Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
[XP] Starring:  Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese,
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: David Scarpa
 

A massive object is hurtling toward Manhattan at a tenth the speed of light . What to do? Why yes, set up a command center in nearby New Jersey, assemble a team of top scientists to deal with the aftermath, and send them up in helicopters circling New York City just before the predicted impact. What a brilliant plan! It's almost as clever as taking a classic science fiction film--number five in AFI's top ten--one with a serious message, and reducing it to pointless silliness in an ill-conceived remake.

So, what's wrong with being in a helicopter circling a city about to be hit by a major piece of space junk whistling in at a tenth the speed of light? If it were merely the mass of a 747 aircraft, the impact would be roughly the equivalent of 47,300 megatons of TNT going off. Put another way, it would release 946 more energy than the largest nuclear bomb test ever conducted, the  Russian made Tsar bomb design for a 100 megatons yield  but only tested at 50 megatons. When tested, the mushroom cloud from this bomb was 25 miles (40 km) wide with blast damage up to 621 mi  (1,000 km) away. Imagine the size of the mushroom cloud if it had 946 times as much energy causing it.

Okay, maybe someone on high knew the truth, that the space junk was really a spacecraft about to land, and that helicoptering scientists to the vicinity wasn't an automatic death sentence. Maybe they decided it was best not to pass the word.

Still, it's pretty hard to imagine that a multi-discipline group of world class scientists would be willing to circle the site of an asteroid strike before it happened. First, it's unlikely that the impact point could be predicted accurately enough to know where the helicopters should circle. Second, the scientists would easily figure out ahead of time that it was a suicide mission.

Instead of crashing, the object slows and touches down in Central Park. It turns out to be a gigantic glowing marble with swirling white green and blue stuff on its surface. How it manages to slow down in the last few seconds of its decent is a mystery. First, something has to happen with the marble's kinetic energy. The typical choice for braking would be to turn the kinetic energy into heat. Unfortunately, converting 47,300 megatons of TNT worth of kinetic energy into heat as the marble approached the surface would have an effect similar to setting off the 947 Tsar bombs--not a good idea if you're an extraterrestrial from an advanced culture who wants to address the world's leaders at the UN. There'd be no UN left.

The second problem is the acceleration required for stopping. If the marble stopped in, say, 10 minutes the required acceleration would be a little over 5,000 g, enough to homogenize most life forms, not to mention tear up a typical glowing inter-galactic marble. To stop with a more acceptable acceleration of 1.0 g would take a little over 35 days.

The military, police, and scientists immediately surround the big marble with weapons locked and loaded (except for the scientists who are wearing bio-hazzard suites). Mesmerized by its light, astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is drawn toward it as a being emerges from the glow. Just as their outstretched hands are about to meet, POW. The being slumps to the ground shot by a jittery human moron--oops. The next being to emerge, if you can call him a being, is Gort the robot. He's been on steroids not to mention a heavy workout schedule since his last movie appearance and he's not in a good mood.

 

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The 1951 Original Day the Earth Stood Still

The original movie had its share of physics flaws. For example, there's no known mechanism that could explain how Klaatu temporarily shut down all forms of electrical and mechanical power as a means of getting his message across. There's no way that Gort could have walked into town unnoticed when he recovered Klaatu, not to mention that the reanimation of Klaatu was certainly a stretch. Still, even today the film's story and message hold up.

Why? Because when it stretched the physics it did so for the sake of story without frills or mumbo-jumbo explanations. Even more important, it had a story that was interesting and thought provoking with characters the audience could care about.

The original Klaatu (Michael Rennie) was almost perfectly cast. He had an other world quality, yet came across as compassionate and truly interested in humanity. By comparison, the current Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) could have been played by a sleepwalker.

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After giving his boss's assailants the red eye, Gort is finally calmed down by a few well chosen words from the wounded Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). Following the confrontation, Klaatu passes out and is hurried off to a special facility set up for his treatment.

It turns out that Klaatu is wearing a placenta suit, so that he can be born on Earth as a human. (Does, he intend to become a U.S. citizen and run for president?) With both the bullet and the placenta-goo removed we see a naked Keanu Reeves strategically placed--for the sake of the PG-13 rating--on a table, apparently in a coma. We're told he undergoes exponential growth as he lays sleeping. (How does he eat?) As far as we can tell, exponential growth must be describing the growth of his hair because his body doesn't look all that small to begin with.

