20th Century Fox (1951 / 2008), 3 discs, 104 mins plus supplements, Rated PG-13 $40
The modern, updated remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is a very different creature to Robert Wise’s seminal sci-fi original. Back in the 1950s, the emphasis was drawn between the alien visitors and paranoia from potential international threats, while this time around things take on an intergalactic environmental theme, not always to the film’s benefit. In many ways, both versions’ first thirds are very much the same: the world wakes up to the arrival of an alien craft, which brings a universal spokesman to our planet to warn us of impending doom. But whereas Wise’s film remains faithfully realistic (for the time) to its ideas, Scott Derrickson’s reimagining goes for all the over the top blockbuster thrills we’ve come to expect in films like these.
But at least in its first two-thirds, TDTESS 2008 remains a solidly good yarn, and even the deviations from the original work well enough in the retooling. But it also struggles to come up with anything we haven’t really seen before: the opening is reminiscent of Independence Day especially, while other influences can clearly be seen and it even shares a major special effect that would be “repeated” in the recent Watchmen. In the casting, Keanu Reeves does a great job at being the emotionless alien that’s come to Earth with his not-so-friendly giant organic robotic technological friend GORT. Reeves often gets a lot of flack for his performances, but I have to say I’m a fan: he can bring that touch of otherworldliness that absolutely no other actor of his generation working today can match, and roles like these, and of course Neo in the Matrix films, are what has driven him to such success.
But his Klaatu himself is a bit of a boring character: Keanu is perfect, but the film desperately needs more of the warmth and humor that original alien Michael Rennie brought to the role way back when, and the changes in storyline offer us a very different kind of Klaatu than Wise did in 1951; here he’s less the warning of an apocalyptic future and more the instigator. The rest of the cast don’t measure up so well: Jennifer Connelly, far from the sweetheart many fell in love with in The Rocketeer days, basically plays the same Betty Ross part that she was lumbered with in Ang Lee’s Hulk, though to decent enough effect, while given a lot less to do is Kathy (“should’ve bought a squirrel”!) Bates, who just gets to strut around as a government official.
One of my favorite moments from the original finds Klaatu solving the world’s problems (or at least one mathematical obstacle that will go a long way towards helping us) for professor Sam Jaffe (later perhaps best known to readers of this site as the nefarious Bookman in Bedknobs And Broomsticks), and knowing John Cleese would be featuring in this role had me excited to see what he did with it. But in Jaffe’s professor part, Cleese is woefully underused, being limited to just one scene which seems tossed in more as an homage to Wise’s film rather than it really having any bearing on this new story. For this, however, Cleese proves his worthiness, or that he has a terrific agent: for a few minutes of screen time, he gets a very decent billing in the publicity.
However, from its 1920s set opening and first sight of Keanu, anyone that knows the original film will realise this is a very alternate approach than what came before, and indeed it’s not your average sci-fi action blockbuster, being a more Kubrickian thoughtful outing that ties its message into the current environmental issues. But it’s in the second half, once director Derrickson has run out of Spielbergian tricks and has finished setting up his rather intriguing new-ish story, that The Day The Earth Stood Still starts to feel like a retread. Once alien Keanu finds himself on the run, the film seems so intent on making itself different from the original that it eventually runs out of steam, heading off in several directions and not coming to the kind of chilling resolve the original did. It’s still spine tingling, but not all in a good way, and in fact it’s all a bit bleak, drawing on a Close Encounters tone, but one that pushes it further into oppression instead of the optimism that CE3K achieved.
In other areas, the visual effects are well done; there are moments that you know must have been VFX shots but they’re executed well enough to be very credible. The big obvious effect is GORT the robot, or not a robot, as the film changes things here, with the military giving him his name based on his construction aspects. Of course in this day and age a tall guy in a suit wouldn’t quite cut the intergalactic mustard, so here he’s a big dollop of quite convincing and underplayed CGI that’s about as impressive and imposing as a tall guy in a suit would have been for the 1950s, with the now kitsch looking flying saucer replaced by another dose of CG in the form of a mysterious glowing globe. However, for all of GORT’s power, he can’t help himself falling apart, and when he does so, the movie does for good, too. Let’s just say that Day The Earth Stood Still 2 isn’t likely to be on the cards any time soon.
Coming to disc in a fancy 3-Disc Special Edition, a most welcome idea is to include Robert Wise’s iconic 1951 take for easy comparison. Putting up a quietly reserved black and white 50s sci-fi classic against a massive effects-driven, widescreen surround sound blockbuster of today is an interesting debate in the making, but while some may find the now thoughtful nature of Wise’s film slow going, I’ll bet that it’s the one that sticks in the mind more. Sometimes classy, leisurely filmmaking from over 55 years ago can still beat out the most up to date, state of the art spectacles of today. Fox recently released a special DVD and BD edition of the earlier film which split up the much better double-sided contents of a previous disc, dropped some of that material and swapped it for some new, but none of which has been carried over here.
