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04.07.09

nag


AT THIS POINT, TRYING TO MAKE A DISTINCTION between art and propaganda is an esoteric argument, destined to elicit shrugs and eye-rolling anywhere you raise the question. Under the baleful influence of Michael Moore, documentaries have become mostly artless delivery systems for ideology, while Hollywood has long since devolved into an industry-sized version of the tenured radical, making "message films" that are little more than infomercials for what's basically official government policy.

In one of the production featurettes included with the DVD of  the new version of The Day The Earth Stood Still, we're told that Fox had basically been trying to remake the 1951 film starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie pretty much since the first version was in the theatres. It obviously took them awhile, but the well-tended popular anxiety about global warming and climate change obviously made for a timely swapping out of the early Cold War paranoia that inspired Robert Wise's original.

You know what kind of film you're in for early on, when the pair of scenes introducing Jennifer Connelly's character - an upgrade of Patricia Neal's single mother and war widow into an "astrobiologist" with an African-American stepson and a husband who was killed in Iraq - shows her students and academic peers as a rainbow coalition of races, as carefully chosen to reflect diversity as in an instructional video made by a government agency.

It's set in the sort of world that's obviously organized along equal opportunity legislature, right down to the choice of Kathy Bates to play the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Given the rule of thumb that the position is usually filled by a more badass version of the current president - Robert Gates for Obama, Rumsfeld for G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney for George H.W. Bush, George Marshall for Truman - you can't help but wonder who's filling the offstage and unseen role of the president, and I amused myself by imagining that the nation in peril in the world imagined by the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is led by president Holly Hunter.



The bare bones of the story don't depart materially from Wise's original until near the end - an alien spacecraft touches down in the middle of a major U.S. city, discharging a single humanoid passenger (Keanu Reeves' Klaatu) and his lethal robot bodyguard, Gort. The alien is met with predictable bureaucratic hostility, and manages to escape into the general population, where he's sheltered by a young woman and her son, still intent on delivering his simple message to humanity: shape up or die.

I won't add to the chorus of jokes that Reeves is uniquely suited to playing an emotionless alien, but he does it well, and his Klaatu is a lot more chilly - and powerful - than Rennie's alien in the original. As judge and jury of humanity in an intergalactic court, Reeves' Klaatu seems to have his mind made up before he's begun his job, and he ignores the pleas of everyone from Connelly to her scientific mentor (John Cleese in the role played by Sam Jaffe in the original) to a fellow alien investigator near the end of his decades-long observation mission to give humanity a second chance.

Director Scott Derrickson's film is a plodding piece of environmentalist propaganda, make no mistake, but it isn't near as dismal as The Day After Tomorrow, the Roland Emmerich film that will probably be seen one day as a major shot in the arm to global warming skepticism and backlash. Both films will likely be worth studying in the not-too distant future, though less for their cinematic qualities than as cultural artifacts left behind after the ebbing of another wave of social hysteria.



Global warming is never explicitly mentioned, but the Gaia theory underpins the whole of the alien case against the human parasites depleting Earth, and the dialogue is full of tipping points and other fashionable rhetoric. Humanity manages to escape alien-engineered extinction at the end, but I don't think I"m alone in finding the final scenes even bleaker than any apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise, as oil derricks stop pumping, lighting grids go down and assembly lines are abandoned after the aliens hit the kill switch on human technology as the price for their survival.

Like most of Hollywood's high-minded message stories, I can't help but wonder if anyone gave the ending much serious thought. The filmmakers obviously take the alien case that humans are a threat to the planet - a life-supporting ecosystem of such rarity in the universe that they feel that, as Reeves puts it to Connelly, humans have to die to save the planet. In the original film, humanity's nuclear breakthrough was judged by the alien inquisitors as more threatening to the universe, and Klaatu's mission was in the nature of a preemptive strike; in the intervening fifty years, Hollywood has obviously become far less impressed with nuclear capability, and has even come to disdain technology's transformative power, a richly ironic stance for an industry wedded to technological progress for its very survival.



Early in the film, Bates' secretary of defense reflects that less developed civilizations have never done particularly well after making contact with more developed ones, and with this in mind, I wonder why the people behind the film didn't think there'd be something sinister about an alien edict to force humans back into a pre-industrial age. If the mere rumour of an alien invasion was enough to throw the globe into economic and violent social turmoil, as Derrickson shows us whenever a character slumps in front of a TV screen or glances at a newspaper - what kind of bloody scenario will play out after we're all plunged overnight into the 14th century?

If the stark choice is "evolve or die," then what's more likely to happen when humanity is deprived of the technological means to accomplish the former - means that Klaatu and his fellow alien scolds obviously possess in abundance? With humans pauperized, one can only speculate about the world to come after the credits finish their roll at the end - a world that would be more likely to resemble Mars Attacks than anything else.

One of the bonus features included with the DVD is a document of all the steps taken to make The Day The Earth Stood Still the first "green" production in a new intitiative launched by Fox to do an environmental makeover of moviemaking. Sets and wardrobe are reused, paper output of scripts and production notes slashed, and set transportation given over to hybrid cars and biodiesel fuel in this rather self-satisfied hymn to conservation, but it's the asides attesting to the inherently wasteful nature of filmmaking that stick with you. Hollywood has loved to play the scold for many years now, but it's a bit of a revelation to learn that, while doing so, their industry was knowingly as wasteful and environmentally damaging, in their own estimate, as any other - perhaps even moreso.

One production worker recalls thinking a production she'd worked on several years ago was cheap for printing scripts on both sides of a page; anyone who's worked in movies or had their neighbourhood colonized by a location shoot will have stories to tell about the inherent wastefulness of a major film production. Several people admit that going green isn't actually cheaper than doing things the old way, but that they hope that economies of scale will make it more cost-effective. How, one wonders, will these economies of scale ramp up in the absence of the modern industrial wherewithall the film seems happy to imagine us being denied?

Finally, the film did have what seemed like one, brief, moment of clarity. In the original film, Rennie's Klaatu wants to go to the U.S. president with his dire ultimatum. In the remake, Reeves' Klaatu is intent on addressing the U.N., and is prevented from doing so by Bates, who would rather drug and interrogate him. After he escapes, Klaatu is still intent on talking to the U.N., but his rather retro plan (one wonders if Klaatu's superiors have spent too much time watching old movies) is dismissed by Connelly, who tells him that "they aren't our leaders!" It's the sole moment in the film that feels like it's about a world in which we recognizably inhabit.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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