Reeves otherworldly in The Day The Earth Stood Still
by Jamie Portman
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The Day The Earth Stood Still is a science-fiction movie about the need for humans to change before they completely destroy the planet.
Canada's Keanu Reeves is the star, playing a visiting alien named Klaatu who comes to earth to warn its inhabitants that they face annihilation unless they halt their mistreatment of the environment.
So, given the circumstances, the question seems an entirely appropriate one to ask Reeves in the course of a news conference.
Is there anything in himself that he would like to change?
"No, I'm perfect," Reeves replies without skipping a beat.
Reeves may have evolved into a superstar, but there are still occasional glimpses of the cheeky kid who used to show up at media sessions 20 years ago with greasy hair, motorcycle jacket and grime-encrusted jeans and tease reporters with flip and often uncommunicative answers.
He's looking more sedate today with his combed hair, carefully groomed beard and dark blazer. But as always, he's still a person of few words, with his colleagues at the table -- director Scott Derrickson and co-stars Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm -- doing far more talking today.
When a reporter asks them all what they're doing for the environment, Derrickson is quick to point out that he recycles garbage, installed a couple of solar panels in his home, and got rid of his SUV. Connelly also recycles, turns off light switches and drives a Prius.
There is no audible answer from Reeves -- although this doesn't mean he hasn't demonstrated his commitment to a greener planet. Two years ago, he and Alanis Morissette were co-narrators of The Great Warming, the impressive 2006 Canadian documentary about a planet in peril.
In The Day The Earth Stood Still, which opens Friday, the still boyish 44-year-old actor is reprising one of the most iconic characters in the annals of Hollywood science fiction. The film is a remake of legendary director Robert Wise's 1951 Cold War classic, still fondly remembered today and just reissued on DVD. That earlier film saw a grave and imposing Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, emerge from his space ship, accompanied by a giant robotic bodyguard named Gort, to plead the cause of peace and to warn humanity of dire consequences if they don't turn their backs on violence.
In the new version, scripted by David Scarpa, the focus has shifted to the environment, and humankind's systematic destruction of the planet. Reeves' emissary, who has assumed a human shape thanks to cloning techniques perfected back home, needs to be convinced that mankind is worth saving, and the only person who seems capable of doing the job of convincing him is a brilliant scientist and widowed mother played by Connelly.
Derrickson says he was skeptical about the project at first, noting that The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of his two favourite Robert Wise movies. (The other is The Haunting.) But then he saw value in an updated version dealing with a more contemporary social issue like the environment.
"It's been 57 years since the first one and you'd better have a good reason to remake a classic film," Derrickson says. "But I think there is something different about this film as opposed to other classics which are so much more known by the general movie-going audience, and I think there is a value to telling this story to a general movie-going population that, for the most part, won't have seen the original. They won't know that story. That was the motivation and the approach was to try to respect the original and respect the fan base and the fact that it is a sacred movie to a lot of people."
Reeves briefly adds that he had similar concerns at the beginning and then said OK: "It would be fun to play an alien and it's a worthwhile story and that's when I came onboard."
Furthermore, he was fascinated by the idea of playing someone who's not fully alien.
"That was part of the interesting side of the role . . . he starts alien and then becomes quite human."
But how did Reeves manage to retain some unworldly characteristics?
"It really came to me through the obligations of the character in the story. It was in the script. That's really where I worked from -- the character. There are certain cues. When he's born and the first time he starts to speak, he tries to drink a glass of water and says this body is going to take some getting used to. It was just the concept of his separation of his consciousness and his body. What else? I just approached it like any other role. What does it want?"
Reeves was more forthcoming several months ago in comments made to the film's unit publicist during shooting. "The situation has reached a crisis point where the life of the planet itself is at stake because humans are killing it," he said back then. "Klaatu comes to Earth to assess whether or not human beings are capable of changing their behaviour, or if the ‘problem' needs to be eliminated."
Meanwhile, Connelly says she felt a great sense of responsibility in taking on this project, not only because of the subject matter but because she would be attempting to fill the shoes of Patricia Neal, who starred in the original.
"She's aware of what the stakes are," Connelly says. "I liked Patricia Neal's character in the original -- she's open-minded and a very strong, freethinking individual. I thought it was important to carry over that bravery."
Reeves makes it clear that thanks to previous films like the Matrix trilogy and Johnny Mnemonic, he's comfortable in the world of science fiction.
"I love the genre and I approach it like any other film. I guess that's the short answer. I think science fiction provides great storytelling opportunities. In the past, I've had the fortune to be part of good stories in science-fiction genre films."
But his love for Shakespeare also continues unabated. Reeves, who appeared in the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, and portrayed Hamlet at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre several years ago, says that if he could go back in history and be friends with someone, there would be no doubt about his choice.
"I'm going to take the thespian route and say William Shakespeare."