In one eye and out the other, the sullen remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" airlifts certain story details straight from its source material. For example, the robot known as Gort resembles the metallic, helmet-headed being of the 1951 original, only he's taller and has better muscle tone, suggesting the occasional intergalactic workout. That's about it for visual links to director Robert Wise's film (his best, in any genre), which remains one of the great science fiction tales of its era; a sneaky, subversive Red Menace parable; an unfashionably pacifist statement underpinning a gripping documentary-style yarn; and haunting proof that composer Bernard Herrmann really knew how to deploy a theremin.
Updating the Edmund H. North original, fledgling writer David Scarpa sets up Earth's sins as more climate-based than warfare-based. This is "An Inconvenient Truth" with a firmer deadline. Klaatu, the advanced being from another world who assumes human form, has traveled with Gort to issue a warning to Earth's leaders: Either treat your planet with more care or prepare for mass extinction.
Keanu Reeves plays Klaatu, confining his usual two-and-a-half-note vocal range to half that. "The decision is made," he deadpans. "The process has begun." Why do aliens favor such passive sentence construction?
In the right vehicle -- "Speed," or the first "Matrix" -- Reeves brings an otherworldly serenity under pressure to the material at hand. Here, though, you wonder: Did Reeves and director Scott Derrickson ever consider not going the obvious route with this fellow? In the Wise version, Michael Rennie's Klaatu was deceptively human, a cultured, sophisticated thinker. He was better than human. Reeves, by contrast, portrays Klaatu like an actor playing a being from another world, with robotic line readings and an impassive air. It's a logical approach, but one with little spark or surprise. Klaatu is a blank, and all around him, the flying spheres and "Mummy"-inspired digital swirls of schmutz are strictly routine.
Oddly, it's the human-only interactions that work. Jennifer Connelly's Princeton scientist, brought in by the U.S. government to deal with the Klaatu problem, connects nicely with Jaden Smith, who plays her stepson. (The boy's father was killed in Iraq; in the original film, the equivalent character's husband was a casualty of Anzio.) It's gratifying to see veteran character actor James Hong in a non-comic cameo, that of a veteran alien visitor to Earth, long since assimilated. Likewise, John Cleese's Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe in the original) lends a quiet dignity to a film lacking in distinction, visual distinction most of all. Only briefly does this "Day" tip out of tedium and into camp. Cleese pleads with Connelly at one point to persuade Klaatu to give humankind another shot. "Change his mind, not with reason, but with yourself," he says. For a second there, it sounds as if we're in for a steamy outtake from "The Hot Spot."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun