If only aliens were this gorgeous...
by Elaine Lipworth
THIS film is a cautionary tale about human survival on the precipice and our relationship to the planet.” So says Keanu Reeves, discussing the riveting new movie The Day the Earth Stood Still from director Scott Derrickson. (The film opens in Philippine theaters next week—Ed.) “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 behavior.” The original film, directed by Robert Wise, dealt with the Cold War and the nuclear threat. Becoming a sci-fi classic, it was a movie of its time. Compelling, it also delivered a pertinent message about the lack of international cooperation and the subsequent dangers. The new film is equally thrilling and equally relevant.
Like the best science fiction, it is entertaining but at the same time it is meaningful, reflective and ultimately optimistic, combining great acting with spectacle, visual effects and nail-biting drama. For those familiar with the 1951 film starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, the basic story line is similar, though the reinvention is fresh and innovative, with complex characterization and all the benefits of contemporary film technology.
Klaatu (Reeves), an alien in human form, arrives on Earth with a giant robot, Gort, in order to warn us that unless we make drastic changes, our very existence is in jeopardy. Jennifer Connelly portrays a scientist ordered to investigate Klaatu’s presence on the planet and find out whether his arrival is the prelude to an extraterrestrial attack. Kathy Bates plays a senior ranking government minister, and John Cleese and Jon Hamm also star.
Intelligent, talented and versatile, Reeves is a bona fide movie star but also a consummate actor who has always forged his own highly individual path, never allowing himself to be pigeonholed by Hollywood. Studying Shakespeare at drama school and working in theater, he displayed his skills early on in his film career with riveting performances in River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho. He was catapulted into the limelight in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as well as Point Break.
Reeves has constantly sought challenge and variety in his work. Speed cemented his position as an action star; Much Ado About Nothing and Little Buddha proved his range as a serious dramatic actor. And The Matrix films (all massive blockbusters) continued his massive popularity with worldwide audiences.
Tall, handsome and stylish, dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and black blazer, Reeves sat down for the following interview in New York. Discussing his enthusiasm for The Day the Earth Stood Still, he also reflected on his love of science fiction, his career and his passions away from the big screen.
Were you familiar with the original film when you were approached about this one?
I loved the original. I saw it first when I was 14 or 15 on a black-and-white television. I might have seen it one other time growing up, and then I watched it when I was approached to do the remake. 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.
Sci-fi is a great arena in which to explore politics and social commentary. Was that part of the appeal for you?
Yes, it’s a Trojan horse, it is a vessel in which anything can be put into, whether it is social commentary, action or romance.
Why do you think that The Day the Earth Stood Still is so relevant now? Why was it the right time for a remake?
The 1951 film was looking at the Cold War and atomic weapons, the nuclear bomb and the separation of countries. It shows how Klaatu was trying to get an international meeting together with world leaders, and how that was impossible because of a lack of cooperation. You could not get everyone at the same table to talk. Klaatu was thinking to himself: “I can wipe you all out and you can’t sit at the same table together? How self-centered are you?” In our film, Klaatu is making a judgment about whether the human species will live or die, although it is much more than an eco message. Klaatu says: “Your backs are against the wall, you have to change the way you are or cease to exist.”
How does your portrayal differ from Michael Rennie’s Klaatu?
In the original, Michael Rennie’s Klaatu came to Earth quite human. In our story he is quite alien, though also in a human body. So I tried to give my Klaatu an objective detachment. My eyes look more amorphous, perhaps, and a little less connected to my body. It is more as though I am inhabiting my body.
How challenging was this role physically for you, playing an alien?
In the early part of the film, he is more alien than human. I guess a large part of the story is about whether this entity, this alien, will change its mind and how it becomes more human and starts to relate to humans. So we decided that in the beginning, he should just be very different. That involved having no natural human gestures or behavioral signs, but appearing more flat and expressionless. He has a concentrated way of seeing the world. I found that physical aspect very challenging. I had to just try to be still and that can be an effort, trying not to move. I wasn’t like one of those street performers who stop still like a statue, but I did find that on a physical level, it was very hard. It felt as though there was a lot of compression. After a 15-hour shoot you want to jump around, take a bath, anything; I had to relax afterwards because while I was acting, it felt clenched all the time. But luckily, throughout the film, I got to slowly let that go.
What kind of personality do you give Klaatu?