When he wakes up, Klaatu requests to immediately address world leaders at the UN.  Much to his displeasure, he's turned down.  In the original 1951 movie this scene made sense. It would have been difficult to inform all of humanity about the danger they faced without the cooperation of world leaders. There was no Internet and television was in its infancy. While radio was more mature, there were significant political barriers to communication that would have prevented a message from being flashed around the globe without being turned into propaganda. Besides who would have believed it if a voice had come over the radio waves saying, "hello, I'm a spaceman. Change your ways or die."

At the time the world's two opposing camps, the communists and the capitalists, were continually on the verge of mutual annihilation by nuclear war. To have passed the message to one group without simultaneously informing the other would have at best been seen as favoritism. More likely, it would have been interpreted as trickery.

The 1951 message had to be communicated to world leaders. According to the original Klaatu, the advanced extraterrestrial cultures had banded together and created a race of robots that would destroy any culture threatening the group's peaceful existence. Since Earth's people now possessed nuclear capability and were beginning to venture into space, they posed such a threat. If Earthlings did not change course, they would eventually be annihilated by the robots. Since the control of nuclear weapons as well as Earth's space exploration rested in the hands of Earth's leaders, they alone could have made the necessary changes.

Even in democratic countries, the average citizen had no real control over the possible use of nuclear weapons or the direction of space exploration. Communicating directly with ordinary people around the world would have had little immediate effect on the situation.

By contrast the current Klaatu's message that humanity is killing the Earth and that they must stop or be immediately annihilated requires a radically different approach. First, it requires clarification. How does one kill the Earth and how should one desist? The hot topic of the day is global warming and certainly it could have horrendous long term consequences including the annihilation of many species of plants and animals, but climate changes and mass extinctions have happened before without killing the planet. Evidently, killing the Earth is more complex.

Unlike in 1951, rapid world-wide  communication would not just be easier; in 2008 it would be guaranteed. The landing alone would be a major media event. To effectively communicate, the 2008 Klaatu should go on television and not just present his message but explain it. For one thing, he should explain why beings from a different star system would travel though the vastness of outer-space to deliver such a message when happenings on Earth  pose no threat to them. Are they planning an invasion?

While  the requirements of the 1951 message could have been met only by the cooperation of the world leaders, the requirements of the 2008 message (assuming it's aimed at problems like global warming and the over-consumption of resources) could only be met by the widespread cooperation of the world's people. Leaders attempting to make changes without the widespread agreement of their citizens would face major political upheaval. On the other hand, through lifestyle changes, individuals could make significant improvements  without government mandates.

After failing to deliver his message and concluding that an appeal to humanity is useless. Klaatu retreats to a swamp and activates yet another glowing marble albeit of a lesser diameter. Even though there are no leaves on nearby deciduous trees and the weather is clearly cold, the swamp is full of swarming insects and frogs. These are attracted into the glowing marble and carried aloft. We see similar scenes of glowing marbles around the world attracting wild life and carrying it aloft to safety. In case anyone misses the symbolism,  Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) ponders aloud that the marbles are like Noah's arks. Gosh, does this mean a Biblical-type judgment is on the way?

The Messianic symbolism of an advanced being choosing to be born on Earth in human form in order to bring a message of salvation is unmistakable, but the 2008 messenger is certainly no Jesus. He's more like a remorseless  executioner. When he's hooked to a polygraph and questioned, the 2008 Klaatu magically sends impulses back through the machine into the polygraph operator and tortures him into revealing how to exit the building. Klaatu then makes his escape leaving the operator slumped over his table presumably dead.

When later attacked by two helicopters, the current Klaatu's outstretched palms emit red laser beams that magically hook onto the copters. He then smash them together with a simple motion of his hands killing all aboard in a fiery crash. We would point out that, aside from reflections caused by dust, red lasers do not have a visible beam, however, these are clearly not lasers. They're some magical new device that has no scientific explanation.

