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Still standing still
December 18, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Why are so many actors who play super-powered visitors to our planet named Reeve —or something that sounds similar? Pure coincidence? Or is that the word for alien in their language?
Questions like that floated across my mind last weekend as I sat in a movie theater waiting for Keanu Reeves’ new version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to stop standing still and do something. It was a long wait. It gave me enough time to realize the end of the world just isn’t what it used to be.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” went on to be the weekend winner at the box office, making about $31 million. That was probably close to $31 million more than the original made when it opened in 1951.
In those days, sci-fi fantasy was a staple at the drive-in, where, everyone knew, the real entertainment didn’t have much to do with watching the movie. This one was a sci-fi parable in which an alien from outer space and his big robot bring things to a standstill on the blue planet.
Watching the new version, it was hard not to think it had probably been more fun in 1951. Special effects weren’t so special back then and people watching movies had to rely more on their imaginations to connect the dots.
With his shadowy cheekbones like mounds and craters on the moon, actor Michael Rennie’s face didn’t require much makeup to make him look like a visitor from outer space. Sixty years later, Reeves accomplishes the same effect, basically by showing no emotion whatsoever. The jury’s still out whether this was intentional or not.
In 1951, between the Cold War, the atomic bomb and various rumors about little green men from Mars, the end of the world was something pretty definite. It was so, uh, final.
These days, when it comes to paranoia and impending doom, the question at the neighborhood megaplex is how did they do it this week?
Reeves plays Klaatu. He’s an alien but looks enough like a normal guy to pretend he is one and slip unnoticed among us. Don’t you hate it when that happens? It causes you to start taking second looks at some people you know.
The good news is that Klaatu’s here to save the Earth.
The bad news is that he’s here to save it from us.
Apparently, we haven’t learned much since 1951.
Klaatu’s mission in the original was to bring word that life elsewhere in space had evolved beyond war. If the bickering earthlings couldn’t get with the program, those outer space folks were ready to blow our planet off the face of the, well, whatever.
This time, the list of perils we face has expanded beyond war to include environmental catastrophe, even if Al Gore seems a better messenger than some stranger from another planet to deliver the warning.
The film’s original message still feels relevant. When the space ship sets down — the location has been moved from Washington, D.C., to Central Park — Defense Secretary Kathy Bates’ reaction is to send a bunch of tanks and Humvees over. We welcome the alien to our planet by shooting him.
Besides his original mission, Reeves’ task is to see how much chemistry he can avoid creating between himself and Jennifer Connelly, the research doctor who saves him, and her young stepson.
The potential for emotion is there at every twist and turn. As he moves among the humans, the alien is supposedly discovering that there’s something about them worth saving. But you get to the final frame still wondering what it was, and thinking you must have missed that part.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a curious movie to release at this time of year, but then again, the year itself has been pretty curious. Particular images from the film, not just of the military firing ineffectually at a target they can’t identify, but images of automobile assembly lines coming to a halt, resonate in ways the filmmakers never intended.
And this box office hit is at least as much fun as the uncomfortable dysfunctional family dynamics that “Four Christmases” has been passing off for comedy as the first hit of the holiday season.
But at this time of year, an alien from another planet is the last person we should be turning to to be reminded what it means to be human.
Maui Film Festival’s FirstLight screenings, continuing through Jan. 3 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center is a little like Klaatu. It, too, is all about wondering what it means to be human.
It may not come up with exact answers. But it’s got about 35 better ways of asking the question.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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