The director, Scott Derrickson, was interested in making a big propulsive drama, and my Klaatu has a sinister edge to him. The original Klaatu was pretty affable; he had an open quality and a kind of bemusement. Because ours is a dramatic thriller, the director wanted my Klaatu to feel dangerous. So I was not trying to be warm and fuzzy but neutral and flat. It felt like I was always withholding, and I knew something you didn’t know.
Keanu, what is your view about life on other planets?
I’ve met people who have seen UFOs and experienced their cars shutting down; I don’t know anyone who has ever been abducted. But I imagine there must be life outside our planet. How could there not be? The universe is so vast. I guess a lot of people think to themselves: “I don’t believe in extraterrestrial life until I see evidence with my own eyes, and if aliens are here, why don’t they land in Central Park like my character does in the film? If they are here, then why don’t they show themselves?” But I think the idea that life doesn’t exist anywhere but here is crazy.
How did your love of science fiction begin?
It started when I was eight or nine. I played with Lego as a kid, I made spaceships, and I remember seeing Star Wars, which was amazing because I had never seen anything like it before. It was the adventure that I loved. It was another world.
Also, it was another version of cowboys and Indians in a way; I found the hero’s journey fun. I used to read a lot and escape into another world. It is interesting because as a young kid I thought science fiction was all about adventure, and then as I got older it became a little more intellectual until I got to (science-fiction writer) William Gibson, so it grew up with me.
As a kid I loved comic books, as well. I started with the really young stuff like Richie Rich and Archie; I remember reading them at summer camp. Later I got into Frank Miller (writer/director/comic book creator) and I loved the antiheroes Wolverine, The Dark Knight and the futuristic antihero Ronin, then (British comic book creator) Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Then I became interested in Japanese anime. I liked that whole idea of extension—going outside your own circumstances, your youthful body. Maybe it was the hero, the adventure, the flying machines, the imagination, and the idea of slaying some dragons, but I loved it all.
I have always loved sci-fi films—2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. I also loved The Lord of the Rings because that was science fiction moving into fantasy. I liked historical, mythical sci-fi that delves into the past, like King Arthur. To me, it was all enjoyable.
Is there a sci-fi character you would have liked to play but didn’t?
I have to admit I had a little actor envy when I didn’t get to play Wolverine (X-Men). I didn’t mind those claws and I liked his fortitude and his honor; I loved Frank Miller’s four-part series on Wolverine—that was pretty cool.
What do you enjoy reading these days?
I love reading. I have just finished In Search of Lost Time (by Marcel Proust), which was fantastic, and also the Rabbit Angstrom series (“The Four Novels” by John Updike: Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest). That was cool, reading literature looking at America over the past 40 years, post-World War II, the ’60s, how he felt about the Vietnam War. It examined how he felt about Kennedy, about race issues and growing up in America. Then it looked at the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s. It was amazing.
Have you gotten wiser with age, do you think?
I don’t know. I guess you get confronted with the same choices, and if you keep making the bad choice, you do not gain any wisdom; but when you get the same offer and you don’t make the bad choice anymore, then maybe you get wiser.
You are associated with “cool” style. How would you describe your style?
I like casual jeans and T-shirts, but I guess if I have a look, it is suits and T-shirts with a casual boot. I tend to like straighter Napoli silhouettes; they seem to be more flattering to me—but I like to have a suit that fits well because it’s much more comfortable. I’ve worked with Kiton, Costume National and Gucci once in a while.
Do you still play bass guitar with your band Dogstar?
No, the band broke up, but I loved playing with them over the years. I have some great memories; I really enjoyed the fraternity of playing with a band and the creative act of writing songs. And I really enjoy performing. I like to be on the road. There was a handful of gigs that were great, from our earliest shows in Hollywood, opening for Bon Jovi at The Forum in Los Angeles, to our show in San Francisco and traveling to Japan to perform. I would like to play again at some point.
Back to the film; what would you like audiences to come away with when they go to see The Day the Earth Stood Still?
I hope they are entertained and enjoy the film, and when they go back out into the world, that they have something to think about, to reflect upon, and, hopefully, the film will have some kind of positive impact.
What would your own ideal future look like?
I want the best for my friends and family, good work, a healthy relationship and some fun. My idea of fun? Spending time with friends, a little traveling, some good wine and a good book.