Keanu Reaves Phones Home in the Remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

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Why do producers remake movie classics?

Sometimes they truly believe they can improve upon the original. Sometimes the think they can reimagine the underlying themes to fit contemporary issues and obsessions. And sometimes they just think they can make a quick buck by plugging in new special effects and top box office actors.

The motivation behind the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seems to fall somewhere between the second and third of those reasons. Director Scott Derrickson substitutes global warming for the threat of the atom bomb, and casts Keanu Reeves in the Michael Rennie role of the visiting alien. The robot Gort is exactly the same as the robot in the original version only about 100 times larger (although no explanation is ever given for the gargantuan size of this thing or for why it is shaped like a giant grey Gumby).

The supporting cast includes Will Smith’s son Jaden, Kathy Bates as a Hillary Clinton-like Secretary of State, former Monty Python member John Cleese as an evolved Nobel-prize winning scientist, and Jennifer Connelly as the space biologist who befriends Klaatu and tries to save the Earth by convincing him that human beings do have some redeeming value, however eensy.

The movie suffers in translation from 1951 to 2008. Something about the impending global crisis and Klaatu’s assignment to help the planet out by eliminating the human race feels a bit too close to reality to be much fun. The popular imagination in 2008 runs less toward beneficient aliens and their fascinating spacecraft and more towards visceral fear of real apocalypse, so the premise comes off as much queasier and possible than it did in 1951 when we were all watching UFOs to take our minds off the bomb.

In case you miss the obvious fact that, outside the theater, we have a real global climate problem presenting real survival issues for the human race, the remake throws a kid into the mix to turn up the emotional temperature several degrees. It feels like pandering. Come on, movie–We get it. Don’t beat us over the head with it.

Keanu Reeves is so cold and ethereal as Klaatu that it’s kind of hard to identify with him, and while this does make him seem truly alien, the fact that his alien mission is to wipe us out makes him a weird, unlovable leading man. This demeanor serves him well in lots of other movies (he was perfect as Neo in “The Matrix”), but since he’s not kicking the crap out of anyone on our behalf in this movie it’s kind of chilling.

Reaves and Connelly also develop none of the repressed chemistry that Rennie and Patricia Neal did in the original, making their time together more nerve-wracking than anything else, and rendering Cleese’s one urgent suggestion to Connelly about how to convince the alien of our worthiness unintentionally comic.

But then, so what?

Here’s the thing: When you want to eat popcorn in the dark what you really need is a sci-fi flick, and this one fills that need just fine. Young people who have never seen the original will find it servicable and worth the price of a matinee, and in fact the acting (not counting Reaves, who–oh come on, why does he even NEED to be able to act? I mean look at the guy–he’s gorgeous!)–in fact, the acting is actually pretty good.

If, in the end, we’re not quite convinced of our last minute salvation (in real life or in the film) or of Klaatu’s sudden change of heart, does it really matter?

Not if you buy peanut M & M’s to go with the popcorn it doesn’t.

Eat them today. It’s getting warm outside.

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