As first encounters go, Robert Wise’s 1951 alien invasion flick set a sci-fi benchmark. It had an iconic robot, Gort, a flying saucer and an alien visitor who thawed the Cold War by warning us all to get along… or else.
It’s a genre classic – although arguably not a masterpiece. In other words, it’s ripe for a remake. This reboot pulls off one coup: its casting. Who better to play a spaced-out spaceman than blank-faced Keanu Reeves?
He lands in Central Park, gets shot by trigger-happy Marines then is whisked into government custody.
He looks weird, displaced, a true alien among us. It's a pleasing strangeness and colours the first half as director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) goes for maximum close encounter unease.
As the US government scrambles to deal with first contact, Jennifer Connelly’s astro-biologist is forcibly recruited by the military.
Derrickson clearly adores Independence Day-style doom, shooting his wad over military hardware straight out of Jane’s Defence Weekly, while morphing Gort into an enormous CGI homunculus with planet-destroying powers. Their guns are definitely bigger than ours.
Escaping from custody, Keanu’s Klaatu goes on the run with Connelly and her adopted son (Jaden Smith, skirting perilously close to mawkish). But, as Klaatu struggles with his conscience – should he destroy humanity to save the planet? – The Day The Earth Stood Still starts to feel like it got it's own internal struggles to resolve.
The problem lies with a script that feels redrafted one too many times in search of contemporary resonance from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina. And, while the CGI-heavy action set-pieces sometimes thrill (like Gort’s ‘flash chamber’ escape) they can't quite overcome some dubious Hollywood rewrites in search of a big ending.
The original was an anti-war parable with a messianic E.T. offering Christian undertones. Here Old Testament rage blots out the peace ’n’ love message as Gort unleashes a pestilential plague of ravenous nano-bots and Keanu unleashes sub-Matrix superpowers that blow helicopters out of the sky.
War is bad seems to be the official line. Yet this reboot would much rather shoot to kill than come in peace.