Empire (UK), November 2008 (December 2008 issue)
Keanu Barada Nikto
"I'm not a fan of remakes," says Keanu Reeves. "I have a distaste for the concept of remaking classic films," says director Scott Derrickson. So what's with their flashy new spin on The Day the Earth Stood Still? In a world exclusive, Empire heads to the set to find out what makes Gort 2.0 tick
by Damon Wise
Most film buffs agree that some films should never be remade. Director Scott Derrickson feels that way about Casablanca and The Godfather, two films he believes are so much in and of their time that they won't ever need to be updated. Scott Derrickson also wishes Hollywood would spend more time reissuing the black-and-white classics in their back catalogue rather than throwing cash at hack directors to rehash and ruin them. Scott Derrickson is a well-read ex-film student who speaks with awe at having dinner with the late, great Robert Wise, director of two of his favourite movies. So why then, when we meet, is Scott Derrickson in Vancouver, halfway through shooting a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, a black-and-white Hollywood classic from 1951, directed, like The Haunting, the other of those two favourite films, by the late, great Robert Wise?
The truth is, not every classic is untouchable. And the original The Day The Earth Stood Still is the perfect case. The paradox is that, although it still stands up incredibly well, if you were to remake it shot for shot for a modern audience, they'd hate it. It starts all too quickly, with a spaceman - the eerie Klaatu, played with superb otherworldliness by Brit actor Michael Rennie - landing in Washington Mall with a message for the President. The White House laughs in his face, and after escaping from the military he goes undercover, taking a room in a boarding house - a boarding house! - where he befriends a single mother and her son. There are no car chases and no explosions, just an eight-foot robot called Gort that doesn't really do anything. Finally, Klaatu holds a press conference, tells everybody off, and then he goes home. End of film. All done and dusted in 92 minutes.
As Empire arrives on the set of the 2008 edition to see a cluster of converted warehouses, it's immediately clear that the new-look The Day The Earth Stood Still will not be going down this stark, minimalist route. In the next hall there's a lot of astroturf and green-screen, a set that will serve as Central Park, New York, where Klaatu, now played by Keanu Reeves wiht Neo-esque calm, will land. And in the room we're in, there's a rustic cottage, complete with trees and rainfall, that's home to Professor Barnhardt, the avuncular astrophysicist who recognises Klaatu's advanced scientific knowledge and helps him in his mission. But although these surface trimmings are new, enough glimmers of the old film remain to suggest that this isn't just a straight repackaging. And over lunch, Derrickson says as much. "Like a lot of film fans, and genre film fans in particular, I have a distaste for the very concept of remaking classic films," he admits.
"But I think this one felt like more of an exception to me. When I read the script I realised it was a worthy remake, because the script is faithful to what was good about the original: the integration of real science-fiction elements with modern issues of global political importance. The issues are different this time. it's not the Cold War and the nuclear arms-race situation that the world was in at the time of the original. But the fact that our world is still facing some pressing issues made this story feel like it needed to be retold.
"Privately, I don't ever think of myself as remaking the Robert Wise movie, because I can't imagine that being worthwhile. You can't make that film better than that. It's a truly fantastic movie. I revere it. What I'm doing is a retelling of the same story, which I felt was worthwhile."
He pauses. "It may sound like a cop-out. But it's genuinely how I feel about it."
Back on set, Reeves is looking at the monitor. It's quite a short scene but an important one. Klaatu is on the run, being helped this time around by a beautiful astrobiologist named Helen (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (Will Smith's son Jaden). Sheltering at Barnhardt's place, Klaatu reveals the deadly chain of events that his arrival has started, telling them that unless they act soon, the Earth will be in terrible danger. It takes a while to put the scene together, as the actor playing Barnhardt keeps unwittingly synching with Keanu's slightly off-key delivery and has to be reminded to stay, as it were, normal.
Reeves intently watches one of the insert reaction shots and nods. "Not bad," he says.
"Not bad?" asks Erwin Stoff, his longtime producer and manager. "Not bad? Is that all?"
