Saturday, December 13, 2008

Film Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

First, you'll have to forgive me if I sound like someone who wouldn't have completely lost himself inside this movie if it had been The Godfather, but I'd had a pretty disappointing late afternoon and early evening leading up to it. To begin with, the friend whose idea it was that we should go see this particular movie had called me to discuss the logistics for the outing, from a bar. Like all cell-phone users, it hadn't occurred to him to weigh the passing chance that he might miss a better offer there in the booth, against the nagging detail that he wouldn't be able to hear a word I said. And so, having received a telephone call from someone ostensibly interested in getting together, I found myself having to shout to make myself heard. I gathered from this little reminder-lesson that I should be grateful for whatever scraps of companionship my friends deign to toss down from the table when they're done text-messaging their friends, and--let's face it--you've probably read enough of these columns to suspect that indeed I should.

Having been told by the friend that the 9:10 showing could easily sell-out, and that if that happened we would be going to the 10:05 showing (which I hadn't understood wouldn't be up to me, incidentally), I hurriedly logged on to Fandango, found that there were two tickets available for the 9:10 showing, clicked two or three "yes" buttons, and received a confirmation page, explaining, among other things, that I'd forgotten to change the billing credit card for my Fandango account, and had instead just stuck a $21 charge at the back of a multi-thousand-dollar, below-rate balance transfer--a vantage from which it may ultimately end up costing me several times the purchase price in accrued interest before it is ultimately paid off.

Heaving a sigh I wadded the confirmation page into my coat pocket and dashed across town to the "Regal Butler Plaza" cineplex, having laid-in an extra fifteen minutes for the inevitable tug-of-war with the service staff over the fact that I'd long ago cut in half the correct credit card, and therefore couldn't insert it into the machine. By the time we finally settled the fact that I was indeed who I said I was, and that these were indeed my movie tickets, it only took the helpful high school student behind the counter an additional five minutes to figure out that I'd driven myself to the wrong movie plaza: the movie was instead playing at the "Regal Royal Park," a fractious eight-minute drive away, with only nine minutes before showtime.

All the way to the correct cineplex I grappled with the question of how I'd endure my friend's gleeful ridicule for my tardiness, without detonating like Vesuvius in front of fifty people. But I needn't have worried: When I arrived at the correct theater, the same friend--the friend whose idea it had been to go to this movie--was embroiled in a text-messaging conversation so heated and so unresolved that I literally had to take him by the shirt sleeve and direct him through the lobby to our theater--the way you would a blind, elderly man, despite the fact that this friend is almost neither of those two things. Once inside the auditorium, he stood stock-still at the base of the stairs, text-messaging, and instructed me to find us two suitable seats. But I needn't have held that against him, either, because there weren't any--except for two on the very end of the very, very, very front row.

Naturally, I was in no mood for a summer-blockbuster premiere that had somehow gotten lost on its way to the Fourth of July Weekend. Much less to sit next to a friend who then, just before the preview trailers were finished, tacked-on the final flourish of wondering if we should take our stubs to the customer service desk for a rain check, on account of the view. Naturally, in other words, this-here movie was scrolling its production credits across my eyeballs with significantly more than two strikes against it. What a surprise, then, that The Day The Earth Stood Still was such a disappointment? Well, do bear with me, please, because through the fog of all that displaced, unresolved anger, I did ultimately manage to form a thought or two that might inform the question of whether this film is worth the ten bucks it would take to sit with yappity strangers and absorb its content through hundred-and-ten year-old technology with chewing gum stuck to its floor.

To begin with, I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with a joke about this being the perfect script for Keanu Reeves. Having forged a career out of not being able to act in anything other than muttered, mostly monosyllabic death-knells ("shoot the hostage"), Reeves finds himself cast as Klaatu, the emissary of a league of alien civilizations--a sort of "really big UN, but without the tacit green-lights to genocide" kind of affair--sent to Earth to pass the final, noticeably subjective evaluation on whether humans are capable of fixing global warming. And no, by the way, I didn't make that last part up.

At all events, the grim conclusion to which he quickly arrives is that the planet can only be saved if the humans on it, and their technology, are quickly and efficiently dispatched, and as such he spends the balance of the film speaking in muttered, mostly monosyllabic death-knells in the run-up to the big moment. Had he not done the exact same thing so consistently, in so many places where it hadn't belonged, this move undoubtedly would've seemed more like genius casting and less like a ninety-two minute caricature. As it stands, the whole notion of Reeves as a kind of Dirty-Harry-meets-ET, strikes the audience--more or less universally--as more than a little silly.

