If you’re looking for chuckles this holiday season, bypass the miserably unfunny “Four Christmases” and go where the real comedy is — “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a clumsy, moronic remake of Robert Wise’s brilliant 1951 classic about an alien invader trying to save the human race from its own self-destructive impulses.
What did poor Wise do, incidentally, to deserve such treatment? His chilling horror masterpiece “The Haunting” was already put through the meat-grinder with an effects-heavy 1999 remake, and his thriller “The Andromeda Strain” was revisited with ill results in a SciFi Channel re-do earlier this year. What next — a hip-hop reinterpretation of “The Sound of Music”? (Granted, Queen Latifah could totally tear up “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” but still…)
The new “Day” can’t be bothered to include the thought-provoking dialogue of the original, choosing instead to bury the audience with special effects that are visually impressive but no substitute for an actual script. And what words do remain are so exquisitely awful that they provide some of the season’s biggest laughs.
My personal favorite? Astro-biologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) takes alien Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) to see a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and notes that her colleague was honored “for his work in biological altruism.” What would that entail, exactly? Helping frogs cross the street?
Klaatu has arrived on this planet to warn that other civilizations are meeting to figure out what to do about humanity, which is on a course to destroy the Earth. But after the secretary of defense (Kathy Bates — no, really, Kathy Bates) threatens to interrogate him, he eludes the military with Helen’s help. After that kind of welcome, no one can really blame Klaatu for not standing in the way of mankind’s destruction, but Helen hopes to convince him that people can change and reverse our catastrophic course.
She never bothers to show him “An Inconvenient Truth” or a Prius waiting list to back up her argument, mind you, she just keeps jabbering, “We can change!” (I kept waiting for her to add some follow-up along the lines of, “We’ll all start bringing our own bags to the supermarket! And install those fluorescent bulbs that are unflattering to skin tones!”)
Klaatu’s sidekick robot Gort, after taking out some drone planes and their missiles, finally gets boxed up and taken to an underground facility where the android turns into billions of little locust-y bugs that destroy everything in their path. Thus does the final act of “Earth” turn into a remake of that classic stinker “The Swarm.” (The only good part of this sequence is that you get to see military men literally aim at a gnat with a cannon.)
To make matters worse, the movie can’t decide on consistent rules for the little bugs. When director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) needs suspense, the creatures make ever-expanding cracks in glass before they break through and destroy everything; when the movie is in a hurry, they just swoop through and lay waste to an entire football stadium in seconds.
Discussing the acting in “Earth” is something of an exercise in pointlessness — Reeves does a lot of wooden staring while speaking in a monotone, so at least he’s working within his skill set. You’d think Jennifer Connelly would turn down all “weepy scientist” roles after “Hulk,” but she’s once again drying tears on her lab coat. Young Jaden Smith gives the ickiest kind of juvenile performance, radiating would-be cuteness and pathos as Helen’s stepson.
Only John Cleese, oddly cast as the Nobel honoree, brings anything resembling gravitas to the movie, but he sprints off-screen as quickly as he can. Ticket buyers for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” might feel similarly inspired to wear their running shoes to the theater.