How Keanu Reeves survived The Day the Earth Stood Still.
By Peter Suderman, December 11, 2008
The traditional rap against Keanu Reeves is that he's a dull-eyed cardboard stand-up with the brains and personality of a department store mannequin. And it's true that his line readings are so flat they make one question the existence of a third dimension, and his eyes have all the sparkle and life of blocks of coal. His inscrutability is legendary, like the final digit of pi, or the rules governing Senate procedure. Watching him, the question that always comes to mind is not what's going on inside his head, but whether anything is at all. He's the actor's equivalent of a black hole, a distant and mysterious cinematic negative space.
Normally, in a top-tier movie star, these qualities would be cause for critical scorn. But listening to him calmly deliver one goofily cryptic line after another as the alien messenger Klaatu in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I couldn't help but wonder if Reeves's studied lack of affect does not have some unexpected benefits, or even a higher purpose. Perhaps he is not simply a clunky actor, but some new form of humanoid creature, a futuristic being who has evolved to be unswayed by the vagaries of emotion, the torment of feeling, the pain of intelligence. And perhaps ordinary humans might learn from his example: With his breathy monotone and his stiff gait, his effortless ability to coast from one illogical declaration to another without so much as a furrowed brow, he projects around him an impregnable fortress of Zen-like cool, a sort of protective barrier to sense and feeling.
Which, in the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, would no doubt be a helpful evolutionary development for anyone in the audience, for the movie is bereft of both. Director Scott Derrickson's remake of the classic alien invasion film is a crumbling dud of a sci-fi disaster flick that doesn't care enough about its environmental message to get it right, and doesn't care about humans — those in the movie or in the audience — at all.
Jennifer Connelly stars as Dr. Helen Benson, an astrobiologist who manages to avoid doing a single bit of astrobiology. One night after making dinner for her adopted son, Jacob (Jaden Smith, spawn of Will), she is whisked away by a convoy of stern-faced government agents to be part of an emergency team assigned to investigate an encroaching space object. That object turns out to be a giant glowing orb with an abstractly patterned, phase-shifting outer shell that appears to be displaying some sort of nifty screensaver. The orb plops down in central park, and out steps Klaatu, an alien who has taken human form (or the shape of Keanu Reeves, anyway). He's followed by GORT, a building-sized CGI robo-meanie who looks like a cross between a Cylon and The Iron Giant.
In the chaos of the landing, Klaatu is shot, then taken to a secure facility, where U.S. Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) questions him: "Is there an attack coming?" Klaatu ignores her question, escapes, and reveals that his alien origins give him the power to control technology: missile defense systems, cars, building security networks, even snack machines, one of which he mind-melds with in order to procure a tasty lunch. ("All your tuna sandwiches are belong to us?") More impressive is his ability to answer questions without really answering them. Benson asks, "What were you before you were human?" To which he simply responds: "Different." As Neo might say: Whoa.
What follows is an interminable stream of inane chases and hollow environmental philosophizing, as Klaatu hooks up with Benson and her son, and they debate, in the vaguest possible terms, whether or not the human race has a right to continue its existence. Give us the technology to treat the Earth better, pleas a scientist (John Cleese). But no, "The problem is not technology," Klaatu says, "You lack the will to change." Though by that point, you might start to feel the will to get up and leave.
Sadly, most moviegoers are not gifted with Reeves's uncanny natural ability to coolly surf waves of incomprehensibility, which means all who stay will have to face the full impact of the film's nonsense. The offenses start small: A bit of meaningless technobabble about an object traveling toward the Earth at "three times ten to the seventh meters per second" is followed by nods of super-serious agreement amongst scientists approaching the orb as they whisper to each other about "electrostatic interference." But more often than not, the film essentially admits it has no clue what's going on. Twice, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is directly asked just that question — not specifically, but in a very general sense — and twice she responds with a mystified shrug. Sometimes, screenwriter David Scarpa has his characters engage in delaying tactics, promising to explain things later. "All will be explained en route," a generically square-jawed government agent tells Connelly when he recruits her, only to reveal a few minutes later that he, also, has no clue. Unsurprisingly, Klaatu is of no help either: when asked "what's going to happen to us" near the end of the film, he responds with half-hearted curiosity: "I was just wondering that myself," though you get the sense he's really just wishing he'd grabbed another tuna sandwich.
Still, nothing's as cryptic as the movie's explanation of its science. After the military captures GORT and takes him to an underground facility, an officer asks whether it's a machine or a living thing. The reply? "It's both. It's neither." (Which, funny enough, is also my response to the question of whether is intentionally bewildering or just plain dumb.) Turns out GORT is composed of a nearly infinite number of nasty nanotech bugs which have been programmed to destroy all human civilization while leaving the rest of the planet intact. In the final act, he breaks apart and swarms toward New York City, taking out Giants Stadium like a storm of superpowered termites. Good blockbusters always show audiences something new, and here, you can't fault it: It's the first movie to feature a hive of enviro-socialist alien nano-goo as its villain.
The movie's environmentalism is as wretched as its script is dumb, essentially positing that humanity might deserve to be wiped out for failing, in some totally unexplained way, to take care of the planet. It's a dismal message in a dismal movie, and only Reeves's trance-like, deadpan turn as Klaatu provides any fun. Everyone else involved ought to be embarrassed at both the story and the message, which isn't just pro-environment, but anti-human — which may explain why only an evolved being like Reeves survives unscathed.