Mark Simpson on the metrosexual from outer space

‘It’s going to take a while for me to get used to this body.’ So says a shaking Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still, staring wide-eyed at his disobedient hands trying to hold a glass of water and convey pathos. Both end up all over the floor.

Keanu is now a 44 year-old highly-paid Hollywood actor, so one can’t help but wonder whether he will ever quite get used to his body.

To be fair, he’s talking as Klaatu, the alien from outer space with bad news for the human race, who has just been reborn into human shape because his original form ‘would only scare you’. I don’t know about you, but I find the shape of Keanu Reeve’s hyper-plucked eyebrows a little scary as well.

In the superlative 1951 original directed by Robert Wise, still a gold-standard for Sci-Fi more than half a century later, Klaatu was played by a 42 year-old Michael Rennie who was a rather better alien and actor. As in the remake, Klaatu is shot by the Yanks for parking his flying saucer on the grass and generally being alien. At the hospital where his wound is treated the doctors, all of them male and all of them smoking like emphysema hasn’t been invented, excitedly discuss the exotic new admission, like a 1950s blokey version of contemporary gossipy celeb watchers. ‘How old do you think he is?’ asks one. ’35, maybe 38’, replies another, unfiltered, high tar superking-dong dangling from his lower lip.

‘He’s actually 78!’ ‘No!!

keanureeves

Time travel not space travel turned out to be the industry of the future. Much as I love the angular, aquiline Michael Rennie’s performance in the original  – and unlike Reeves, he actually inhabits his own body – by the suspended animation standards of today’s male Hollywood star he looks much closer to 78 than 38. He looks, in other words, rather more like today’s Clint Eastwood than Keanu Reeves.  Keanu is actually two years older than Rennie’s Klaatu, but looks about 30 if a day. But then, I’ll bet he doesn’t smoke, or eat anything served in a diner.

1951 would have been much more amazed by 21st Century man than anything from outer space. If Keanu Reeves had landed in Central Park in 1951 the US Army wouldn’t have known whether to shoot him or kiss him. The original film was made just before post-war consumerism really got into it’s 50s stride and the America it portrays looks almost pre-war. Dowdy, even. All the civilian men save Klaatu wear big hats and lumpy suits and look rather bovine and almost deliberately unappealing.

Patricia Neal & Michael Rennie

Director Scott Derrickson seems to have noticed this too, and cast John Hamm, nasty retrosexist – but very appealing – Don Draper in Mad Men, the TV drama set in the early 60s, when men were men and women were secretaries, as the tweed-jacketed leader of the scientific team charged with saving the planet. Underlining that the patriarchal past is indeed history, Hamm turns out to be a false saviour, and instead Mother Earth is saved by a single female astrobiologist and her ringleted mixed-race stepson whose soldier dad died in the Iraq war. The film seems to suggest he’s better off without him: the US Armed Forces, not the alien bent on wiping us out are cast as the movie’s bad guys – trigger-happy idiots with seriously dodgy moustaches whose machismo just hastens our demise.

In the original, Klaatu’s human helpmeet Helen is played by the wonderful Patricia Neal, a woman who had one the most concave and most hypnotic faces in Hollywood – it’s practically a radar dish of emotion – who works as a secretary.  In the remake, the Secretary of Defence is a woman: Kathy Bates doing her best Hillary Clinton/Madeleine Albright.

The biggest changes that the future held out for us turned out not to be flying cars or Martian colonies, and certainly not Ipods and email, but alien gender roles.  Unfortunately for the remake, and possibly for the future we’re actually living in, Neal’s character is much feistier, sympathetic and more watchable than the latter-day career (super)woman played by Jennifer Connolly.

1951’s Klaatu spoke with an English accent: partly because Rennie was from Wakefield, in Northern England, and partly because in 1951 English was the scary foreign voice of authority. Keanu’s Klaatu on the other hand speaks with a Neo accent: this remake was developed as a (hybrid) vehicle for The One. Unfortunately, in an attempt to make the film eco-friendly and now-ish, there’s more than a little Al Gore in Klaatu too, which in movies not actually made with PowerPoint is not a good thing, and his character falls between two melting icebergs.

Where 1951’s Cold War Klaatu was a warning against our warlike instincts, 2008’s Klaatu is recast as the avenging angel of Gaia: the earth is a living organism and we’re an infection that has to be zapped. ‘It’s not your planet,’ he tells Kathy Bates.  Accordingly, instead of a polluting flying saucer, Keanu flies around in a giant glowing zero emissions new age crystal ball.  Eco show-off.

But if the Earth/America is dying as a result of our voracious consumerism, then Mr Reeves must bear quite a bit of responsibility for that himself. You don’t get to look fourteen years younger than your birth certificate without using a lot of product.

Hypocrisy however is the least of the film’s problems.  The present has, as it usually does, undone our dreams for the future – even the dystopian dreams.  Since it went into production a couple of years ago, the environmentalist message – or conceit – of the film that human industriousness threatens to destroy the world has been upstaged by what increasingly looks like the collapse of the global economy. A special effect to end all special effects.

When Klaatu unleashes his Day of Judgement whirlwind, a huge CGI swarm of unstoppable nano-locusts laying waste to everything in their path – trucks, tanks, oil refineries, Manhattan – it looks a bit underwhelming and pointless.  After all, we know something even more voracious and destructive has been there first. Called bankers.

Once upon a time Hollywood movies could make the world stop and stare and sometimes even ponder.  Stand still. The magical 1951 original helped define an era and fired young imaginations for decades. Those days are long gone. This remake, like most movies today, won’t persuade anyone to even sit still.