I recently was able to view the original 1951 movie of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and thought to use this opportunity to contrast the original movie to the newer movie of the same title recently released.
Let’s start with the 1951 version of the movie, as it was the first of the two movies made, and the newer movie is based upon the older movie (although the similarities between the movies are only of the most superficial sort). An alien by the name of Klaatu makes a landing on Earth, surrounded by military personnel and equipment, and thousands of civilians. During Klaatu's initial speech, an action on his part is mistakenly thought to be hostile, he is shot by a police officer, and taken to a medical facility for treatment, under armed guard. Klaatu makes his escape, and becomes friends with a woman and her son. The woman eventually learns that Klaatu is the alien who landed on earth, and his reason for visiting – Klaatu’s race is concerned about the developments of missiles and nuclear technology, both of which could threaten his own race. In the end, Klaatu leaves the Earth, warning us against our current and possible future actions.
I can’t speak about the state of special effects in movies in the 1950’s, but by today’s standards, they are only serviceable – they get the job done with the minimum required effort, but that’s all that is needed for this movie. The movie works around the need for much of the special effects by showing you the effects of what happens, rather than how it happens. In the opening scenes, with the alien spacecraft passing over, we see different scenes of how people might react, and only one or two shots of the actual craft itself. It makes a nice change from the gratuitous special effects that we would normally get with a similar scene in a more modern movie.
Instead of concentrating on special effects and action, the movie is more a study of the three main characters (Klaatu, the woman, and her son), and the ideas surrounding the story – discussions about the Cold War and politics of the time, opinions on how the alien visitor should be dealt with, and an outsider's view of the state that the world is in at the time. The acting on the most part is solid but not noteworthy, although I enjoyed the quiet intelligence and sophistication that Michael Rennie brought to the role of Klaatu.
Now, to the 2008 version of the movie. This version of the movie has a fairly similar plot to the original, except that Klaatu is more concerned with the environment rather than the military – the environment is on a tipping point, and Klaatu feels the need to fix things up. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for us. Anyone who has not been in a coma for the last few years will be able to tell you the environment is in trouble, so having an advanced alien tell you this is not really necessary. There are no specifics of this trouble given either, which is both a good thing and a bad thing - a lack of specifics dumbs down the movie quite a lot, but if this trouble is re-examined later and found not to be such a calamity, it would date the movie terribly. However, I don't think this movie is destined to be a classic, unlike it's predecessor.
So, what are the good points in the movie? As with most movies released after the popularisation of computer-generated special effects, it is a good-looking movie. It has the pre-requisite number of explosions required for current movie-going audiences, it has a swarming, semi-sentient nanobot cloud that has the most perculiar of diets – it eats both metal and bipedal animals, but it cannot harm trees, roads, bridges, or the ground. Exciting, yes, realistic or intellectually challenging, hardly.
The movie seems to be too over-wrought to be credible – consistency and realism is sacrificed for drama. We need thirty people and ten vehicles for a convey to pick up a female scientist, for example. When the military is first encountering a mysterious object that has crashed into the Manhattan park, the military leaders send in all of their best scientists at once, in front of the military personnel, disregarding the risk that this simultaneously poses to all of their best scientists at the same time. I could go on, but you get the point – the movie is dramatic, but such events would occur in an entirely different manner in real-life.
As for the acting, the roles seem to be all the main stereotypes, with little challenges given to the actors or the audience - the military people all need to use lots of different weapons to fight Klaatu and Gort, Klaatu's guard robot, the scientists feel the need to study the two. Keanu Reaves as Klaatu, on the other hand, is actually one of the best casting choices of the movie – probably not the actor with the highest thespian skills, but an alien in the form of a human does not really need to be emotive - it makes Keanu excellent for the role of Klaatu.
So what movie is the better movie, and which movie should you watch? I would suggest you watch the 1951 version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” for an intelligent, and thoughtfully-portrayed imagining of a first-encounter movie. Watch the 2008 version if you like having a quiet chuckle at unrealistic situations, poor science, and silly ideas. Oh, and like seeing lots of explosions and action.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) – 4.5/5
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008) – 2/5