Reeves fixes him with a quizzical look. "What do you expect me to say? It's a transitional scene. It's just there to get from A to B." He laughs. "Do you go back to your car at night and go, 'Wurp-wurp...' He mimes unlocking a car door with his key fob and swaggers like his old friend Ted of Bill & Ted fame. '...I AM THE MASTER OF MY UNIVERSE?!' Do you do that?"
He laughs again. "Wurp-wurp...!"
Keanu Reeves, now 44, has the almost ideal face to replace Michael Rennie, then 42, looking youthful but not boyish and equally wrinkle-free. His American-Hawaiian features work surprisingly well, combining to create an effect the production badly wanted, which is to suggest that Klaatu has merely taken on humanoid form and that his body is just a vessel. In fact, the casting, confirms Derrickson, was an important as any of the special effects in a multi-million-dollar blockbuster.
"None of the choices were hurried," he says, "and none were haphazard. There was a lot of thought that went into them, and a lot of discussion. And with Keanu, for example, it's amazing to me how I could have ever thought of anybody else. Now that I'm shooting the film, I know he's just the absolute perfect update for Klaatu, and I can't imagine any other actor doing what he's doing. So the decisions we made were obviously the right ones."
So what drew Reeves in? "I'm not a fan of remakes in general," Reeves says later, "but I met with Scott and spent a few days at his house, together with the writer, David Scarpa, and I kept asking, 'Why? Why do a remake?' After a few five-hour days we came around to the answer and I said, 'Yes,' because the film is talking about an interesting theme - the feeling of being on a precipice."
"Keanu is a very disciplined guy," says Derrickson. "He brought a tremendous amount of creativity to the script process and we spent a long time going over it - line by line, page by page - trying to scrutinise it for logic and also trying to rid the script of anything that was intuitively suspect. We coined the phrase 'cheese danger' to describe the scenes where we were in danger of being cheesy. It could have been a single line of dialogue or the concept of an entire scene. But at the same time, we wanted to develop a hard line of understanding about the main characters."
Like Derrickson, Reeves was keen to keep the integrity of the old film. "I saw the original when I was a kid and I loved it," he says. "And then I saw it again as an adult and realised just how subversive it was. Obviously, as a child I didn't understand the political context of the film, but it was so interesting because it was talking about the Atomic Age and the Cold War, about the media, and the idea of manufactured fear. It was such a topical film, so it was fascinating to watch it again with new eyes before we started working on the script and then filming it. The original movie was a nice template to follow. I felt that we were re-imagining the film and reinventing it, not simply remaking it, and the original acted as a guide to help us approach the new film.
Derrickson joins with Reeves in saying that the script was a major force in his decision to tackle a potentially disastrous endeavour. Fresh from the successful exorcism of Emily Rose (his big-screen debut; previously he helmed DTV horror Hellraiser: Inferno), he had the option of a number of studio projects, but chose this one.
"Part of what piqued my interest was that the science-fiction elements of it were so fresh and original," he says. "They were not rooted in what has been very typical for science-fiction films over the last few decades: technology. And even though we're dealing with an alien who's arriving in a spaceship from another civilisation, technology is still the wrong term for it. Historically, science-fiction over the last few decades has been about how the culture fears technology, and how technology is running ahead of the culture. But that era is over. Technology doesn't feel so frightening to the public anymore: we're not in a technological age, we're in an information age now. And science-fiction is starting to reflect that, but it's also started to become more involved in other things, like ecology, biology, and even spirituality. I thought this script reflected that. It wasn't just about laser-blasters."
How, then, do the science-fiction elements manifest themselves? In the original, the entire world comes to a standstill at midday so that Klaatu can draw attention to his message (although a sneaky, throwaway line of dialogue reveals that planes in flight, pacemakers and hospital machines have gone untampered with). But for the 2008 edition, nobody will say how that plays out.
