU: Woah, human dudes. Destroying the ecology is like way not cool.

Easily script-doctored. Let's say the aliens do send a plantary broadcast. The US military decides it's a fake. Some nation or group is staging a pseudo alien scarecrow for whatever purpose. We invite the "alien" to land. We do, then shoot him. A suckerplay —

Which would explain why Keanu stepped out in a placenta suit as opposed to, say, inpenetrable nanotech armor.

Big logic problem #2:

The aliens, for all their tree-hugging righteousness, are genocidal. Their message, essentially: Stop global warming or we'll fucking kill you. All of you. Ain't exactly ethical, is it? The first movie got around the problem by making the Gort robots an automatic protection system designed to eliminate galactic nuclear proliferation. By design, the robots aren't under anyone's control. They obey their prime directive (Ban the Nukes!) and can't be intimidated, reasoned with or bribed. The original Klaatu was simply trying to give humanity the picture of the threat we were under. If humanity triggered an attack, it'd be the robots killing us, not Klaatu. But, in this movie, Klaatu himself is holding the trigger. To me, that's not exactly sympathetic.

The movie wanted Klaatu to give the reprieve. Obviously, there's no way to do that if it's an automatic system — so that got cut. It's a cheat to set up a bogus story point. Script doctor's prescription: Have Klaatu turn out the lights. Then let the lights come back on -- and have humanity shut off our various dirty power stations voluntarily. The robot backs off. We saved ourselves.

Big Logic Problem #3:
It's a remake of a Cold War era movie. The problem with remakes: you can't just swap the labels on the soup cans and expect the soup to taste the same. Cold War nuclear brinkmanship doesn't map to eco-catastrophe. It's not a one-to-one correspondence. It needs to be a different story, based on its own inner logic. Aside from the label-switching and better special effects, they stuck to the original story fairly slavishly. As a result, the logic doesn't work.

Still, all in all. Not a bad movie. It had its moments.

Even so. If you're going to the time, trouble and expense to make a movie, why not make it insanely great?

It bugs me. I think we need a race of killer robots to destroy all movies that fall short. I'm sure that thought has occured to ...

Others.

You have been warned.

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