In the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, a pacifist extraterrestrial visitor scolds the people of Earth for their violent, warmongering ways. The rest of the universe, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warns us, is concerned about our discovery of atomic weapons, and stands ready to "eliminate" Earth if necessary. He gets shot twice for his troubles.
It's not easy being Klaatu. One gets the feeling, from the new The Day the Earth Stood Still, that getting the Earth assignment is a lousy gig for an alien overlord, the planetary exterminator's equivalent of getting the killer bee job. Those dumb, irrational Earthlings never learn, and the odds of being shot are better than even. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) does get shot. He also gets chased by helicopters, injected, interrogated, arrested, yelled at by a kid, hectored by Kathy Bates (in her capacity as US Secretary of Defense), driven to New Jersey, and taken to McDonald's. No wonder he's so grumpy. We Earthlings, as usual, do not acquit ourselves well, although we promise to change in the face of impending doom. Klaatu knows that's not change he can believe in.
On the Earthling defense team, there's a cute kid named Jacob (Jaden Smith), and his widowed mom Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist who helps Klaatu and tries to convince him that Earth is worth saving. Actually, it's not the planet Klaatu is here to dispatch, just its most destructive species. You gotta admit, he has a point about humans. Especially after they shoot him. Not that he gives us much of an argument for his radical environmental thesis, but the astrobiologist doesn't give him much of a counterargument. Neither does Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), the scientist Helen takes Klaatu to see after he complains that his "take me to your leader" request was denied. Barnhardt has a Nobel Prize for "altruistic biology," which sounds like the honorary degree you'd give an extremely smart dolphin. Barnhardt doesn't really have much to say to Klaatu by way of saving the human race, and pretty much punts it back to Helen. Cleese was a member of Monty Python, and played the irritable, misanthropic Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. It's lucky Klaatu didn't see that because he shows no signs of possessing a sense of humor.
Reeves, he of the preternatural calm (he could turn out to be an alien and no one would be surprised), shows little sign of any sort of emotional engagement with Klaatu's mission. Klaatu speaks very little (sometimes in Mandarin, always in a monotone). He looks bored, actually, as if this whole business is beneath him. He's like an intergalactic bureaucrat completing an assignment in the worst neighborhood in the Universe.
Unlike the original movie, this one is unlikely to become a classic. The first one was unlikely to become a classic too, I suppose, but it did. The 21st century iteration will not because, for one thing, it shockingly does not include the immortal line "Klaatu barada nikto." Written by David Scarpa, with dialogue that barely qualifies as such, and a pretty minimalist conception of its eco-theme, the movie wastes time explaining things nobody was wondering about, and tries to incorporate some timely finger-wagging about torture and counterproductive governmental bombastication and dunderheadedness, although to little effect. The Day the Earth Stood Still is directed by Scott Derrickson with an emphasis on action and special effects. There are a bunch of glowy orb things, and Klaatu has powers that enable him to move objects and manipulate energy. Gort, his giant enforcer-protector robot, is really rather awesome. Less inspiring are the far from subtle product placements dropped throughout the movie like a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back out into the mall: when the aliens come to consider our apocalypse-worthiness, let's hope they don't see this movie.
Unlike their Cold War era forebears, the new Klaatu and Gort are not here about all the wars and violence, but because of all the Hummers and oil refineries and stuff, so there's no conflict between their mission and all the killing and destruction and havoc they cause. Which is handy, because it means a lot of stuff can get blown up and disintegrated and smashed and consumed by biometallic insect swarms in The Day the Earth Stood Still, without Klaatu looking like an eco-warrior hypocrite. One might question his choice of a tuna sandwich for lunch, however. Maybe it was dolphin-safe tuna.