Neither offensively bad nor particularly good, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" may be best remembered for the clumsiness of its intrusive product placement. Armageddon is brought to you courtesy of McDonald's and Honda. In one ludicrous shot, the corporate co-sponsors commingle their pitches, as the Golden Arches reflect gigantically against the Honda's windshield. "We're here," announces spaceman Keanu Reeves. Jennifer Connelly, at the steering wheel, helpfully responds, "McDonald's!" For not choking as she delivered that line, Connelly deserves a major award.
The film is based on the 1951 flying saucer classic that brought us gentle alien Klaatu and his laser-eyed guardian Gort, who come to our planet warning us humans to clean up our act or else. Nowadays they like to call these needless remakes a "re-imagining," but how much imagination does it take to cast Keanu Reeves as the E.T.? Can't you come up with a half-dozen more interesting choices just off the top of your head? Johnny Depp, Ralph Fiennes, Tim Roth, John Malkovich, Javier Bardem -- easy!
The rest of the film is equally inspiration-bereft, essentially laying a sheet of tracing paper over Robert Wise's film and copying the outlines. The Cold War original was a warning about nuclear annihilation, and this time the issue is ecological devastation. If this is thinking outside the box, it's a tiny box.
The film gives us Reeves in his two most distinctive acting modes, Beard Keanu and Clean-Shaven Keanu. Beard Keanu is making a solo ascent up an Indian mountain in 1928 when he encounters a glowing orb encased in ice. Clean-shaven Keanu arrives on the scene in the present day, after landing in a bigger orb and shedding a whale-blubber placenta to walk among humans unnoticed. "This body will take some getting used to," he monotones, and true to his prediction he never does master convincing facial expressions.
Like a poor man's Michael Rennie, Keanu dolefully observes inhumanity in action after escaping from a military base with space-biologist Connelly's help. Her spunky/adorable stepson (Jaden Smith) in tow, she tries to persuade him not to pull the plug on humanity. She even brings in John Cleese as her Nobel Prize-winning mentor to change Keanu's mind, but the visitor's logic is cold-bloodedly Vulcan: "If Earth dies, you die. If you die, Earth survives." Even a meeting with another resident alien at -- yes -- McDonald's fails to deter him from his mission. Meanwhile, Kathy Bates frowns as U.S. Defense Secretary Pantsuit McGravitas.
What you really want to know about is Gort, the robot bodyguard that was the coolest character in the first film. Well, he's a very tall computer-generated action figure, and he uses his eye-beam to knock down fighter jets and explode tanks. He sees a good deal more combat action than in the original "Day," but he's less mysterious and threatening. In the first film, we were warned that Gort could destroy our planet unless he received the shutdown code (all together now) "Klaatu Barada Nikto." Exactly how he would do his dirty work was left thrillingly unclear. Here, we see his destructive power unleashed, and it's kind of a letdown. All I'm gonna say is this: Space cooties. Lots of them.
The original "Day" looks quaint and cheap today, but the filmmakers compensated for its budget and special effects deficiencies with story and characters. The 2008 version disguises its story and character deficiencies with budget and special effects. Klaatu is right: We are not making progress.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186