The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot

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Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe