There’s a strong case to be made that the original The Day The Earth Stood Still is the greatest science fiction movie ever made. A film released during the Cold War that reflects the fears of a world on the brink of disaster, the movie uses aliens and imagined technology to challenge the viewer and ask if a better world is possible.
The 2008 remake isn’t all that, but it does have a terrific performance by a pre-John Wick Keanu Reeves.
The remake, directed by Scott Derrickson (later of Doctor Strange) has the same concerns as the original. A mysterious object hurtles towards Earth. Scientists gather, brought together by the U.S government, and they are informed of the hurtling. It’s about to be the end of the world, but then the object suddenly stops in Central Park.
When a being steps out of the spacecraft, it's quickly shot by the military and taken to a hospital, where the Secretary of Defense, the always-welcome Kathy Bates, demands that the being reveal its purpose on Earth. It refuses, saying that it must address the United Nations. Once Kathy Bates nixes that plan, the being leaves of its own accord.
The being (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu), is different than the original. The first Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, is desperate to help humanity. In a 2008 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Reeves explained the changes to his character:
“We kind of inverted it. In the original, he’s more human than human, in an odd way. He’s very gentle, thoughtful, but he carries a big stick at the end. My Klaatu is more sinister and tough, ready to execute a judgment, but he eventually breaks down and becomes more human and starts to understand what a human can do."
It works. The movie’s best creative additions come with Klaatu. After The Matrix, Reeves saw his reputation rise from handsome leading man to action hero. Here, he plays Klaatu quietly, not wanting to give anything away to anyone. His powers, allowing him to interact with electricity, are subtle and threatening, just like the character. Raising a character’s stakes is a risky move. Here, it works.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie lacks Keanu’s quiet threat. Jon Hamm and Jennifer Connelly are mostly wasted, and the film tries to update a message that didn’t need much changing in the first place. Jaden Smith does well enough as the kid along for the ride who shows Klaatu humanity at its best, but he isn’t given enough of a role. The remake lacks the visual panache of the old black and white movie, although there are several sequences in which the film’s lighting washes out the color, which is a clever touch.
However, there is one way in which this movie undeniably succeeds: showing how Keanu Reeves can seem threatening without a single gun.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is streaming on Hulu through November 30 in the U.S.