by Cindy White
In 1995, THE ORIGINAL 1951 VERSION OF The Day the Earth Stood Still was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry as a "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" film. It's consistently listed as one of the best science fiction films of all time. Author and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke even ranked it above his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So why mess with something so revered, so iconic, that even those who've never seen the film can recognize the image of the sleek, metallic robot behemoth Gort or the familiar phrase "Klaatu barada nikto?" What makes this moment in time right for a reboot?
In a press conference on the set of the film in Vancouver last February, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) made the case for a remake based on the very thing that made the original so seminal - its timeliness.
"I don't think there is any greater argument for remaking the original than the fact that the original was such a product of its time," Derrickson says. "We are in a different time. Retelling this story and updating it for this time period is really a worthy venture. The combination of both the meaning of it, the aesthetic and cinematic possibilities of it were so rich. At the same time, we have a big movie here that people are going to go see. It has a certain arc, and it is satisfying. It was not a hard choice to do it."
The key to making a successful remake, according to Derrickson, is to respect the original while also offering something fresh and relevant for today's audience. He believes the appeal of The Day the Earth Stood Still lies in its thoughtful approach to the message and metaphor at its center.
"It was one of the first films that brought intelligence and legitimacy to science fiction," he says. "It came out at a time when sci-fi was less respected and less intelligent. The other thing is that it was a film of its time period and reflected on the events of the time. It was such a fantastic statement on the global situation."
Before going any further, a quick history lesson might help in understanding the zeitgeist of the era in which the 1951 film was produced. In the period between the end of World War II and the height of the Cold War, there was a strong xenophobic sentiment in the country, and the threat of atomic warfare was very real in the minds of the American public. That mood was captured in an allegorical form by director Robert Wise and screenwriter Edmund North in the simple story of an alien who arrives on Earth to warn the human race that it had better make peace with itself or it face destruction by order of the rest of the universe. Michael Rennie starred as the "spaceman" messenger Klaatu, alongside Patricia Neal as a secretary who lives in the boarding house where he takes up residence in order to get to know the people of Earth a little better.
In the new film, Keanu Reeves takes over for Rennie in the role of Klaatu. He says that his version of the character is a little less warm and fuzzy than Rennie's. "In the original, Klaatu is the nice guy that carried a big stick," Reeves says. "I am not such a nice guy. Well, I am a nice guy. But I am more sinister .... Klaatu had this wonderful sort of ease about him. He had this quality to him. You believed his naturalistic bemusement. And also his frustrations."
There's also a difference in the nature of the forms the aliens take. While the 1951 Klaatu appeared in human form from the start, this time he doesn't start out that way at all. As in the first film, he emerges from the spaceship in the middle of a park (it's Central Park now), but he has not yet taken on a recognizable form. In the scene being filmed on the day of the press conference, Reeves lies contained within a cylindrical medical chamber sometime after Klaatu has taken human form. He is being closely observed by Jennifer Connelly's character, Dr. Helen Benson. After he appears to recognize her, she introduces herself to him and tells him that there is "nothing to fear." He repeats in a flat, slightly eerie tone, "Nothing to fear."
Later on, in the press conference, held on a stage containing the Central Park landing site, Reeves supports Derrickson's explanation of the popularity of the original, and why it still applies today. "What you guys are talking about is what made this film a classic of its time," Reeves says. "It was classic, yet it attempted to transcend that. And that's where I came onto it in terms of wanting to take that classic and remake it for our times. We all have the same ambitions and hopes. That is why I was attracted to it."
For her part, Connelly admits that she didn't put as much thought into it as her co-star and director. She was content to trust the vision of the filmmakers. "I don't have anything nearly as heady to say about the whole thing," she says. "I just thought it was a great idea to do it. I love the original film. I think in terms of performances, Patricia Neal was so fabulous. I loved seeing this science fiction film that everyone was so committed to. Everyone took it very seriously, and it was really effective as a drama. I thought it was a beautifully made film. At the same time, it is really fun. It has all of these different elements going on. And I love how Scott and Erwin have contemporized it. I love how it became relevant to us today. I found that very interesting and intriguing."
Of all the characters, it is Helen who is the least recognizable from the first film. She's had a feminist makeover in terms of her career. She's no longer a secretary on the periphery of the story, caught up in the action only because of her proximate relationship to the incognito Klaatu. Now she's an accomplished microbiologist from Princeton University who is brought in to study him. "My character has been reconfigured so much," Connelly says. "In terms of my vocation and what I do, I have a very different job in this version of it. To me, she feels quite different from Patricia Neal's character. It is really a departure. But at the same time, I aspire not to disappoint people. I have much respect for what she did."
One of the aspects that remains the same is her status as a mom, although in this one she is a stepmother to a rebellious 8-year-old, played by Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith). The mother-son relationship was expanded to become a "story within a story," as Connelly describes it. "They have a little bit of turbulence in their relationship," Connelly says of the characters. "And it has come to a crisis point. Something has to shift. Something has to move. We have a lot of scenes that are filled with tension, and they resolve a difficult thing. You want to hope that they will work it out. And that there will be a transition. It is a difficult balance to hit. To have a kid that can create that. To have a kid that isn't getting along with his mom, and he throws the occasional fit, but to also like this kid. And to have trust in him. Jaden is so charming. And so interesting. And so beautiful. You really want to root for him, and you really want to like him. He has that beautiful quality to him. He is a huge asset. You just love him."
The family dynamics weren't the only difficult part of the production for Derrickson. The Day the Earth Stood Still has become a touchstone for many of the science fiction films that came after it. So not only did the director have to contend with the familiar, almost cliched, images associated with the source material, but he also had to find a departure from all the subsequent films influenced by it. "It has been difficult," he admits. "There were a lot of conversations about what we wouldn't do. We had to take a lot of the familiar science fiction staples and a lot of the technological ideas and remove them. We couldn't do certain things, so we had to ask ourselves, 'What would we do instead?' I do think we came up with some really fresh and innovative ideas. The film doesn't feel like it belongs [in the past]. I think if we do this the way we are doing it, it will feel connected to the original, but it is not going to feel very connected to the films that were inspired ,by the original. Because it is definitely a retelling of that story,"
One of the most significant debates was over the use of the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto." The first draft of the script did not, in fact, include the line at all. That's when Reeves stepped in. "That was actually something that wasn't in the script, and I said, 'You've got to have that,'" he said. Thanks to Reeves, the line can now be heard in the film, although in a context he describes as "inverted." Derrickson believes that Reeves' instinct was right on. "Keanu was the one that said, 'You've got to have that in there.' And we agreed. You do have to have that in there. It's the line. Yeah."
One thing Derrickson wanted to avoid was making a film that relied too heavily on technology as both a thematic and a formal element. His focus was on oldfashioned storytelling with a message about where we are as a society. In that way, his goals weren't all that different from Wise.
"I did want to avoid making a movie about technology," he said. "I think that science fiction, certainly for the last number of decades, has been focused on that. It doesn't all have to be high-tech. We didn't want to take our current technology and carry it to the furthest lengths of our imagination. We went in the direction that we should take technology seriously, biologically and ecologically. We had to think of it in more realistic terms, yet apply it to a more advanced civilization. We've moved beyond hardware. I think that spawned a lot of interesting concepts in the film. That is where this film, as a science fiction film, has its most uniqueness. We are saying something those other films might not have said."