Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Day the Earth Was Almost Destroyed

[NOTE: Now that I’m on winter break, I’m taking a partial hiatus from writing Stanford GSB related blog entries, at least until the term starts back up in January]

As a fan of Science Fiction movies, I couldn’t resist going to see “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – the new version with Keanu Reeves, on opening weekend. I’m a big fan of the old version from the 50’s, despite its dated cold war themes, and generally can’t stay away from anything Sci Fi related.

So what did I think of the new movie? I’d love to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up, but can only manage a “so-so” review.

The old and new films are both about the arrival of an alien visitor (who looks human, to make us comfortable, and whose name is Klaatu) who lands in a major American city (Central Park in the new one, and if I’m not mistaken Washington, DC in the old one). One thing that hasn’t changed from the old Cold War theme: The government tries to take possession of the alien, and shoots him. They won’t even consider allowing him to speak to a gathering of World leaders at the UN.

Are we really that parochial? If an alien really visited the Earth and landed in the US, is this the attitude that we would take?

Unfortunately, I think they got this one right, in both versions. I’d like to think that if the representative of an advanced civilization were to arrive to deliver a message to the Earth, just happens to land in the USA, that we would let him speak to the UN – to all the nations of this planet. But I can just see our military whisking away the alien away to Guantanamo as a presumed “enemy combatant” and commandeering his ship as “foreign technology” that we want to re-engineer.

A neat new twist in the movie is the reason for the alien’s visit. In this version, Klaatu is not just the representative of alien civilizations watching the Earth; he says he is a friend of the Earth (though as we learn, this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a friend of the human race).

He’s here to decide whether we are killing the planet or not. This green theme is a pretty good new spin, if somewhat overused these days. Klaatu tells us that there are only a few habitable planets out there, and he can’t allow us (humans) to kill this one. Quoting Klaatu (Keanu Reeves): If the earth dies, humans die too. If only the humans die, then the earth still lives on. A fair, logical argument.

Like most good science fiction, the first part of this movie actually makes you think about larger issues. It certainly made me think about habitable planets and how many there might be out there. There’s a famous equation, the Drake equation if memory serves, that takes assumptions of the number of stars, the number of planetary systems, the number of habitable planets, and the number of advanced civilizations. If you work out the numbers with only 1% for each variable, you come up with a large number of inhabited worlds.

What would happen if the probabilities were so small that there only a few habited planets out there, as is the case in this movie?

And of course, this movie does make you think about what would really happen if an alien spacecraft were to visit our planet and why.

Those are the positives. Jennifer Connolly does a pretty good job as an astro-biologist (is there such a thing? How much biological material have we actually found in outer space?). She’s also the step-mother of 11-year old Jacob, whose army engineer father she married a few years ago, but who passed away.

This is where, in my opinion, the movie starts to fall apart. Why does this have to be the case with almost all science fiction movies?

They start with an interesting concept that actually makes you think; but, as they try to bring the movie into the standard hollywood three-act script, they all end up with some variation of the standard formulas, ruining the originality of the film and making the second half into a dumb thriller or action or preachy lesson.

I don’t think I’m revealing much when I say that that at first Klaatu decides to destroy humans off the face of the earth, because he views us as a destructive force (which the government cronies and the Secretary of Defense, played excellently by Kathy Bates, do a very good job of convincing Klaatu of).

Eventually, he comes to realize that humans are more than just a destructive force. That we have strong emotions and that they include compassion and longing, etc. This in-and-of-itself is not a problem - The problem is how he comes to this realization; It’s done through the 11-year old Jacob, who single-handedly destroys this multi-million dollar Hollywood production. Well done, kid. At least you saved the Earth, sort of.

So, OK, I have to admit, as a kid, I loved it when kids played an important role in science fiction. E.T. involved kids and aliens. Wesley Crusher had an interesting role in Star Trek the Next Generation.

But this one just doesn’t work. The 11-year old snot-nosed kid, not only disobeys his mother every chance he gets, sporting an “oh I’m so cool” braided hairstyle that’s well beyond his years, but he also tells the government exactly how and where to find Klaatu, leading to the abduction of his step-mom by the government in the process. We're then led to believe that this might have been a good thing becuase he got to spend more time with the Alien.

I have to say I wanted to smack the kid off the screen so that we could get on with a real science fiction movie. Alas, it was not to be.

After seeing the movie, I looked up some reviews to see if I was alone in this sentiment and was just being a cruel, heartless adult. Here’s my favorite part of the CNN review: “Jacob is a whiny, obstinate, and disobedient little boy that would lead most extraterrestrials – and not a few of the rest of us – to reach for the destruct button.” Amen.

For other science fiction fans out there, think Jar Jar Binks. Now I wish someone would get a-hold of this flim and create a phantom edit (for those of you who don’t know someone created an edit of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace which digitally editout out Jar Jar Binks, without whose annoying antics the film might have been a relatively good film). Unfortunately you’d have to chop off the whole third act of the movie to do this. Oops.

Note: As a film-maker myself, I’m not supposed to be suggesting that anyone do anything that infringes on the copyright of Hollywood films, so I can’t really condone a phantom edit. (BUT IF YOU HAVE ONE, LET ME KNOW, I’D BE HAPPY NOT ONLY TO WATCH IT BUT TO WRITE ABOUT IT HERE IN MY BLOG. EVEN BETTER: what if someone were to edit out the kid and put in Jar Jar Binks, the movie might be actually be more fun and less annoying!).

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