It is difficult to see Scott Derrickson‘s The Day the Earth Stood Still as a movie that exists independently of Robert Wise‘s 1951 original, mostly because the two use a very similar tone in delivering their messages. However, while the original never really attempts to rise above its didacticism – a popular trend in the genre back in the day – the premise of the remake is primarily a reflective one and thankfully shows little ambition to be as instructive as Wise’s film.
It is precisely the effect of the time gap between the two films that allows The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) to reveal its greatest strength: where Wise’s film showed little interest in being more than a political animal – succumbing to a tendency that had given the genre legitimacy and allowed it to evolve so well since Lang’s Metropolis – Derrickson’s remake chooses to expand on the metaphor of the human side of the story, effectively turning the idea of an alien with a message into a much darker, yet more immediate statement on life, loss and the possibility of transformation that comes with it.
While the film retains the portrayal of people as generally trigger happy – one that makes you wonder if fearfulness and hostility were the right sins to riff on in a movie that carries an environmental message and that would have perhaps resonated better a couple of years ago – these do serve a purpose: they echo the theme that finds a microcosm in a little boy dealing with an earth shattering loss of his own, the death of his father.
And this is where Derrickson’s The Day the Earth Stood Still parts ways with the original. Keanu Reeves‘ Klaatu is neither a politican, diplomat nor the preaching voice of moral sanity. He is more of an inevitable consequence, an alien with a task that does not necessarily call for moral judgment. If there are political or moral undertones to the character, Reeves does an excellent job of keeping them in check, allowing Klaatu to not only keep the story grounded, but also for his alien to function as a stand-in for the force of life itself, moving at its own indifferent speed no matter how much you shake your fist at it, whether it’s because you think it’s out to get you (because sometimes it is) or, as is the case with Jaden Smith‘s character, because it can’t give you your father back.
Rather than going for a climactic statement or offering a sight of people miraculously rethinking their ways in the end, The Day the Earth Stood Still serves an unexpected, surprisingly philosophical coda in the final scenes between Klaatu and the boy: a reflection on the necessity of transformation when dealing with a major loss. While this is not an easy, satisfying conclusion, it is certainly an ethical one.
The film opened internationally on December 12. It stars Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, Jennifer Connelly as microbiologist Helen Benson, Jaden Smith as her stepson Jacob, Kathy Bates as Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson, Jon Hamm as Benson’s colleague Michael Granier, Kyle Chandler as John Driscoll and John Cleese as Professor Basil Barnhardt.