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Blu-ray Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still

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I don't envy anyone who must attempt a remake of a classic film. And especially with sci-fi, because it's too easy to run afoul of obsessive types who have probably memorized whole passages of the film, analyzed it shot-by-shot to look for production gaffes, and have probably fashioned their own robots and space suits in its honor. (And if there is not already a Gort flashlight tie-in, rest assured that industrious fans are probably already on that too.) So you're basically setting yourself up for failure by even trying. If its too much like the original then it "didn't bring anything new to the story", and if you did bring something new to the story then you "butchered a classic."

This isn't to completely let the recent Keanu Reeves blank-stare-a-thon that is The Day The Earth Stood Still off the hook, but more to keep everyone's expectations in check. This is a big-budget remake of a movie about (a) a great big robot named Gort capable of inflicting some damage, and (b) a humanesque ambassador sent to deliver the bad news that (c) humans are busy killing themselves, and the aliens will have none of that. So let's not get too precious about our refined sci-fi plot elements.

In fact, a couple of the main criticisms of this film are, on closer inspection, actually very much in keeping with the original. Yes, on this movie they did get all earth-friendly, making the danger that we're inflicting on ourselves an ecological one that's damaging our planet. But in fairness, it is far more subtle than the original's admonition of "No Nukes!" As the screenwriter points out on the commentary track, The Day The Earth Stood Still is very much a message film. That was the whole plot and point of the original, and it's silly to expect that you'd have the same story without it. Granted the subtlety is managed with far less grace than the original – some genuinely silly lines in this update shine brighter than Gort's laser eye – but it's a necessary element that carried over reasonably well, all other alternatives considered.

Overall, the acting and the visual effects are well done. Although Keanu Reeves isn't exactly a national acting treasure, I will grant that he can play a fairly effective robotic alien. Jennifer Connelly is quite good as the scientist/mother who is trying to convince Klaatu that we're worth saving, and Jaden Smith as her stepson is appropriately  bratty. Although the pacing is often rather slow for an action movie, this also is very much a carryover from the original, which was primarily a human drama that just happened to have a sci-fi underlying story. The update naturally turns up the special effects knobs a few turns, but it still keeps this core of a drama.

That said, there are some problems with this version. Surprisingly, the weak acting link in the cast is Kathy Bates as the suspicious Secretary of Defense, who gives an awkward and wooden performance. Some of the dialogue is indeed groan-worthy, which is a shame because overall the script isn't too bad, and those few spots really drag down what could have been a more-than-decent explosion-fest. Gort was also a bit cartoonish in his opening moments, which broke the style that had been established. And the entire closing act is a bit anti-climatic, although not terrible either.

Taken as a whole, this remake does some things right, while also not rising above the pack of remakes. Those expecting a breakneck adrenaline ride of robots and explosions will be disappointed, but also missing the point (as they've obviously not seen the original). It's a decent film that seemed to unjustly became the whipping dog of reviewers upon its release. It's neither bad nor great, and is at least worth a look for Netflixers and fans of the original classic version.

On a technical level, this is an excellent Blu-ray in both the audio and visual departments. The picture receives an excellent transfer, with a sharp, crisp picture, excellent black levels, and a rich yet moody color palette. The audio is equally impressive, with a robust 5.1 DTS HD track that makes full use of the surround sound field. If nothing else, this is a great title to show off both Blu-ray and a good home theater setup.

Bonus features for the disc include both throwaway and interesting items. The commentary track by screenwriter David Scarpa is interesting, detailing some of the challenges and ideas that were batted around while coming up with this new film adaptation. A picture-in-picture track called "Klaatu's Unseen Artifacts" shows an inset window of rough special effect sequences and concept art as the movie plays. There are a scant three deleted scenes included, all of which total less than two minutes and should have been included in the film. A bonus item called "Build Your Own Gort" lets you do just that by mixing and matching some rejected concept renderings of heads, torsos and legs to… well, you get the idea. Still photo galleries are also included with a large amount of promotional and concept artwork.

There are several featurettes included with the disc. The main one is a half-hour special entitled "Re-imagining The Day." It's half throwaway promotional fluff, and half interesting tidbits about making the movie and adapting the original. "Unleashing Gort" is a look at the challenge of trying to remake a classic robot of sci-fi. "Watching The Skies: In Search of Extraterrestrial Life" is mostly non-movie related, as it collects scientists, SETI representatives and experts on extraterrestrial research discussing our interest in and history with the search for life outside our sphere. "The Day The Earth Was 'Green'" is a rather self-congratulatory feature on how the crew went all green on us while making the film.

Among the extra discs in the set is the ultimate gem: a Blu-ray copy of the original 1951 classic. For a film that's nearly sixty years old, this looks remarkably solid. Not only does the original sport some very stylish cinematography, but the transfer looks amazingly good. Detail of the picture is sharp and clear, and the soundtrack has been boosted to a (modest) 5.1 mix, the main benefit of which is to better enjoy Bernard Herrmann's classic musical score. Theremins, Ho! This is actually the same presentation from the retail Blu-ray version, with the exception that this disc is only the movie; there are none of the many bonus features included. So if you can do without the interviews and featurettes, this might be reason to switch to this two-in-one release.

The set also comes with a digital copy disc, usable on both PC and Mac computers. A nice convenience item, the portable version looks very nice. It's not perfect – you notice some occasional blocking and compression elements – but overall it's a very nice encode, and perfect for an iPod Touch-sized screen.

All told, this is a very nice set for a decent movie. Does the new version of the film have its flaws? Absolutely. Big-budget popcorn films generally do have their fair share. But is it horrible, and a disgrace to the original? Not in the least. And those who think so have a blind or over-sentamentalized memory of early sci-fi. In fact, The Day The Earth Stood Still seems reasonably balanced in its attempt to both update and remain faithful to the spirit of its predecessor. Easily a rental, and possibly a purchase if you were already wanting a copy of the original film as well.

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About David R Perry

  • You missed the problem with the message. In the original, Klaatu came to prevent a disaster. In the new one, he comes down to cause one. If they had been monitoring us for a while, why not come down before hand and warn us? If life is so precious in the universe, why did the aliens wait so long until they were forced to wipe out all humans? It’s a huge issue that destroys the plot.

    Also, as I’ve said in my review elsewhere, it’s hilarious to think nuclear war isn’t scary enough for modern audiences.

  • Matt,

    While I agree with you on one hand, I also think that creates a different problem with the original. In that the world isn’t in imminent danger, they just get lectured. So you have a movie with neutered action and tension to the story. Now granted, the new movie isn’t exactly a sterling example of how to remedy that. But I do think the two movies trade inefficiencies, and I don’t consider the original to be so “classic” as to be without fault.