The Day the Earth Stood Still
"Klaatu barada nikto."
To science fiction lovers and film historians, that pivotal line from 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still is cinematic poetry on the level of "Here's looking at you, kid," "Rosebud" and "May the Force be with you." It's also the phrase that saved Earth's bacon when humanity snubbed, then killed extraterrestrial emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a kind alien who only wanted to caution our hostile planet not to flex its newfound atomic muscle in outer space.
Things are a little different in the 2008 remake. For starters, that famous line is gone. And instead of simply warning mankind to behave, Klaatu (now played by a stoic Keanu Reeves) and his robot pal Gort (much larger and more nimble this time) seem to be on a mission to retrieve a sampling of Earth's species, Noah's Ark style, before we're all wiped out for being lousy stewards of the environment. The third rock from the sun is dying. We had our chance. Now it's time to reboot the planet.
Indeed, when Klaatu talks of saving Earth, he's referring to real estate, not inhabitants. That is unless someone can demonstrate a softer side and prove that people can change their ways. Who could that be? Certainly not the supporting cast of suspicious politicians and trigger-happy military hotheads. No, if it happens at all it will have to come from a professor of microbiology named Helen Benson, a widow caring for her angry young stepson, Jacob. She's one of the few people Klaatu feels he can trust as he evades authorities and seeks to fulfill his prime directive.
Helen loves Jacob dearly, and the frustrated boy softens toward her late in the film. Klaatu shows mercy after being shot (stopping Gort from taking revenge) and only commits violence in self-defense. Jacob's inclination to destroy a stranger who might be dangerous eventually gives way to understanding, sympathy and friendship. Helen shows kindness to Klaatu from the start, going so far as to engineer his escape from a military compound (which is noble and compassionate, but also extremely naive and arguably criminal).
Helen and her mentor, Professor Barnhardt, believe in mankind's ability to change for the better and plead on its behalf much as Abraham interceded for Sodom in Genesis 18. They also realize that she may be their best hope of persuading Klaatu to abort his plan, causing Barnhardt to advise her, "Change his mind not with reason, but with yourself." In other words, don't just give him the facts; be a living example (equally wise counsel for Christians hoping to reach the lost).
During a brief meeting with one of his own kind—an operative who has lived among humans secretly for 70 years—Klaatu learns that the man would rather die with the people he has grown to love than return "home" and abandon them in their darkest hour.
Amid worldwide chaos and life-threatening situations, there's a noticeable absence of prayer or expressions of religious faith. Instead, our leaders put faith in man's own knowledge and might: They gather the greatest scientific minds and amass military strength in a feeble attempt to deal with the crisis.
Klaatu suggests that our planet belongs to an authority beyond ourselves, but that it's "the universe" rather than a divine, personal God. He tells a boy grieving over his father's death, "Nothing ever truly dies. The universe wastes nothing. Everything is transformed." (In context, this suggests a recycling of matter more than the spiritual metamorphosis of one's eternal soul.)
The classic black-and-white version of The Day the Earth Stood Still has been recognized as a Christian allegory, even though director Robert Wise claimed that such a message was unintentional: A man comes from the heavens preaching peace. He's murdered by those who reject or don't understand his message. He rises from the dead. He shares a final challenge before returning to the sky.
This new film doesn't hit all of the same marks. Still, it's reasonable to view Klaatu as a Christ figure of sorts. [Spoiler Warning] He arrives from another world and is "born" as one of us. Nonviolent by nature, he has healing power, can restore life to the dead, warns that our sinful predispositions will lead to our destruction, and appears to surrender his life to save humanity. It breaks down from there, but comparing and contrasting the missions of Klaatu and the biblical Jesus could profit mature viewers.
Nothing truly sexual. There is, however, one shot of Klaatu naked from the side, in the fetal position, as he takes on human form. We also get a passing reference to cohabitation by Jacob who, misunderstanding Helen's relationship with Klaatu, fears she might ask him to move in with them.
Director Scott Derrickson shows restraint, though like any sci-fi/disaster flick, this one has its share of casualties and mass destruction. A spaceship lands in Central Park, sending pedestrians scrambling for their lives. Some are knocked about and presumably killed in the melee. News footage shows rioting and calamity around the globe. Victims of a high-tech pestilence are swiftly eaten away by swarms of metallic microorganisms that disintegrate anything in their path, from an 18-wheeler to the Meadowlands sports complex. An engineer infected with the nanobots dies more slowly, with spots of blood appearing on his face.
When Klaatu first emerges from his ship (not a flying saucer, but a glowing sphere), soldiers and police have their pistols, sniper rifles and heavy artillery trained on this intergalactic trespasser. A round goes off, striking him and spattering blood on Helen's hazmat suit. Elsewhere, the aggressive military targets either Gort or Klaatu, but winds up destroying its own forces. For example, the robot redirects missiles that take out manned tanks, while Klaatu's self-defense against chopper fire causes a midair crash. The most disturbing moment involves a desperate Klaatu pinning a policeman between two parked cars (using his powers to slam the vehicles together violently). This brutal act horrifies Helen and Jacob, who proceed to watch the alien bring the man back to life.
A pickpocket is confronted by his mark, who scuffles with him before collapsing, presumably of a heart attack. Other violent episodes involve Gort emitting ear-piercing wails, an explosion rolling a car and killing the driver, windows imploding in a control room, and men receiving severe electric shocks.
Crude or Profane Language
One "h---" and several exclamatory uses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A woman drinks from what looks like a beer bottle.
Other Negative Elements
Even though it sets up a warm moment later on, Jacob ignores and disrespects his mother early. People in authority find it expedient to lie. Members of the armed forces are all depicted as heartless warmongers eager to play with destructive toys. And the globe's environment seems more important to an advanced race than human life.
As a tent-pole thriller for the holiday season, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a bit underwhelming, never quite fulfilling the promise of its shock-and-awe trailer. Scott Derrickson does create an enjoyably moody atmosphere. And he manages to inject action and a few other creative touches into a story that even in 1951 was rather talky and plodding. But most of the "ooh aah" moments here involve people staring at glowing balls of light. A cool shot of Gort springing into action in the opening act primes us for more, but the movie never gives its most charismatic character much to do.
That said, kudos to Derrickson for making a PG-13 sci-fi thriller that doesn't force audiences to have a close encounter with sexual content, gratuitous profanity or graphic violence. And it's invigorating to find spiritual subtext that teens and adults can use as a springboard for meaningful conversation. Will Derrickson's new Day make the earth stand still? Probably not for more than a few weekends, but it will be a welcome change of pace for mature audiences looking for a space-age actioner that doesn’t go out of its way to offend. In Hollywood, that in itself is a welcome alien life form.