I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.
— Klaatu (Michael Rennie), 1951
On its face, casting Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, that most thoughtful visitor from another planet, seems inspired. Or maybe just obvious. Who better to convey wonder at the constraints of a suddenly imposed human body or rue the race’s ignorance than Ted-unto-Neo? Indeed, his first appearance in the new The Day the Earth Stood Still suggests that someone involved has considered this peculiar sub-story: shot by an overeager military representative as soon as he alights from his space ship, Klaatu is hustled away to a lab, where he is observed by soldiers and scientists as his body transforms — from protoplasmic confusion into a very pretty human male. His audience is thrilled, intrigued, and not a little alarmed as he slams against his confines and sheds gooey skin. But Klaatu’s assessment is most acute: “This body will take some getting used to. It feels unreal to me, alien.”
Lucky for him, the onlookers include a Princeton microbiologist named Helen (Jennifer Connelly). They share an immediate connection, partly because she was trying to take his outstretched hand when that unknown trigger-happy galoot took him down in Central Park, splattering her white hazmat suit with Klaatu’s bright red hemoglobin. Here in the lab, while the rest of her team wonders how to kill this guy, she asks pertinent questions, like, “What were you before you were human?” Klaatu can’t explain, exactly: “Different, he says, “It would only frighten you.” Well, there is that.
While Helen smiles and nods, Klaatu faces more aggressive questions from U.S. Secretary of Defense Jackson (Kathy Bates), who asserts that she speaks for the president and the veep (who have run off to undisclosed locations in the wake of the space ship’s landing), if not precisely the human race, as Klaatu inquires. Her take-charge tone is equally unimpressive to Helen, who has been dragged out of her home in the middle of the night by a squad of uniforms citing “national security.” Feeling especially insecure because she’s also been separated from her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), Helen is disinclined to help Jackson and other authorities, but visibly captivated by Klaatu, a scientific novelty to be sure, not to mention an apparently nice guy.
And so Helen’s utterly nonsensical adventure begins. Like Patricia Neal before her (but without her terrific sweaters and skirts), she helps the alien to escape from the humans, and even brings Jacob along for the ride. The boy is understandably confused, tending to resent Helen and miss his dad, an engineer recently killed in Iraq; not incidentally, this backstory detail reinforces Helen’s distrust of her government’s preference for military-first options as well as the film’s focus on the havoc wreaked by American humans in particular. Like the old Day, the new one worries about the havoc, though it changes the cold war threat into an environmental one, such that Klaatu’s mission is to save the earth from people, in the name of a “group of civilizations” who mean to preserve the precious few planets capable of sustaining “complex life.”
To this end, he’s come to earth with the robot Gort, who embodies the movie’s most egregious efforts to make everything bigger, louder, and more inscrutable. While the first Gort posed an elegant menace, contained within a metallic basketball-player-sized form that could take instruction (“Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!”), this one is outsized and silly, drawing fire from military drones, fighter jets, and tanks driven by flat-out crazy Southern colonels. Here Klaatu’s separation from Gort lacks tension, mostly because he’s distracted by Helen, with whom he spends inordinate time driving from place to place (not exactly exploiting the advanced technologies that can, for instance, annihilate a planet in minutes). While Klaatu watches Helen and Jacob argue over whether to turn him in (or more entertainingly, munches a tuna sandwich while watching random humans fight over a train ticket), Gort takes some major abuse by those supercilious military types, poking and prodding him until at last he explodes into a zillion specks in order to visit on the earth a plaguey sort of desiccating death.
Klaatu never quite articulates why the “civilizations” he represents are so mad at humans. He does, briefly, seek a motive from a fellow envoy, Mr. Wu (James Hong). Having lived on earth for some 70 years, Wu has, he says, developed an odd affection for humans despite their awfulness. “I’m afraid they’re not a reasonable race,” he says sadly. Neither in their bent for self-destruction nor in their storytelling.