The Day the Earth Stood Still

Published: .
Updated: .
David Swindle
Grade: B

In more ways than one the persona of Keanu Reeves is so appropriate for the film that "The Day the Earth Stood Still" reveals itself to be.

Reeves has never been the most exciting of stars. First making a mark as half of the time-traveling, slacker duo Bill and Ted in the early '90s, Reeves parlayed that success into a career in action and science fiction films. His starring role in the "Matrix" series made him an icon.

But of what? Most of Reeves characters - even and especially his action heroes - have always had a certain calm, almost Zen-like nature to them. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Reeves played Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha."

So it just makes sense to give him the role of Klaatu, the quiet alien visitor in the remake of the 1951 science fiction classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It's a Reeves part if there ever was one.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" features Jennifer Connelly, no stranger to sci-fi with her role in 1998's great "Dark City," as Dr. Helen Benson, a Princeton astrobiologist whose research focuses on the possibilities of life in outer space. She's at home with her step-son Jacob (Jaden Smith) of whom she's now the only parent since her husband's recent death, when she receives an odd phone call. It turns out to be a federal agent en route to pick her up immediately for a matter of national security. Helen is required to go with him and soon finds herself with several other distinguished scientists who also have no idea why they were summoned.

It turns out that an object is on course for a collision with earth, specifically Manhattan. There isn't time to evacuate a city of millions, only to prepare for the aftermath.

Of course, we know what is coming. The object turns out to be an extraterrestrial craft and more will follow. The representative of the species is Klaatu, who will assume the body of Reeves.

With the history of the first meeting of civilizations in mind, the US government is particularly cautious. After all, we don't want to be the Incas to the aliens' Pizarro. Kathy Bates plays Regina Jackson, the Secretary of Defense. I doubt it's unintentional that Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind in her character. It's only disappointing the screenwriters didn't stick lines in her mouth about "known unknowns" or "absence of evidence not being evidence of absence."

When the scientists are ordered to drug and interrogate Klaatu they rebel. Only Helen consents so that she can secretly warn the alien and sabotage the interrogation. Her act will result in an odd friendship with the alien and the film's ensuing adventure.

The character of Klaatu is unnaturally calm and controlled - he's supposed to be an alien after all. This is pretty ideal to Reeve's dramatic style. It's also very much in tune with the emotional level of the film: flat and boring. Klaatu is not emotionally engaging and neither are Helen and Jacob who are basically stock characters missing any original characteristics. So, like last week's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," the film doesn't really work as a drama or emotional experience.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" does manage to succeed on other levels, though. Intellectually at the "what if?" level it's certainly entertaining to consider the question of alien invasion. It's unfortunate that it fails to pursue the question deeper. We only get glimpses of the world responding to the reality of aliens and the possibility of Armageddon. There's no question that the scenario of the film is immensely intriguing. Hence the story is so familiar to film audiences. There's just more to do with it than what this newest incarnation chooses.

The film's special effects are of course to be applauded and if there's a reason to see the film on the big screen then here it is. Who actually does that, though? I mean special effects used to be such a novelty and an excitement but now we've reached the point where they're used so frequently and so cheaply that we've become desensitized to them. Oh, it's a film with amazing computer generated effects. Goodness, how many of those come out every month? At least half a dozen?

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is an enjoyable, moderately entertaining popcorn film. It's unlikely to leave much of a mark but it's not to be explicitly avoided. It's very much a film in the spirit of Reeves - a passionless, lukewarm experience neither to be celebrated nor condemned. How Zen.