Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This Day the Earth Stood Still Really Doesn't, Much

Fortunately I was able to rewatch the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a classic early 1950's sci-fi of the paranoid cold-war qua alien invasion variant, just before I re-saw this year's remake for the second time in the theaters. What I find so interesting is how closely the remake adheres to the original story and premise...and yet, couldn't be so different.

Listen closely, my writing students, because these two movies are a wonderful illustration of the importance of theme.

For really, David Scarpa's screenplay of the remake does a rather remarkable job of updating the story from the original, while keeping the original story intent: an ordinary looking alien lands on earth, gets interrogated by the government about his intentions, escapes, and requires the help of an ordinary mother and a brainiac scientist to warn the world of its imminent demise.

The original screenplay, by Edmund North, is a rather congratulatory slow perambulation amongst scenes of early fifties social ironies: such as the two doctors lighting up cigarettes as they ask themselves how it is that Klaatu could have possibly maintained such healthy lungs. Scarpa scraps the strained dialogue and unconvincing setups of the original (what mother today would trust a strange man to spend the day touring DC with her boy?), replacing them with a high-concept premise that largely passes the modern-day science sniff test (such as explaining how an alien could survive without a spacesuit amongst our microbes: by adapting our DNA as a kind of artificial body).

Yet even though Scarpa keeps the basic storyline in tact (with some alterations for modern-day plausibility), what he changes most is the theme. And that change results in what becomes a very different movie experience.

In the original story, inspired by the cold war, Klaatu comes to earth as part of a kind of intergalactic peace force, a universal U.N. He's here to tell us that Earthlings are no longer cute little monkeys in the galactic forest that can be safely ignored - we've evolved into a society capable of unleashing the atom - and unless earthlings change their warlike ways, the galactic U.N. security team will be forced to disarm us. With extreme prejudice.

In the remake, the issue isn't our warlike nature. The theme is green (that's the theme everywhere, these days), and what we're abusing isn't each other: it's the Earth. The Earth is a galactic rarity, you see, and Klaatu is here to make sure we stop messing it up. One way, or another.

You might think that changing a little thing like the theme would be a minor alteration. But no: this change in theme makes for an entirely different movie.

For in the first movie, the theme that we are a warlike species is played out not in big militaristic gestures (though there are those: pitiful attempts by the military and the government to control and understand a very simple thing seems beyond them - the idea of peace); rather, the theme mostly plays out in the minor interpersonal interactions between the characters, in the montages of media and press reaction. War, this movie says, isn't just something the government does: it's something our society trains us to want, from the moment we're born. The ultimate expression of this is when Helen Benson's suitor, Tom Steven, wants to turn Klaatu in for the reward, and hardly even listens to Helen's warning. He's bent on his personal gain and can't even listen to the larger warning of impending destruction. So it is with all of us, bent on the advantages of one country against another when the destruction of the entire world faces us all.

To show us this theme, North slows down his movie, to the point where it hardly moves at all. The story becomes a series of character studies (the doctors, the boarders at the house, the press at the landing site, the scientist), each character with a slightly different angle on self interest and social concern. In North's movie, Klaatu moves on amongst the self-involved humans with steady, patient determination, but the pacing slows as the movie goes, and there is hardly, really, any third act (just a quick messiah-like revival). In this film, the earth really does stand still, and by doing so, we step apart from it, judging our world like a newsreel, or like an alien, while Klaatu searches for the proper forum to deliver his diplomatic threat.

In Scarpa's remake, however, it is not the alien's eyes we see through, but Helen Benson's (played with the same blank calmness by Jennifer Connelly shown by Michael Rennie's Klaatu in the original). So the feeling of this movie isn't that of a wise alien looking down on a panoply of silly mankind: it's that of a panicked human, looking up at the face of imminent destruction.

Thus, Scarpa's movie invokes a very different pace, an almost frenetic race to kill, get, or persuade the amazingly articulate yet stultifying Klaatu to change his mind before the inevitable fate of the human race exerts its ultimate logic. And this Day the Earth Stood Still is anything but still - running across the woodlands and train tracks of New Jersey, the sheep meadow of Central Park, and the mountains of West Virginia (or what's supposed to be West Virginia but is quite obviously the movie-studio ranges of Southern California), Scarpa's movie follows the traditional thriller logic of racing to diffuse the killer animal, bomb, gizmo, or whatnot before it goes off and destroys us all. The idea that humans must change their ways to save the preciousness of the earth is illustrated not in what Klaatu sees in his quiet survey, but what he learns in his new DNA: that flesh creates desire, which creates love as well as destruction. Apparently, that idea strikes Klaatu as worth risking the Earth for, though really, don't ask me why. But Scarpa's movie plays well on its theme, not studying from afar the ironic detachment of humans, but getting up close and personal into their messy moments of weakness and altruism.

In the end, then, we get the same story - but entirely different movies. And it's hard to say which one is better. Both, really, suffer from the flaws of their chosen DNA. While North's original tends to be a bit corny and perhaps ultimately lacking in drama, Scarpa's remake plows right through important moments that might have blossomed from having a bit more time and study, and borrows heavily from dramatic tropes and stock characters we find a bit too familiar.

For sci-fi purists, this might come as a shock, but in the end, I think I like the remake better. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good seat-grabbing story, even at the expense of subtlety. Or maybe I just like this GORT better, one that's made up of some rather neat technology, even if it's a borrowed special effect. There's just one thing missing from the remake that I can't forgive Scarpa for. That's Klaatu Barada Nikto.

Maybe that's because in North's original, it's up to humans - represented by Helen Benson - to make the change, to utter the words, that will be their salvation. In Scarpa's remake, there's not much we can do to change our nature. All there is to do is hope that Klaatu will understand what's lovable about humanity before it's too late. So there are no words to utter. Just hope that the Earth will forgive us. As a generation who prefers to continue our wicked ways while waiting for rescue by forces larger than us, I suppose it's apropos, if disappointing.

Even so, if you're going to remake a b-movie classic...how can you leave out the most classic three words in the science fiction b-movie oevre?

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