Jennifer Connolly makes what she can out of the stranded role she's been stranded with: that of Helen Benson, an "interplanetary biologist" (were the midterms hard?) who faces the twin-impossibilities of reaching the rest of the human race with the message of Klaatu's non-existent good intentions, on the one hand, and raising her deceased husband's irksome pre-teen child from a previous marriage, on the other. And no, I didn't make that up, either. Indeed it's less surprising that neither of these missions is believable, than it is that neither of them garners Ms. Connolly very much of our sympathies. Having paid our twenty-one bucks in tickets and service fees, and our subsequent eighty- or ninety in accrued interest over the next dozen years, we sit in our seats waiting for big things to go kablooey. This is the basic Faustian bargain of the blockbuster: We pay to see things go kablooey, we expect to see things go kablooey. We'll forgive almost anything else, as long as things are going kablooey. And what do we get instead? An imminently kickable child-actor, and the heavy-hand of Hollywood message manipulation on everything to which Ms. Connolly chooses to lay a comely finger.

After an opening fifteen or twenty minutes of serviceable sci-fi-style suspense and one or two moderately impressive CG shots, it is the kid, improbably, who emerges holding the short-straw of trying to steal the movie. But since he's a terrible actor in his own right--and since there is, after all, no such thing as a twelve year-old who gets away with shoplifting, at least on this planet--we in the seats are left once again to wonder why so many of the key lines spoken by a particular actor were routed to the screen and not the cutting-room floor. "My daddy would have killed him," mutters the annoying little brat, speaking of Reeves' Klaatu--to which the audience is left to wonder where the snot-nose's pop happened to be hiding during the principal photography for Speed.

Meanwhile Connolly, the supposed genius whose brilliance was important enough to merit closing-down highways to ensure her delivery into government hands, needs an improbable fifty- or fifty-five minutes to work out that "I'm here to save the planet," and "I'm here to save you" don't actually mean the same thing. For more than a few tense moments the audience is left to wonder if this Dennis-Kucinich-morality-play is about to slip seamlessly and effortlessly into becoming a Dick-Cheney-morality-play. Would we rather form a committee to reason-out Klaatu's feelings, or would we rather shoot first and ask the touchy-feely stuff later?

When the blow-em-ups get their comeuppance and the movie veers back to Al-Gore-would've-looked-humble sanctimony--it is the fact that we aren't relieved that stands as the truest testimony to just what a mess the filmmakers have made of this once-classic picture. At least if it had been a Dick-Cheney'esque message, we could've counted on better prurient entertainment. I mean, if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that wherever Dick Cheney and his believers go, things do tend to go kablooey. In this film, by contrast, there aren't even any truly impressive CG-effects until the whole thing is so close to being over, and we are all so far past caring about the painfully telegraphed ending, that we hardly notice them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can almost hear the audience thinking as a collective alien consciousness in its own right, the nano-machines ate Giants Stadium. What else is on?

Oh, and a final word or two is also in order for one of the saddest aspects of the production: its waste of so many fine talents. The filmmakers found a role (believable or otherwise) for Kathy Bates, as a bellicose but ultimately reachable Secretary of Defense, in the style (perhaps) of Madeline Albright--and another for John Cleese, as a withdrawn and dottery but ultimately incisive Nobel Laureate in... something. These, together with lesser roles wasted on Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, Jon Haam, and John Rothmann, among others, leave us feeling the most unlikely sentiment of all, at the end of the picture: that a movie which was supposed to be about ending the ecological mistreatment of our one and only home, could have ended up, in the end, feeling so profoundly wasteful of its own resources.

The Key Grip gives this movie two bald heads. It may be good for a two-dollar session of weeknight self-anesthetizing, after it comes out on video. But for now it surely isn't worth the time and energy that went into making it, much less the time and energy that went into sitting through it next to someone who text-messaged all the way back to his car, afterward. Do yourself a favor and give it a miss.

Dave O'Gorman
"The Key Grip"
Gainesville, Florida


nowherem said...

This review is, quite possibly, the most entertaining film review I have ever read.

Rare when the review is more fun than the movie.

A. Gordon said...

Oh Dave, you've clearly never seen The Night Before or Johnny Mnemonic if you think Reeves was bad in this movie. And then there's Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure....though some cult movie followers might disagree with me there.