What you get is what you get: just the movie, in its correct 1.33:1 ratio, though the additional resolution doesn’t do too much to improve what was already a fairly stellar transfer on DVD, albeit one with a little more sharpness here. Original mono and an optional 5.1 DTS track, which is quite pleasing, quietly shows off the tremendously good work Fox’s restoration department have been putting in to preserving their classic library. A second disc features a Digital Copy of the new remake only, and while I’m really no fan of such discs (I’d much prefer a voucher for a download that doesn’t expire) at least Fox’s limit on their titles is good for more than the few months other studios supply: TDTESS 2008’s code validity runs until April 2011, so there’s a good couple of years’ worth of transfers available, even if, as usual, none of the main disc’s extras are included.
And so we come to that main disc, which incidentally requested a firmware upgrade from me before it would play, with a wealth of supplements on hand that shouldn’t see the need for Fox to pull their usual double-dipping strategy on collectors. If they do release another edition I think it’s fair to say I couldn’t think of anything too worthwhile that might be added, since especially with the 1951 film bundled in here, it covers all the bases and then some. After a selection of upcoming theatrical/Blu-ray previews, including the full X-Men: Wolverine trailer, Quantum Of Solace, Baz Luhrmann’s mixed-up fairytale Australia and the revenge thriller Taken, first up is screenwriter David Scarpa’s feature commentary. I’m guessing he’s happy with the final result or else he would probably keep his comments to himself, though he’s unafraid to speak his mind on comparing what he might have done himself, and delivers all the essentials on the production as well as its director would have done, in an excellently informative track.
Like power-charged trivia tracks of old, Blu’s BonusView technology allows for picture in picture pop ups to play as the feature does, and here we’re offered two additional In-Move Experiences that can be switched on while Scarpa’s commentary plays: a collection of storyboards which pop up at appropriate moments throughout the movie, and Klaatu’s Unseen Artifacts, a continuing series of pre-viz generated sequences and concept art that often wildly alternates from what we’re seeing in the final version and are, as such, very interesting. So much so that, for all of BD’s technology that allows this, am I the only one who wouldn’t also mind having the option of seeing this stuff full screen?
Build Your Own GORT is an “interactive experience” rather than a game, but it’s just about the same thing, allowing the participant access to the various designs that were developed, before they arrived at the one that basically recycles the 1951 appearance. By mixing heads, torsos, arms and legs, one can create their own giant robot, but there isn’t really the variedness needed to make this too compelling and it’s probably more fun to just keep hitting enter and watch GORT start to crack your display screen. The rest of the supplements cover everything we might expect, from a bunch of three Deleted Scenes (wow – more of Keanu being wheeled down a hallway!) to four production featurettes. Re-Imagining The Day is an excellent half-hour look at the challenges of comparing and updating a classic, with the intelligent new team obviously and genuinely recognising the status of the original, even going as far as hinting that this could be seen as Klaatu’s return after so many years, while the 14 minute Unleashing GORT reveals the new design of Klaatu’s protector and Earth’s destroyer and how those scenes were achieved.
Neither of these behind the scenes programs are the usual fluff pieces, leaving it to Watching The Skies: In Search Of Extraterrestrial Life and The Day The Earth Was “Green” to provide these aspects. Skies plays the “are we alone?” card, suggesting that we are closer than ever before to finding out if there is other live in our universe. Of course, for all the scientific minds sharing their thoughts, this is really the promotional machine swinging into action, trying to sell us the science behind the movie and get up jazzed up about that fact that a Klaatu could arrived in our mists someday, but it’s overlong at almost 25 minutes. The Green clip reflects the environmental aspects of the plot and the extending of this ethos to the way the production was filmed, with a “green team” on hand to advise the crew – a head spinning amount of work which starts to sound a little too earnest by the end of its also overlong 14 minutes. Rounding things out, an excessively in-depth and vast collection of full-screen concept art, storyboards and production photos make up the sizable Still Galleries, and though a look at the advertising posters goes missing there’s a theatrical trailer bundled in. Finally, there’s no BD Live interactivity easily noticeable on the disc, but it does contain a code for the D-Box motion system, which allows suitable devices to put you right into the hot seat for the action.
Naturally, the image transfer (in 2.35:1) on this new version is breathtakingly outstanding (for once when the cover notes “the action is out of this world on Blu-ray” it holds true). The film retails a bleak outlook throughout, which might be in danger of feeling murky on standard definition DVD, but on this Blu-ray Disc I can honestly say it’s sharper than the theatrical print I saw, with booming sound that, at least whenever GORT’s on screen, will throw your speakers around the room with a wallop and a bass that’ll shake the panes of glass from your windows!
I am a little surprised that the packaging isn’t a little snazzier: we just get a standard Blu-case, with GORT taking up much of the front of the sleeve, instead of the perhaps expected metallic shiny slipcover that could have alternatively featured Klaatu as some of the theatrical posters did. Inside, three overlapping disc trays hold the platters, and there’s the Digital Copy code insert, but that’s all. It feels rather light, and Blu-ray’s naturally smaller case doesn’t really lend this the sense of substance it probably deserves.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
The 2008 reimagining of The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t always successful – there’s a major plot hole involving a conveniently connected phone call that makes no sense – but as a massive fan of Robert Wise’s film, I was intrigued to see what had been done here. Even if it may not be as remembered in almost 60 years’ time as well as Wise’s film still is today, ultimately this is thrill-ride cinema, taking the bare essence of the 1951 original – humanoid alien, robotic being, our planet coming to a halt – and then throwing out the rest to come up with a totally new take on those ingredients.