This may sound silly, but there's no way that The Day The Earth Stood Still would exist today in any sort of proverbial vacuum. To get the most obvious reason out of the way, we wouldn't have the 1951 original to lift from, in which an extraterrestrial visitor advises Earthlings to knock off their paranoid Cold War aggression, or else. Secondly, this incarnation is so transparently indebted to the likes of Twentieth Century Fox's other PG-13 sci-fi actioners, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, that it's hard to imagine the same studio putting out this film first. Better yet, try seeing this particular re-imagining come about without the success of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds bolstering the profile of other '50s sci-fi efforts (new variations on Forbidden Planet and When Worlds Collide loom still on the horizon).
No, I'm afraid that it was fated to be that the Earth would stand still once more, albeit in Manhattan instead of Washington D.C., because that's how Roland Emmerich would've done it, and with a robotic threat adjusted from the height of Yao Ming to something several stories taller. Who needs flying saucers when giant orbs will do? And why bother with a pesky still-relevant message against the tolls of war when environmental concerns are all the rage? If anything, TDTESS '08 shares most characteristics with the aforementioned metallic menace: it's sleek, loud and incapable of expressing emotion beyond some big booms. In an opening act comparatively brisk so far as recent big-budget disaster fare goes, Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is whisked away from preparing dinner for her stepson (an exceedingly bratty Jaden Smith) by a fleet of government vehicles to a nearby military base, where her and other scientists are briefed on the approach of an object speeding through space and towards Manhattan. Despite calculating that any object approaching the area at such a speed would leave only dust in its aftermath, Benson and her fellow brainiacs head right into the target area, where (luckily for them) a glowing sphere comes to a slow and relatively smooth stop smack dab in Central Park. One being comes out of the orb; one errant bullet goes into the being -- that's first contact, America style, folks.
It's an introduction that goes as botched as it had in the original film, yet what took ten minutes there takes twenty-five minutes here. Do we need a prologue to reveal just when, where, and how this visitor decided to take on the form of actor Keanu Reeves? Nope. Do we need to see Dr. Benson in a classroom environment to believe she's every bit the astrobiologist she claims to be later on? Not really. But this is 2008, and even our running times have to adjust for inflation.
The spaceman is still named Klaatu, though, and he's still here to deliver an ultimatum, with a big, bad robot (assigned the military acronym of -- you guessed it -- Gort) sticking around in case the planet's population agrees to disagree. The message this time is one of eco-awareness (though never specifically Global Warming), as if addressing our current and continued conflicts as a species might be too hypocritical of a blockbuster dedicated to showcasing the destruction of Gort and his micro-mechanical termites from the hour mark on. (The effect of the latter, it should be said, might be as close as we'll get to a film adaptation of Michael Crichton's Prey.) If the modern audience wanted to be knocked for its aggressive tendencies on- and off-screen, Michael Haneke might've been hired to helm instead of Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
When Derrickson's not setting the scene with either blustery autumn leaves or a constant New Jersey fog, he effectively keeps the special effects pieces counter-balanced with more small-scale moments in which Klaatu, Dr. Benson and her moppet are on the run, as she sings like Saddam Hussein in the South Park movie that we can change, we can change -- just put the big bad 'bot away. None of her pleading cries and sobbing embraces hit home nearly as well as an early, brief scene in which a military officer finds Benson using a forbidden cell phone, only to turn around and beg to borrow it; it's perhaps the smallest scene around and yet strikes the biggest note of heartfelt characterization.
Reeves is no more the savior in a suit that he played in the Matrix films, even dropping the ominous pseudonym of "Carpenter" that Michael Rennie's Klaatu had employed. Rennie, though, at least bothered to be tickled by human reactions to his arrival and its significance; Reeves is an automaton on par with his Gort, sent on a mission with nothing but electro-magnetic manipulation and a blank face at his disposal. Connelly is believably logical in her efforts to present Earth's case to his soldier, when not making thuddingly obvious observations about how empty a highway is of its cars, or a field of its personnel.
As the requisite stern authority figure, Kathy Bates approaches any and all coming developments with a surprisingly keen awareness of biological protocols, though if she were more realistically ignorant of what repercussions Klaatu and his set of spheres might bring with it, we'd then be subjected to her stupid questions and some stupid answers. Maybe it's best off that we give her Secretary of Defense character the benefit of the doubt after all. Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") and John Cleese ("Monty Python") both appear as credible scientists who linger around to say just the right things and then take their leave, and Robert Knepper (Transporter 3) barks orders with the volatility that Bates wisely avoids on her part.
As a flashy big-budget distraction, Stood Still is adequate overall -- rarely above, occasionally below -- and often familiar in its spectacle. As a remake, it's equal parts missed opportunity and half-hearted update. Neither is worth standing up for, and the sum total is barely worth sitting still for. One can only imagine that Keanu himself might sit down to watch it and ask himself, "Where'd the whoa go?," because at the end of The Day, a true sense of awe might be the only thing that's out of this particular world.