Back to the future … but which one?
by Alison Rowat
Keanu Reeves believes there is life on other planets, but then you probably thought he might. If any movie star has a touch of the twilight zone about him, it is the man from The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic and A Scanner Darkly. Even when he's in a relatively conventional thriller, such as The Devil's Advocate with Al Pacino, the enigmatic Reeves comes across as the original actor who fell to Earth.
When it comes to Hollywood aliens, there's something about travelling vast distances across space and time that brings out either the preacher or the warmonger. Reeves describes the latest, eco-centric reworking of Harry Bates's original story as "a cautionary tale about human survival on the precipice and our relationship to the planet It's about the human character, human nature, the fact that it is only when our backs are up against the wall that we do anything to change our behaviour."
With great timing, or plain good luck, the movie arrives in cinemas just when America is looking forward to a new, Democratic president with, campaigners hope, a friendlier approach to the environment.
The 1951 film, like the other sci-fi movies that have endured to become classics, tried to be similarly of its time. In the 1950s, sci-fi movies dealt with the twin terrors of nuclear annihilation and communism. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space, The Blob, The War of the Worlds, Red Planet Mars - all were in one way or another about a fiendish threat to the western, capitalist way of life, with the monster at the drive-thru representing the communist at the gate.
Sixties sci-fi had a more hopeful, anything-goes air. With man actually setting foot on the moon, audiences were ready to see space as a new frontier offering endless possibilities. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey tried to convey the immense, almost religious, significance of life, the universe and the whole darn thing, while at the other end of the scale, the likes of Barbarella just wanted to have fun with hot chicks with big hair and even bigger guns.
In the 1970s, sci-fi films entered the disco age with Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bizarre costumes and crazy hairdos were obligatory. The hangover from the silly seventies was the nuclear war-obsessed eighties. Mad Max (1979-85), Blade Runner (1982), and The Terminator (1984) portrayed post-apocalyptic worlds no sane earthling would really want to inhabit.
It was around the early 1980s that a teenage Keanu Reeves watched the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still for the first time. "I loved it," he says. "I saw it first when I was 14 or 15 on a black and white television. I remember as a young boy enjoying the spectacle, the drama, the flying saucer, the scary music, the power when everything stopped in the world. But watching it again, I observed the sly, clever social commentary about the media and the world." In the new movie, it's the internet community, rather than the intelligence agencies, who are ahead of the story.
Sci-fi has always held a mirror up to the present as much as the future, with Reeves' pictures leading the way. The Matrix was the quintessential movie for the computer game and internet age. The messianic hero, Neo, wasn't a spaceman or a scientist, but a hacker. He came not from Nasa or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but from the mean streets of 1999. And the future he saw wasn't a pretty one.
From the 1990s onwards, sci-fi movies took a dim view in general of where the planet was heading. In Independence Day, the skies brought forth war. In Jurassic Park, monkeying around with science brought T-Rex rampaging back. By the beginning of the 21st century, the primary fear was either conflict (a new War of the Worlds) or machines taking over (I, Robot).
Today's sci-fi is obsessed not with the white hot heat of technology but the colour green. Film-makers either want to push a message about protecting the environment, or deliver a warning to scientists not to push the boundaries of progress too far, too fast. With Wall-E, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, I Am Legend and Sunshine, the sci-fi wheel has turned full circle back to the message-laden fifties.
"In our film," says Reeves, "Klaatu is making a judgment about whether the human species will live or die, although it is much more than an eco message."
It's also about power and how mankind must use it more responsibly, he adds. "It seems man has this extinction impulse and it looks at the big question of how we get around that. The film takes the position that fear on fear, compounding fear with more fear, isn't necessarily the best answer. We need compassion - the idea that we are all in this together somehow. We have to think globally, consider the impact we are having on each other and the planet. You know all you need is love."
Long before he came to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Reeves was a self-confessed sci-fi aficionado. As a child, his Lego invariably ended up as a spaceship. Seeing Star Wars was another milestone: "I had never seen anything like it before."
At the same time as reading sci-fi novels, Reeves was immersing himself in comic books, with Frank Miller a particular favourite. An interest in Wolverine, The Dark Knight, Ronin, and Watchmen led him on to Japanese anime. Mention of Wolverine, played in the X-Men movies by Hugh Jackman, brings on a touch of the green-eyed monster in the brown-eyed boy. "I have to admit I had a little actor envy when I did not get to play Wolverine," says the Bill and Ted star. Besides the very cool claws, he was drawn to the character's strength and sense of honour.
Wolverine also had a most excellent motorcycle, of course, which would have suited Reeves. The proud owner of three Norton Commandos and a West Side Chopper likes to feel the wind in his hair. "I love the physical aspect and the way you get to enjoy landscapes."
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Reeves's character prefers another mode of travel. A world away from a fifties-style flying saucer, it is in keeping with the picture's message while being ahead of its time. With much of science fiction becoming fact, and news travelling so fast, sci-fi movies have to work harder to impress and appear relevant.
Who knows? Given the global economic crisis, the next space cowboys to arrive might do so by public transport, or in a giant, souped-up Prius. Stranger things have happened in movies when the heavens have met the Earth.