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REVIEW

Klaatu returns to save Earth

This time, he's focused on our ecological habits in 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.'

December 12, 2008|KENNETH TURAN | MOVIE CRITIC

Keanu meets Klaatu. It could be a match made in heaven, or at least in a galaxy far, far away. Which is just what "The Day the Earth Stood Still" wants us to think.

This contemporary remake of the science-fiction classic knew what it was doing when it cast Keanu Reeves, the movies' greatest stone face since Buster Keaton, as a perplexed alien whose first words on Earth are, "This body will take some getting used to." When you want distant and disconnected, Reeves is your man.

The 1951 original offered the more genial Michael Rennie as the intergalactic visitor, a being arrived on Earth accompanied by giant robot companion Gort. Rennie's alien was a courtly individual with the charm of vintage James Bond, but Klaatu's temperament is not the only thing that has been changed in this enjoyable updating.

For one thing, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), the widow who is Klaatu's main human contact, has been elevated from mom to mom and astrobiologist. And imperturbable robot Gort has gone from a clunky 8 feet to a lithe and bulked-up 28 feet tall. Take it easy on those steroids, big guy!

The biggest change of all is the reason Klaatu and Gort are on Earth in the first place. No, it's not to take advantage of our weakened economic condition; it is, as it was the first time around, to warn us to mend our ways as a planet or face the consequences.

Coming as it did during the Cold War era, the 1951 "Day" was deeply concerned about the arms race, with Klaatu warning anyone who would listen that if the big powers threatened to extend nuclear arms to outer space, "Earth will be burnt to a cinder." Ouch.

Though nuclear weapons are hardly a settled issue even today, screenwriter David Scarpa and director Scott Derrickson have moved on to trendier issues. What Klaatu is irked at this time around is the way our bad ecological habits are killing the planet. "You treat the world," he says, not without reason, "as you treat each other." Ouch again.

Aside from Klaatu and Gort, the "Day" team claims to have retained the original's snappy catchphrase, "Klaatu barada nikto," but it's so hard to hear that viewers will be forgiven if they miss it. Also still around is the charming blackboard scene, in which Klaatu solves an equation for Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), a man smart enough to have won the nonexistent but indisputably high-minded Nobel Prize for biological altruism.

"Day" has also retained the B-picture feeling of the original, down to the U.S. Army's bellicose decision to fire on both Klaatu and Gort as soon as they set foot on American soil, a decision that has the same ruinous consequences today as it did in 1951. Doesn't anyone in the Pentagon go to the movies?

In charge of the military, and an advocate of the super-tough send-the-aliens-to-Guantanamo policy, is Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates doing Hillary Rodham Clinton). Heading up the touchy-feely contingent, which includes "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, is the always effective Connelly, who also has to contend with a stepson (Jaden Smith) who considers the aliens, well, alien.

It's hard to think of another actor, not even the David Bowie of "The Man Who Fell to Earth," who could convey as well as Reeves the stranger-in-a-strange-land aura of Klaatu. When he refuses to tell Helen Benson what his nonhuman form would be because "it would only frighten you," he chills the blood in the most pleasant way.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sci-fi disaster images and violence.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: In general release

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