"We have our joke list," smiles producer Greg Goodman. "I mean, what about the person in the middle of the cosmetic procedure, halfway done? There are plenty of scenarios! But you'd imagine that if the world was already in a frenzy about this spaceship landing, a lot of those sorts of things wouldn't be happening anyway. If a spaceship landed in New York tomorow, people would cancel a lot of their facelift activities! They would be riveted to these events."
Part of the reason nobody will say is, because, for now, nobody really knows. "Strangely enough, it's deceptively challenging," says Goodman. In the script, he hints, there are scenes of chaos in every world quarter. "Which is sort of obvious," he says. "But it's also about the idea of even your watch stopping; it's the idea that every single mechanical, electrical device on the planet will stop. But it's funny; because a lot of those set-pieces don't require a lot of production work, we have a long, long list of potentials that we're coming up with, and I'm sure that will grow, and we're ready to do as many of them as we can."
The other aspect shrouded in secrecy is Klaatu's trusty robot Gort, played in the original by a Very Tall Man in a rubber suit. "Gort went through many, many iterations, from way out in leftfield to what he has eventually come to be," says VFS consultant Tom Boland. "There were some real interesting variations of him that had nothing to do with the original Gort. Then, in a meeting, we just laid our cards on the table and said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we just paid some kind of homage to the original Gort? He was such a striking figure, can't we just update him in some way?' It was like a lightbulb had gone on over everyone's head, and they were like, 'Yeah!'"
"We'd just gotten sidetracked," says his working partner Jeff Okun. "We did a lot of alien explorations. A lot of people were having a go at it, and some of the Gorts they came up with... Well, some of them were truly horrific and some of them were amazing. But none of them made sense. So we finally came to a group decision that the humanoid figure, which goes into alien psychology, would be the right figure. Why is it the right figure? Well, if they know everything about us and if they have the ability to be anything they want, why would they pick any other shape than one that is familiar to us? The key to Gort, in my mind, is the monolith in 2001. Why did the monolith work? It's a simple shape, it has no emotion, it's neither good nor bad, it simply is. And everybody who looks at it projects onto it the emotion they're feeling in the moment. And that becomes our number one thing for Gort: how can we achieve that?"
Any more than that, Derrickson refuses to say.
"I'm very happy with Gort," he grins. "I think he looks hot!"
One thing we can reveal, unless you've already seen it plastered all over the Internet, is the casting of Professor Barnhardt. In the original, there was a slightly kooky character called Sam Jaffe. In the 2008 edition you have Monty Python's John Cleese, playing it deadly straight. Why Cleese? Even he doesn't know. "I asked Scott about this yesterday," he beams. "I said, 'Why didn't you get a proper actor?' I mentioned some names, and he said of one, 'Well, he doesn't do that much any more,' and of another he said, 'He's just done too many of these kinds of roles.' So they obviously spent a long time looking, and then they thought of me, which was very creative. Because I don't expect to be thought of for anything straight. But it's nice, since one does need this money stuff that one exchanges for clothes and housing. And it doesn't require as much energy as comedy work. I'm a high-energy performer, so after 13 hours on a comedy set I get tired."
It's odd to see Basil Fawlty in a chunky-knit sweater, being pleasant but not actually at all funny. And even though it's easier, Cleese still finds it a bit of a stretch, often being pulled up on his delivery for being too slow, or too much like Keanu's. "You have to watch for that," says Derrickson, "because you don't want Klaatu to seem too human. He has peculiarities that make him believable as an incarnate alien, but you have to remind the other actors not to fall in step with that, to remain in their own time, place and reality, particularly in terms of pacing. And when they do that, it becomes very interesting, because you see them struggling to deal with the oddness of this being. In any other situation, that would be bad. But in this case it's absolutely great."
When Cleese wraps his scenes, he will be mobbed by cast and crew alike, momentarily grinding production to a halt and making this the day The Day The Earth Stood Still stood still. But Cleese is just a lighter note in a film that, for now at lesat, seems admirably committed to doing what the 1951 original did: deliver a thoughtful socially conscious message, wrap it in candyfloss, and give it an edgy but optimistic ending.
