Keanu Reeves is an alien...
... And if you believe that statement, you’ll likely enjoy his portrayal of Klaatu in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still
by Chris Knight
On the commentary track to the DVD release of the 2008 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, David Scarpa describes the opening he had originally written into the script. It involved a space shuttle mission encountering the alien sphere that would eventually land in New York's Central Park. It was a strain on the budget, but he liked it.
That was back when Scarpa had envisioned this remake of the 1951 classic as a celebrity-free vehicle, much as the original had been. Things changed when Keanu Reeves signed on to star; a rewrite was required to put the actor in front of the cameras in an early scene. "The audience would not be willing to wait 45 minutes to watch Keanu Reeves," Scarpa says. "They would start to get impatient around a half an hour into it."
In the new opening, Reeves appears as a mountain climber in 1928 India who has a close encounter with the sphere; the idea is that it samples his DNA to create the form of Klaatu, the alien visitor who arrives some 80 years later. "The audience might need some explanation of how he is able to arrive on Earth in human form or why he comes in the form of Keanu Reeves."
Scarpa may be overthinking the problem. Most North Americans, if they met an alien emissary, would probably be surprised if he didn't resemble the stony-faced, unearthly Reeves.
The Day the Earth Stood Still follows the basic template of the original: Klaatu arrives in a high-tech spaceship, informs humans that they are courting destruction and introduces us to Gort, his all-powerful robot companion. This time out, the danger we pose to the planet (and, by extension, ourselves) is environmental rather than nuclear, though the filmmakers took pains never to have Klaatu say this in so many words; the last thing they wanted was a visit from an extra-solar Al Gore.
The robot is remarkably similar to the Gort of old, although it was a long road to remake new Gort in old Gort's image. The creative team came up with tentacled robots, quadrupeds, anemones, crustaceans, butterflies and razor-limbed Swiss Army knives. "I was looking at images that looked like they belonged in the Museum of Modern Art," says director Scott Derrickson in one of the DVD's many thoughtful making-of features.
Looking over the many faces of Gort, visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun had a eureka moment when he glanced at the faceless "human figure to scale" at the bottom of each drawing and realized that was the way the robot should look. "I have something very unpopular to say," he remembers declaring in a meeting. But after he made his pitch, the rest of the room soon came around, and the new Gort was born. In this movie, however, the name is not an extra-terrestrial appellation but an Earth-bound acronym; the Pentagon scientists describe the creature as "genetically organized robotic technology."
Scarpa, Derrickson and even Reeves put a lot of thought into the design of the alien technology. Whereas the original movie had featured a classic burnished-metal flying saucer, the makers of this one wanted something post-technological, even semi-organic. (After all, rampant technology is part of what Klaatu is warning us about.) Thus the ship, a luminous sphere, was inspired by the post-industrial technology theorized by physicist Freeman Dyson, while Gort is a collection of nano-bots. Balancing science and fiction took some doing, Scarpa notes: "There's the movie about ideas, and then there's the giant robot movie."
One idea espoused by the film will soon be put to the test. Klaatu tells a scientist (played by Jennifer Connolly) that planets capable of supporting life are exceedingly rare. Even now a space probe called Kepler, launched last month, is preparing to look for Earth-like planets around more than 100,000 stars. As one scientist notes in a DVD segment about the search for extraterrestrial life, it will answer the question: "Are planets like Earth as common as cheap motels?"
Ultimately, however, the film is entertainment first, science second. Says Derrickson, "The movie succeeds or fails on whether or not you believe Keanu Reeves is an alien." Mission accomplished.