Scott Derrickson’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, while being mostly inconsequential and suffering from what feels like a complete creative breakdown entering it’s third act, is not a bad movie. You could even go so far as to say that it’s a decent movie that, while flawed in some aspects, even manages to justify its own existence as a spectacle-ridden sci-fi blockbuster. It never gets boring, even though you know the plot inside and out going into it (it’s about aliens trying to wipe out humanity in order to save the Earth from our corrosive influence, in case you’ve never seen Robert Wise’s 1951 original, although the theme here is environmental destruction instead of nuclear annihihilation), which speaks highly of the movie’s pacing, the action and special effects are well-done and of suitable scope, the writing isn’t bad, and all of the performances are at least decent, if not better.
Keanu Reeves is perfect as Klaatu, the alien sent to judge whether humanity should be destroyed. Many dull jokes have been made to the effect that Reeves is the perfect choice to play an alien being incapable of emotion, and while this is certainly true, it should not be meant in any way as a slight to Reeves’ acting ability. He’s a good actor, and has been for at least the last couple of decades, and while his range is very limited, he turns in solid performances and adds to the quality of many movies that otherwise would have been far more mediocre (this film and last year’s Street Kings being two recent examples). Most reviewers seem to be unwilling to look past the fact that he plays in a small sandbox and see the worthwhile things that he does inside that sandbox in their attempts to write him off as talentless, while giving much more leeway to similarly limited performers like Seth Rogen and Tom Cruise.
Jennifer Connelly, who looks like she could really stand to eat something, turns in a believable (in the realm of big-budget disaster movies) performance as some kind of space biologist, and Jaden Smith manages to be remarkably unannoying in the role of the Unnecessary Child in Peril, but the performance to savor is a brief turn by John Cleese as the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who convinces Klaatu that humanity may be worthy of survival. His performance really makes you long to see him star in one last great movie that will probably never be, but it’s still nice to see him in a rather respectable role given the quality of most of the films he’s appeared in over the past decade or so.
To be honest, though, the thing I really enjoyed about The Day the Earth Stood Still was the combination of a relatively hard science fiction foundation with the kind of spectacle normally reserved for brain-dead offerings like Babylon A.D. in modern sci-fi. The top notch production design and intelligent writing contribute to a refreshing feeling of plausibility. It was fun to watch very well done sci-fi action sequences without feeling like I had to make any excuses for the premises the story was based on. The script is by no means great, but by the standards of the genre it’s certainly above average. For all it’s failings (most of which revolve around the spectacularly botched third act, which I suspect contributed heavily to the many negative reviews of the film) the movie was a lot of fun to watch, enough that I’ll give it a pass on the ending. I will even give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume that the rushed nonending was not a product of creative bankruptcy but a (failed) attempt at Kubrickian ambiguity out of respect for the smart hard sci-fi concepts that ground much of the film.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a mediocre but fun movie, and it’s a lot better than massive alien invasion blockbusters like its Fox brother Independence Day. Unfortunately, due in part to its place as winter placeholder/Oscar-bait counterprogramming and even bigger part to the public’s preference for stupid over smart in science fiction, it will likely be all but forgotten in a year or so.
As a quick postscript, it did contribute to the most creatively successful month that Fox has had in years, with it and the by-all-accounts decent Marley and Me being the first good movies they’ve released since summer 2007’s Simpsons Movie, Fox Searchlight notwithstanding.