When a cop attempts to arrest him, the new Klaatu coldly uses his magic powers to smash two cars together crushing the cop in between, an action that makes young Bobby hysterical. In response, Klaatu rubs some magic salve on his finger and sticks it in the cop's mouth and places his hand on the squad car. Why yes, cars carry the life force of humanity and it surges through Klaatu into the hapless cop while wildly sounding the siren and flashing the blinky lights--the life blood of movie police car chases. The cop revives. It's yet another remake-miracle. We wonder why Klaatu bothers--he has already  revealed that he's decided to annihilate the human race and has set the process in motion--but, on second thought, it does shut the kid up, so maybe Klaatu did have a good reason after all.

The 1951 movie also had the salve. We learned about it indirectly when one of the human characters expressed amazement that Klaatu had healed his gunshot wound overnight by rubbing some cream on it. The current movie avoids such senseless subtleties. Why leave anything to the imagination when one can instead use a cheesy special effect? We first see the cream used in the 2008 movie when Klaatu rubs a little on his stitched up wound, and presto, the wound along with the stitches immediately disappear.

Meanwhile, Gort been captured by the humans and taken to a secure underground facility to be analyzed and deactivated. Of course he can't simply be named Gort, as Klaatu called him in the 1951 movie, he has to be named by the humans as GORT, an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology --yet more remake-cleverness.

Gort obviously is only going to take just so much experimentation and just when we think he's about to activate his red eye he instead turns into a locust-like swarm of metal nanites.  These fly through the air and devour everything in sight: road signs, buildings, and entire sports stadiums in the process. Apparently the nanites reproduce almost instantaneously as they devour. We say locust-like because, while real locusts devour all plant life in their path, they do so because plants provide not just the building materials needed for their growth but even more important the energy source that powers them and allows them to reproduce, a cycle that takes months.

The now extinct Rocky Mountain locusts used to periodically strip the landscape of foliage in the western part of the United States. A swarm in 1874 covered an area larger than the size of California and had an estimated weight of 27.5 million tons (25 billion kg). Just causing this swarm to take off and rise 10 meters in the air would have required the energy equivalent of over 20,000 gallons of gasoline (77,000 l). Expecting high-tech locusts to willfully expend the energy required to destroy structures with no available food value as energy is ridiculous.

Anyone who's used a grinder to shape a piece of metal knows that a road sign made of heavy sheet metal would take a substantial amount of energy to disintegrate. Imagine the energy input required to disintegrate an entire stadium or high rise, let alone the amount of energy required to produce trillions of metal nanites and have them fly cross-country to wipe out not just humanity but everything remotely associated with it. So, where is all this energy coming from? Certainly, not out of the metal they consume.

Aside from the energy issues, what's going to stop the nanites from chewing into chemical storage tanks, oil tankers, nuclear power plants, and trees. If Earth is about to die from the carelessness of humanity, wouldn't thousands of ecological disasters scattered around the globe be the finishing blow? But, even more unbelievable, just when the disaster is well under way Klaatu flip-flops.

In the 1951 movie, attempts to communicate with politicians also proved worthless. Nevertheless, the problem was solved by contacting a famous physicist who eventually assembled an international group of scientists that heard  Klaatu's message. The current movie starts to develop a similar story line when Kaatu is brought to meet Prof. Jacob Barnhardt (John Cleese), who has won the Nobel prize for--get this--biological altruism, never mind that there is no Nobel prize in biology. However, the big meeting with scientists is not to be. Young Bobby Benson (Jaden Smith) rats out Klaatu and the authorities arrive.

From our perspective the whiney quisling, young Bobby could have single handedly convinced an Earthman let alone a spaceman that humanity was annoying beyond redemption, but apparently, with some help from his stepmother and Prof. Barnhardt, he convinces Klaatu otherwise. Of course, redemption comes with a price tag: as Klaatu leaves aboard his glowing marble, he shuts down the nanites and subsequently all the world's vehicles, machinery, and electrical devices.

What compassion! Klaatu travels across the vastness of outer space to save the planet by destroying humanity, has a change of heart, and instead merely sends humanity back into the dark ages. Yes, the shut-down could be just a harmless temporary warning as was the case in the original movie, but certainly having a major portion of the United States' people and structures eaten by nanites would be neither harmless nor temporary.

If only the spacemen had been more proactive. They could have avoided the whole debacle by shutting down the current remake as a warning to others who are tempted to mindlessly exploit an otherwise worthwhile original. Surely an advanced all-powerful culture would not have stood still for such silliness.

 


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