Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Director Scott Derrickson’s remake of the 1951 science fiction classic, the latest in the long line of shiny, CG-heavy remakes, might be attractive at first, but in the end it reveals itself to be less than worthy of its name.
By  · Published on December 12th, 2008

People hate remakes. Okay fine, only some people hate remakes. And before we get into talking about Hollywood’s latest rehash of a classic film, Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, lets create some one-way dialog around why people despise remakes. In general, it is my theory that so many of us find remakes to be unnecessary. Going a bit further, some remakes feel unnecessary because they fail to add any value to their predecessor. That, and quite often is the case that filmmakers waste a good opportunity to use technological advances and years of lessons learned to improve upon a film. To put it simply, the choke.

At the plate with The Day the Earth Stood Still is director Scott Derrickson, previously of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. With a script adaptation from The Last Castle scribe David Scarpa, Derrickson’s film brings back the familiar alien ambassador named Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, who comes down to Earth with his robot companion Gort, fresh of a bright and shiny CGI upgrade, to decide whether or not the human race’s destructive tendencies warrant their continued existence. And after conferring with another of his embedded alien agents, played by James Hong, the decide over some chicken McNuggets that the only way for Earth to survive is for humanity to be wiped out by killer alien wasps. Now it is up to a widowed astrobiologist and her stepson, played by Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith, to convince Klaatu that humans can change before he and Gort bring about the end of our species.

Now, that might sound like they’ve captured the general idea of Robert Wise’s 1951 original, and they did for the most part. But like any mediocre remake, they’ve changed just enough to put distance between this incarnation and fans of the original. Most notable of these changes is Gort. Sure, he looks really neat and modern with his big CGI upgrade, but it’s the way he is used — or under used — that takes him from being the centerpiece of the original to being a sideshow trick in the remake. When it comes time for Gort to step out and cause mass destruction he does little more than fade into dust. As a matter of personal taste, I was not a fan of the way Gort was used.

It was also clear that the remake was only half invested in illuminating the themes of the original. The role of Professor Barnhardt, played by the always magnificent John Cleese, is widdled down to a two minute monologue intended to replace Klaatu’s big speech at the end of the original. And while the tone of mass hysteria is set well in the early going, the scenes that focus on the military’s response to Gort and the Klaatu’s big spherical space ride are a little over the top — as in, I don’t think they intended for the military sergeant ordering the bombings on the sphere to come off like a bad R. Lee Ermy parody. But it did.

That said, there are some things to like with this round of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Keanu Reeves is well cast as Klaatu, delivering a very stiff, yet interesting performance. Few actors can really sell that uncomfortable in your own skin look as Reeves can, making him the right choice for the role.

The film’s effects, for the most part, are well done. Though it is important to note that while some of the effects look cool, the film really lacks a sense of scale. Never does the audience truly get sucked into the huge impending doom that is about to be bestowed upon Earth. When we look back to movies such as Independence Day, where though the action was taking place in a few select locations, we could really feel that the entire world was in danger. With TDESS, we only ever feel as if New York City, and maybe even the United States is in danger.

In the end this Day the Earth Stood Still is nothing more than a bright and shiny new toy that happens to share a name with a science fiction classic. It get the general idea of the first film but never goes further to unlock some of the themes and elements that made it great. As well, while acts one and two have solid pacing and succeed in engaging the audience, the ending falls flat on many levels. Instead of delivering its message and leaving its audience with thoughts to be had, it ends abruptly and with a lack of impact. It ends without ever taking advantage of the opportunity that it was afforded; the opportunity to give a classic a modern day upgrade without carving out its spirit, the opportunity to hit us hard with realizations about our own world. Instead it is just an effects-driven popcorn flick that is, to say the least, underwhelming.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)