Director: Scott Derrickson
By Roderick Heath
This retooling of Robert Wise’s venerable 1951 model starts well, but quickly proves a wretched embarrassment. Wise’s film isn’t quite the cute and cuddly model of the nice alien school of scifi story it might seem. There’s a latent fascism in the conclusion that scifi writer and scholar David Wingrove once called the “cooperate or else” stream of genre morality in which someone of greater intelligence is always stepping in and laying down the law to us foolish humans. Yet there’s a reason Wise’s film is still considered one of the most adult of science fiction films: it engages with its core concepts with a far greater rigor and openness of mind and spirit than this overpriced piece of claptrap.
The general plot is still in play: Klaatu, an alien ambassador, arrives on Planet Earth to deliver a greeting and a warning. He’s shot on arrival, taken in hand by government spooks, escapes, and strikes up a friendship with a single mother and her son, who help him understand the species much better. In this remake, however, the mother, Helena Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is a biology professor (my homework was never quite like this, whoa whoa!), and her son is a step-child. Black, too—see, we’re touching all the PC bases here, noone can accuse us of being behind the times, nosireebob. One wonders why screenwriter David Scarpa neglected to make Helena an Islamic lesbian, too. Helena’s charge, Jacob (Jaden Smith), has issues because his daddy died in war (which one is skipped around, lest anyone think we’re being controversial here). He maintains the same frosty cynicism towards his stepmother that Dakota Fanning exhibited towards papa Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and makes equally as a good case for a return of spanking.
Michael Rennie’s Klaatu was agreeable—avuncular even—intelligent, and communicative, yet quietly superior and alien in a subtle fashion, like a tourist interacting with an environment he’d read a lot about but still found surprising. The new, unimproved Klaatu, embodied by Keanu Reeves with a “Look Ma, I’m acting!” crease in his glacial forehead, is a pushy jerk with the message of Al Gore (but less charisma, if that’s possible) and the methods of Adolf Hitler. For some reason, he’s set up a bunch of arks to save specimens of earth species so that he can sterilize the earth of its human infestation; the concept of a genome-specific disease that could kill off humans without affecting the rest of the planet is apparently beyond the grasp of these genius aliens. This poorly thought-through adaptation of a would-be timely thesis is foolish in several respects, most of all, in strict narrative terms, as the film illogically presents its aliens as having interacted with human society for decades and yet learnt nothing about their basic character, so that Klaatu’s genocidal plan can be interrupted by reconciliation between a mother and son that’s so ludicrously inept in scripting and acting it’s a wonder Klaatu doesn’t speed the apocalypse up.
The idea of rendering Klaatu as a more fundamentally alien being was a fair one, but it spends a great deal of time cribbing as many ideas from Starman as Wise’s film, and then rushes through the next two-thirds of the film as gaping holes in sense appear. It’s strange how the extraterrestrials go to so much effort to tailor their ambassador as a human for a visit of no greater length and meaning than a pest control visit, have him land out in the open, but don’t seem to have planned how to present a case or understand the beings he’s been sent to interact with, whereas that was specifically what Rennie’s Klaatu was all about. He was a creature who wanted to understand the world. Derrickson’s film reflects how much more of a cold, paranoid, self-loathing world we are today; this is partly critique, but also a very large part unconscious, because so much of the story’s worth has been sacrificed to swift efficiency of plot and sound-bite dialogue.
Of some initial interest is the translation of ’50s political paranoia into a peculiarly ’00s variety, with the government goons portrayed as a bunch of glowering, harrying thugs working with all the graceless, bullying style all these movie cops and soldiers have that’s supposed to be the mark of impressive efficiency, but only comes across as dispiriting. The situation is under the control of a Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates, collecting her paycheck with all the aplomb of an ice cream stand attendant impatient for a cigarette break) who does and says so many stupid things she exemplifies the definitive case for mankind’s obliteratation. Also of interest is an element of something close to a pantheistic ideal, as Klaatu expostulates a lifecycle view of life that entails nothing ever actually dying, only altering. But ideas have gone out the window by the time of a would-be suspense sequence in which army helicopters chase Klaatu, Helena, and Jacob, and Helena is snatched up by a guy on a bungee cord in a moment of laugh-out-loud silliness.
Most offensive and corrosive to the material is the way the original’s humanistic detail has been shorn away. In fact, humanistic detail seems to be more downright alien to the contemporary blockbuster and the people who make them than any number of spaceships. In Wise’s film, Helena and Jacob lived in a Washington boarding house that allowed for a droll stock-taking of human types living an everyday life (“People my foot, they’re Democrats!” Ah, Everett Sloan, where art thou?). Helena was romanced by an entirely normal, unsatisfying type of guy, an insurance salesman played by Hugh Marlowe. Here she has a platonic-or-something interaction with another scientist (John Hamm) that ends when he gets killed; nobody gives a damn by that point. In Wise’s film, the impact of Klaatu upon everyday life and the impact of everyday life on him was registered. No time for that here: the film apes those classic moments in old scifi films where we glimpse unrest and panic around the world on the TV, but there’s no engagement with the world outside the immediate narrative.
The original’s iconic encounter was between Klaatu and Einstein stand-in Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is rumbled by Klaatu’s superior gifts, is recreated pretty precisely, with Barnhardt now played by John Cleese. Not surprisingly, it’s the remake’s best moment. But the meaning of the encounter is spurned immediately. The original established mathematics as a universal language, an idea Spielberg took a step further in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where music, being both a mathematical form and a language form, bridged the gap and laid the groundwork for an ideal of intellectual and philosophical, as opposed to mercenarily political, leadership. Here, Klaatu listens briefly to some Bach and drones, “It’s beautiful,” whilst looking vaguely constipated. You get the feeling that he, and the filmmakers, would rather be listening to Van Halen. Cleese’s Barnhardt, after mumbling a few pieties about change, tells Helena that she can alter Klaatu’s mission only with “herself.” The exact meaning of this is initially unclear—does he want her to go down on him (now there’s some human experience for you)—but what it really entails is that familiar New Age gasbaggery of letting your heart show the way, etc.
Derrickson’s scene construction, that basic A-B-C grammar of movies of which Hollywood is supposedly the starchy bastion, is woeful. One sequence, in which some drone aircraft are guided over New York to attack Gort with missiles, is utterly insensible at first, the loudest example of a basic carelessness in giving out information. Scenes come and go with no form of internal rhythm. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Gort, which is fair enough because the film only occasionally remembers to cut back to what’s going on with him. It’s not Lock Martin in foam rubber anymore, it’s a big clunky CGI version, and waiting for him to cut loose is the movie’s only hope. But he’s actually a huge collective of nanobots that disperse when apocalypse time comes, so rather than giant-robot-on-puny-human action, we get these swirly, windy effects, as a conveniently empty New York gets eaten up.
The film’s only signs of intelligent life come from Cleese, and a neat (if utterly senseless, in terms of writing and ethics) cameo from James Hong as another alien who reports that the human race is inflexible and must be destroyed, and yet also wants to die with it. Connelly remains a fair example of a competent, utterly unexciting talent elevated by her model looks to leading roles, essaying in Helena one of these drearily professional, cute-but-sexless drones that seems to be the only kind of mature, independent woman Hollywood keeps stock of. Reeves is an actor I’ve remained neutral on for a long time, out of respect for the real movies he once appeared in (River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho), but now I’ll come off the fence: he’s a fucking bore. All the deft, calm, elevated intelligence that Rennie possessed is lost in space and with it, the dramatic and moral heart of the film. Rather than fill me with hope, this remake makes me ashamed of my species.