"Broadly speaking, in the first one, the humans did get a second chance," says Reeves. "But the alien was laying down the law; he was saying, 'If you continue with your violence, we'll step in.' It was almost as though the alien had a bigger stick. He was effectively saying, 'We'll end your violence with greater violence,' and that's a contradiction, really - confronting violence with more possible violence! But I guess it was a way to reflect on the Cold War, on the topic of mutual annihilation. The issue with that, looking back, is that it was probably not the best way to go about things. In our film, the alien gives humankind a chance, too, but he goes about it a little differently, so there is a significant shift.
"One of the last lines in the film is from Jennifer Connelly," he continues. "She says, 'This is our moment'. It's interesting, because it's a two-headed snake. It could mean, 'This is our moment to begin again,' or 'This is our moment to begin the end.' It's wonderful; it's alive and it resonates, and I was hoping that in a mainstream Hollywood movie, with all the resources and storytelling skills we have, this film could really provoke interesting conversations as well as be entertaining."
And, finally, that's all the film can hope to do, in a world where banks are folding, wars are breaking out all over and Al Gore's once-prophetic documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is fast becoming daily news. Funnily enough, though, the one thing that hasn't changed in 47 years is that, when Klaatu lands, they still won't take him to the President. "That aspect of the movie is quite in line with the original film," smiles Derrickson. "And the communal-fear response in the original is more pertinent to the modern world than it was even then. It's only gotten worse. Our tendency, at least in America, is to respond to the unknown with overreaction."
He pauses. "I guess some things change and some things don't change."
A bit like the remake itself, then.
>>The Day the Earth Stood Still is out on December 12 and will be reviewed in a future issue.
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Released: December 12
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, John Cleese, Kyle Chandler
1951: Alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his robot Gort arrive on Earth in a flying saucer, to tell us to stop all this fighting... or else!
2008: Alien Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) and his robot Gort arrive on Earth in a great big reflective globe to tell us to sort out this environmental rape.
"Klaatu barada nikto." The words that disarmed the sinister Gort in the original have since been assimilated into the movie lexicon. Check out how far their influence reaches...
by Glen Ferris
STAR WARS EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Jabba's entourage consisted of a number of aliens inspired by The Day The Earth Stood Still. A creature named Nikto appears on the Hutt's sail barge, while two of Jabba's skiff guards are named Klaatu and Barada.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
Spielberg paid homage to Robert Wise's seminal sci-fi flick in his very own out-of-this-world epic. Gort's command words can be seen printed on a banner during the scene in which office-bound employees are hard at work attempting to make contact with aliens.
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1993)
Feckless hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) is required to say the three magic words to gain control of the Necronomicon. However, on forgetting the incantation, he unstead unleashes the eponymous bony baddies onto the world: "Klaatu... Verada... Necktie... Nectar... Nickel... It's an 'N' word; it's definitely an 'N' word."
Ron Howard's fantasy flick finds the eponymous, diminutive sorcerer (Warwick Davis) using the phrase in a transmutation spell... and accidentally teleporting himself up a tree.
Before he is digitally shrunk into a world of light cycles and neon bodysuits, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) takes solace in the immortal words by way of a handy poster hanging in his work cubicle.
While the phrase stopped the original movie's metal monster from blowing up the planet, it doesn't work for evil Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon), who utters the phrase in vain trying to stop a rampaging sea creature.
MEN IN BLACK (1997)
The MIB observing suveillance videos of not-of-this-earth celebrities when Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming is heard to utter the immortal words.
GALAXY QUEST (1999)
The aliens who recruit the cast of a defunct sci-fi TV show come from the planet Thermia, located in the "Klaatu Nebula".
THE X-FILES (1993-2002)
Throughout the show's nine-year run, the famous phrase was pinned to the wall of Agent Mulder's note-strewn office.
THE SIMPSONS (2007)
In the 2007 Treehouse Of Horrors episode, an alien can be heard to utter those immortal words after Bart hits him with a baseball in his 700 testicles.