The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)

End of the World? Please!

When the aliens come, and they want to blow us out of the galaxy for being such a waste of organic chemistry, and we’re all like, “Oh no, no, we’re good, we’re noble, we’re worth not killing,” and the aliens decide, “Okay, you puny humans can be, like, our court jesters, just entertain us and we’ll spare your miserable monkey lives,” let’s make sure we hide this movie away and not offer it up as an example of how entertaining we can be. Because otherwise we’re, like, totally doomed.
There’s a running bit here about how people — or civilizations — only really change when threatened with extinction or destruction, and you would think that a movie that allegedly is all about pushing humanity to that precipice would actually feel like it was teetering on some kind of, you know, precipice, instead of feeling like it was reading from some sort of instructional manual for “How to Make an Alien Invasion Movie That Doesn’t Rock the Status Quo.” The movie uses that actual word, precipice, and it’s a good word, but it has to be more than a word: it has to be a mood. Just like the original Day the Earth Stood Still, back in 1951, was both about an alien who arrives and threatens to exterminate us all unless we disarm nuclearly, and was simultaneously, via that alien-threat theme, a metaphor for the genuine threat of extinction via nuclear war, so this update is both about an alien who arrives and announces that we are scheduled for immediate extermination because we’re killing the biosphere and all the other innocent creatures who depend upon it and we must be stopped, and simultaneously a metaphor for our actual destruction of our environment. Or at least it thinks it is thusly metaphoric. So it should feel like friggin’ Soylent Green or something, all boiling heat and the oceans dying and starving people feeding on the corpses of the dead. Or it could at least throw a melting-icecap bone our way, maybe some drowning polar bears.

Instead, this is The Day the Earth Barely Even Notices We’re on the Brink of Doom, and Why Don’t Those Damn Hippies Just Shut Up About Global Warming Already? Sure, all those rioting people in the streets on the news on the TVs in the background appear to have noticed that a big-ass alien swirly sphere has landed in New York’s Central Park, but I’ll be damned if there’s any indication that those rioters understand why the aliens prefer to save the planet over us… or any indication why the audience watching the film should understand it, either. Nope, it’s all widescreen TVs for those news reports and trigger-happy armies shooting at the ambassador from another freakin’ planet and product placement for crap no one needs and rest stops at McDonald’s for a conference about whether the humans are worth saving or not. In a movie that evinced any sign of self-awareness whatsoever, I’d call all this — particularly the McDonald’s bit — ironic, but if anyone here understands that rampant consumerism and a fast-food culture is part and parcel of the Earth-killing business, there’s no sign of it.

Klaatu (Keanu Reeves: Street Kings, A Scanner Darkly), the ET who gets potshot at the beginning of the film, gets it: “Your problem is not technology. Your problem is you.” Be nice if updating screenwriter David Scarpa (The Last Castle) or director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) got this, instead of becoming examples of it. What, the end of human civilization isn’t enough, they have to throw in a wildly unnecessary subplot about a sad child? (The kid is played by Jaden Smith [The Pursuit of Happyness], who is Will Smith and Jada Pinkett’s son, and he truly is totally adorable, but still…) Is his contentious relationship with his stepmother (Jennifer Connelly: Reservation Road, Blood Diamond) meant to be representative of how unbelievably fucked up humanity on the whole has gotten? If so, never fear: all we need is a good cry and a hug and maybe some McDonald’s french fries to make the boo-boos go away. If only.

If movie had any balls at all, and genuinely wanted to shake us up and make us reconsider our ways, it would begin where it ends. I won’t tell you what happens in the end (hint: it’s stolen from one of the best ongoing science fiction book series of the moment), but it’s at once an awesome demonstration of the aliens’ power and resolve (and should have been their first solution, actually, to the Human Problem, rather than wiping us out) and the start of the real story. It’s the most extreme of ways out for the mess we’ve made of the planet, but that’s what could have made for a truly gripping, truly dramatic science fiction tale. The one we got is, alas, instantly forgettable, and completely useless if it had any hope of saving Earth from us.

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