Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Klaatu to Earth: You're Not as Nice as Us, So We're Going to Kill You

Over the holidays, I found myself on my own while the wife and kids were out doing their last-minute Christmas shopping, so I decided to go to the movies. Wintertime, as we all know, is a rough season for the theaters. All the summer blockbusters have come and gone, leaving pretty slim pickings for moviegoers. In my case, I ended up unenthusiastically buying a ticket for the Keanu Reeves remake of the 1950s classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

To those who haven’t bothered to see the film yet, let me say: Don’t.

The film is less a remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” than a rehashing of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” with better special effects. I’m serious. In P9, the aliens were out to destroy us all because we had snubbed their attempts to reach out to us. In TDTESS, the aliens want to destroy us because we don’t take better care of our planet. “Environmentalist Whackos from Outer Space” would have been a better title.

What’s most surprising is just how little the film has to do with the original. Sure, there’s an alien named Klaatu, and there’s a big, scary robot, and the alien announces he has a message for the UN, but, apart from that, the remake has absolutely nothing to do with the original. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the original wasn’t all that great a film, even by 1950s standards. But the purpose behind making a new version of an older movie really ought to have something to do with improving the original or restating and enhancing its central theme, not simply slapping any old piece of garbage up on the screen just to make a buck, which is all that TDTESS ever sets out to do.

Instead, what we have is ninety minutes of cinematic muck that in many ways is even dumber than the original. Anyone expecting the film to hinge on the famous line “Klaatu barada nikto” is likely in for a shock.

In a nutshell, here’s the story: It begins in the 1920s, when a mountain climber (played by the illustrious Keanu R), camped for the night in his tent on some Himalayan mountain, has an encounter with a strange, otherworldly object—a large spherical device shimmering with an eerie glow. He touches it, which sets off a blinding flash. He awakens to find the object gone, but with a circular scar on his hand. Cue mysterious, suspenseful music.

Cut—don’t ask why—to the present day. A scientist, played by the lovely Jennifer Connelly, gets a phone call one evening from a stranger, who, in typical cinematic aplomb, says her presence is urgently needed. Before she can even hang up the phone, the FBI is already at her door, who whisk her away to some secret governmental command post. Ms. JC, along with a rather eclectic group of scientists (JC is a biologist; there’s even a linguist among them), are told that a mysterious object from space has been sighted, on a collision course with Earth, and that if it strikes, all life on the planet will be wiped out. (If that’s so, one wonders just what the Govt expects a biologist and a linguist to do about it.) At this point, the rest of the story unfolds like a series of randomly flipped cards: The object from space doesn’t collide with Earth, but instead slows and lands in Central Park; a spaceman (Keanu R) climbs out, announcing that his name is Klaatu; he is immediately shot by a trigger-happy soldier (the idea that soldiers are merely a bunch of thugs hell-bent of shooting first and asking questions later seems to be one of the central themes of the film—no kidding); Klaatu is captured, where he is quickly carted off for emergency surgery, followed by—mais bien sur—governmental interrogation; Klaatu escapes the secret governmental facility; biologist JC finds him, where she discovers his secret: he hasn’t been sent to deliver a message, but to destroy us all. Why? Because we, the dominant species of the planet, are at risk of wiping out all other species, and, according to the aliens who have sent the harbinger Klaatu, that just ain’t kosher.

Biologist JC then sets out to convince Klaatu not to destroy the human race. To do this, she calls for assistance from a Nobel prize-winning scientist, played by, of all people, John Cleese. Yes, that’s right. John “this parrot is most definitely deceased” Cleese, who manages to win Klaatu over to our side with this little tidbit of evolutionary fancy: in order to evolve, mankind needs a moment of crisis that will force us to take the next step up the rung of evolution; the aliens have given us that moment of crisis—now what they need to do is give us the chance to evolve. Just how making an evolutionary advance will make us more moral creatures (the kind that aid our fellow species rather than drive their extinction), the film doesn’t say. But it doesn’t need to—or, at least, it doesn’t bother. The ninety minutes concluded and the moviegoer sufficiently scalped of his nine bucks, the film ends.

Such is the Hollywood variant of evolutionary theory. Evolution is reactive. It occurs because some event makes an evolutionary advance necessary. Consider Kevin Costner’s wonderfully awful “Waterworld,” which depicts an inundated Earth, presumably as a result of global warming having melted the polar ice caps. Humanity survives afloat on ships, buoys, oil tankers, and whatever else they can find. In such a world, wouldn’t people get around much more easily if they developed thicker webbing between their fingers and toes? And wouldn’t they be able to swim more efficiently if they developed gills behind their ears? Enter Kevin, who has acquired just those characteristics. The environment triggers the need, and the need affects our evolution.

A more extreme yet equally insipid example is “A Sound of Thunder,” starring, I kid you not, Sir Ben Kingsley. A time-travelling explorer hunting dinosaur in the Jurassic inadvertently steps on a butterfly. When he returns to his own time, he finds the Earth completely changed. The environment has been completely altered, and human beings, rather than evolving from apes, evolve from some other species, and look like giant mole rats with long legs, slit eyes, and Fu Manchu mustaches. Reactive evolution strikes once again.

Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Even if evolution is true, that doesn’t mean evolutionary advancement occurs because environment necessitates it. Faster cheetahs don’t develop because faster okapi appear; faster cheetahs develop because the faster ones have a biological advantage over the slower ones in as much as they are better capable of catching okapi. The slower ones catch fewer okapi, which over time causes them to breed less and ultimately to die out.

What’s ironic is that those who say they believe in evolution often end up arguing for the reactive sort. Recently, I saw a program on the Discovery Channel about wooly mammoths, which actually argued that the cool climate of the Ice Age is what caused the mammoth to develop its shaggy coat. Sure. And that’s how the camel got its hump, too.

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