Sunday Discussion: The Day the Earth Stood Still - Original vs Remake?
by Alex Billington
December 7, 2008
For no particular reason, I decided to do things backwards. I watched Scott Derrickson's The Day the Earth Stood Still remake first, then went back and watched Robert Wise's original The Day the Earth Stood Still. And a funny thing happened - I really disliked the original, a lot. There I've said it, and it'll probably instantly discredit me from writing about movies forever. Derrickson's remake is by no means a perfect film, but I gained a lot more appreciation for it after I saw how horrid and cheesy the original was. Sure it was a great film for its time, maybe, but it's no longer 1951. And in 2008, watching it for the very first time, I wondered how anyone could still enjoy it and yet stomp all over Derrickson's remake?
Spoiler Warning: The following article may contain spoilers related to both films.
Maybe I just grew up loving the spectacle of movies more than the story; Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the films that defined me and my generation when I was a kid. That doesn't discredit me, that just means I have an opinion that may differ from everyone. And I tried to sit back and enjoy the original, I tried to appreciate it for what it was and compare it fairly to the remake. But they just did so many things better this time around. In fact, I even think that if the people who made the original movie in 1951 were making it today, it would've turned out a lot worse than Derrickson's version.
If you want to talk about cheesy, just count the number of times the kid mentions "gee whiz" or "ah swell" in the original. Sure that was how kids spoke at the time, but you don't hear little Jaden Smith saying things like "OMG" or "like, you know" in the remake. Even the message in it is so much more poignantly conveyed. In the original, Klaatu stands on his ship at the end, makes a muddled statement about saving humanity, and flies off with the understanding that they'll be "waiting for our answer." There was no real threat. In the remake, there's a brilliant scene where John Cleese explains that only on the brink of chaos, do we actually change. And the threat was very real this time. It wasn't until Klaatu saw what Cleese's character had mentioned and understood that humanity was worth saving that he called it all off.
Speaking in terms of acting, Keanu Reeves is a much better Klaatu than Michael Rennie. Reeves' Klaatu has so much definition and is very out-of-place on our planet, whereas Rennie's Klaatu is just like any other typical human. There's nothing that makes him distinct or makes him alien in any way. With Reeves, you can tell he doesn't really fit in his body, he's completely emotionless, and is using that human form only as a way of connecting with the people of Earth. In the original, Rennie comes off as just another human with the same emotions and sensibilities as any other actor. And claiming that it was just good "at the time it was made" is not a reasonable excuse for bad acting.
Here's where I'll say that maybe if I was alive in 1951 and saw this, I would've been impressed, too. And maybe I'd have that undying attachment to it, because it probably would have reshaped the way I look at science fiction forever. But in reality I wasn't alive then, and instead I have learned to appreciate modern movies, albeit remakes or not, for their attributes that make them so great today. We just have so many other amazing sci-fi movies to now compare the remake to, that it seemingly looks pretty bad. But if you simply compare the original to the remake, I believe the remake stands out more for so many better reasons. It's a much more solid, much more fascinating and much more intelligent movie than the original, and I'm sorry if that breaks the hearts of fans of the original or stirs up some sort of sci-fi controversy.
What's really getting under my skin on this is that everyone holds the original in such high regard, yet they can easily tear apart the remake. Have any of them even watched the original recently? It doesn't really stand up to time anymore and that's exactly what I felt when I watched it. I don't believe judging classics by what they achieved when they were released is the best way to judge every movie. If that were the case, then why aren't we judging other modern movies in that way, too? The special effects weren't even that great for its time because just 12 years earlier, the land of Oz had come to life in The Wizard of Oz in full color, nonetheless. So I'm still wondering what made the original such an amazing achievement?
Lastly, I want to make the claim that in the remake, the message in it is not necessarily about our environment. Here's where I think some brilliance shines through with the remake. Never does Klaatu ever say why the humans are destroying Earth. He only claims that we are destroying our planet and that if we die, the planet survives, and if we don't, the planet dies. To me, like the original, this message has somewhat of an open interpretation. Because the world is wrapped up in our environment right now, that's what everyone assumes he is talking about. But it could be something else. It could even be violence, since the movie consistently shows clips of chaos and looting and violence breaking out all over the world.
As far as I can recall, never once does Klaatu or anyone in the remake ever mention the environment or that certain things (like cars or factories) are causing the Earth to die. He just mentions that humans, and humanity, are killing Earth. I thought it was brilliant that screenwriter (David Scarpa) allowed for this kind of open interpretation, even though most naive moviegoers won't think about it. They'll instantly connect it with the environment. In the original, they also allowed for a similar bit of interpretation, but it connected with the time that the movie came out because Klaatu actually mentions atomic power and violence as his concerns. And at the time, that's what people were afraid of the most. And if I must make the comparison, the message in the remake is so much more brilliantly conceived than that of the original.
I understand that most people won't agree with me and that's fine. Movies are always subjective and this is only my own opinion. However, if the least I can do is convince you to go into Scott Derrickson's The Day the Earth Stood Still remake with more of an open mind, then I'm satisfied. And once it hits theaters next weekend, I challenge anyone to fairly compare the original The Day the Earth Stood Still to the remake and provide some actual legitimate reasons why one is better than the other. And if you compare the remake to every other sci-fi movie ever made, then you also must compare the original to every other sci-fi movie. I'd like to be convinced that the original is true classic, because I don't believe that it is.