The Day the Earth Stood Still is an alien invasion movie that makes you want to see the aliens win. That doesn't just go for the humans on display here, who range from bland to evil and bland, but for the ones behind the scenes, who have made a disaster movie with no action, and a "thinkpiece" without a clue. With some half-decent special effects the mealy mouthed message might have seemed less obnoxious, or with a clear allegory at the center the action might not have mattered so much; absent both, the movie amounts to nothing.
The plot is your general "city under siege" story, starting with Jennifer Connelly, an extraterrestrial-focused microbiologist working at Princeton who is rounded up by the government, along with some fellow eggheads, when a giant space object seems poised to obliterate the earth. Turns out its a gigantic, glowing sphere, which lands in Central Park. Out of it comes human-shaped being who later morphs into Keanu Reeves, as well as a towering metal robot who seems lifted directly from the Cold War era.
The robot, later dubbed Gort, stands guard by the sphere while the alien, who later introduces himself as Klaatu, withstands a barrage of questions from the government, led by bossy Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates). Klaatu, who has some unexplained power over electricity, escapes in short order, and later it's up to Helen, her sullen stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) and her hunky NASA buddy (Jon Hamm) to track down Klaatu and demand an explanation.
That explanation, which has been heavily promoted in the trailers, comes way too late in the film, after the spheres have caused worldwide panic, collected some samples, then hightailed back to space. It's not a particularly convincing explanation, either. Klaatu is there to warn humanity that it's our time to go, given that we're destroying the planet and the universe kinda needs the place to keep sustaining life. Why would the aliens ruin the element of surprise by dispatching Klaatu? Is he acting of his own accord? And if he's so intent on warning us, why is he spending so much time with Jennifer Connelly in the woods?
We don't get the answer to any of those questions, or even the simple notion of what it is we're doing, exactly, that's destroying the earth. Though the obvious answer is "rampant consumerism and environmental ignorance," the prominent product placement from McDonald's, LG, Microsoft and others apparently ruled that answer out The original 1951 film carried a timely anti-nuclear message, but this film wouldn't dare offend anyone by even mentioning the phrase "global warming." When Helen argues at the end that humans can change, and are worth sparing, there's no notion of what it is we'd change if given the chance. Maybe Klaatu knows better after all.
The special effects, which really only shine once a swarm of metal bugs are unleashed like the ultimate plague of locusts, are effective but way too limited. I can't be the only one who enjoys watching the earth get destroyed, and expects at least a few good explosions and natural disasters when a movie promises something as grand as the earth standing still. Gort looks great, and there's an explosion or two, but the promised cataclysm never comes, and there's not even a single action sequence to take its place.
If it were just a workmanlike disaster movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still might be a guilty pleasure or a fun distraction. But its cowardly treatment of the political issue at its center kills it. Not that you expect every blockbuster to carry a serious message, but the movie gets so close to meaning something and then backs off out of naked fear, a lily-livered style of filmmaking that shows up in the rest of the film as well. The Day the Earth Stood Still is only about half the film it could have been, had anyone making it had balls to match their budget.