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Earth to Keanu: You’re a Bit Late (But You Look Great!)

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!!


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.

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10 thoughts on “Earth to Keanu: You’re a Bit Late (But You Look Great!)”

  1. While I agree with P Coderch that the Xeelee Sequence would make a great movie (or better, a series of movies), Keanu would not be suitable to appear in any of them. The human Interim Coalition of Governance (“the Coalition”) follows what are known as the Druz Doctrines (named for Hama Druz, an early leader following the Qax Occupation, c. 6000 AD or so), whose primary article of faith is that “a brief life burns brightly”: Most of the human soldiers who fight the Xeelee are children, no older than 16. In fact, the Coalition discourages the notion of heroism or fame, since such concepts are counter to the goal of a united humanity.

    And when the humans “drive” the Xeelee from the Chandra black hole at the center of the Milky Way, it’s not that they actually DEFEATED the Xeelee. The Xeelee abandon the black hole because the method that the humans are using to attack them is potentially causing damage to the black hole itself and the “monads” (eternal, abstract beings which create each Universe in turn and then sleep through the lifespan of each Universe inside black holes) inside. Later on, once humanity has splintered into a vast number of empires, the Xeelee return to the Milky Way and other human-colonized galaxies with a vengeance, using their famed Xeelee construction material to seal off every star inside an opaque shell (“the Scourge”). Once they’ve driven the humans back to the Solar System, they seal the remaining humans inside a 4-dimensional prison. (The Xeelee did the same for other races, as well.) Once freed of the distractions of lesser lifeforms, the Xeelee are able to complete their Ring project and escape to another Universe where, hopefully, there won’t be dark matter or photino birds. The humans eventually find their way out of the prison and, using a Xeelee nightfighter left behind by the Xeelee as a lifeboat, escape through the Ring to yet another Universe.

  2. Lol, Mr.Simpson, saying that the Xeelee would make us look too small is an euphemism: if they make the Human galactic civilization from the year 70,000 A.D insignificant in comparison, then imagine how they would make us look as we are today. To give you an idea, consider that the Human civilization in the story is composed of quatrillions of people spread across 100,000,000 planets, and capable of such technological feats as faster-than-light travel and planet terraforming, and yet the Xeelee were so incomprehensibly superior that they deemed the Human civilization as being beneath notice. In the war against the Xeelee, 10,000,000,000 people died a year for 20,000 years, and the most we accomplished was to pester the Xeelee in the same way that mosquitoes pester us. Truly frightening. I agree with you that CGI can’t render that for less than a bilion Dollars: the Xeelee are simply way too majestic; way too titanic. As for Keanu, I don’t agree with you. In the war with against the Xeelee, Humans used cloned troops. Reeves could be the prototype soldier. Imagine how beautiful it would be to watch ten billion Keanus being atomized a year for twenty thousand years by the god-like aliens.

  3. No problem. I wish I could type so fast. Thanks for sharing that storyline with us. I’m sure that Hollywood optioned it years ago, but it won’t be made anytime soon. Not just because CGI would struggle to render it, but because it makes us all look a bit too small. Plus there’s not much of a role for Keanu’s twinkly eyes.

  4. It’s a remake and so by the Second Law of Hollywoodamics will be a pile of poo compared to the original. And I think Keanu might be dyeing his hair.

  5. Sorry bout the mispellings; it’s just that several letters on my keyboard are jamming and I type very fast.

  6. Once again, Mr.Simpson scores a fucking goal. I finally saw this gem – films come out here about two weeks afte they do in the U.K/U.S – and it is utter garbage. The whole ecological theme was too hyperbolic, as if the planet were at the edge of collapse, when in reality we still have a couple centuries to go before the level of poisons in the atmophere reaches a criical threshhold. Besides, any aliens who found a planet with a sentient species would be far more interested in the species than on the planet. The original was better in the sense that nuclear weapons cn really wie out all life on Earh sans cockroaches in 20 minutes, giving the orignal film a sense of real urgency.

    What really pises me off, though, is that, with so much truly great sci-fi out there, they would make such a sophomoric film on an even more sophomoric story. You know what I would really like to see in the silver screen? “The Xeelee Sequence”, by Stephen Baxter. It is a much deeper, and more stimulating science-fiction than most of the garbage out there:

    It is the year 70,000 AD, and Humans, after a series of wars and diplomatic dealings, have subdued the entire MW Galaxy and are now a galaxy-spanning civiization that is the most pwerful they are aware of. However, when Humaniy reaches the center of the galaxy, they meet the Xeelee, a mysterious race of aliens who control the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. The Xeelee are possesed of very strange technology that appears magical and incomprehensible for the extremely advanced Human galactic empire. After a war that lasts for a few thousand years and in which the Xeelee seem to mosty ignore Mankind, the Xeelee abandon the black hole and Humans take control of it. To make a long story short, the black hole at the center of the MW was only one of millions of black holes in millions of galaxies the Xeelee control. In fact, they are spread across the entire Universe living at the center of galaxies, where supermassive black holes are, and they use these supermassive black holes for their own purposes.

    What Humanity ignores is that the Xeelee are on a cosmic-wide war against the photino birds, dark matter beings that are accelerating the death of stars throughout the entire Universe because they prefer stars in a white dwarf status, and that the “war” with Humans for control of the supermassive black hole at the ceter of the MW, wich mobilized the entire resourcs of the galaxy-wide Human empire, was a minor distraction for the Xeelee, and they gave it up because they had millions of supermassive black holes and the loss of one would make no difference to them and they couldn’t afford to bte with anything other than the photino birds. Humans were these galaxy-spanning civilization possesed of incedibly advaned technology, such as warp drive, gravity manipulation and the ability to creat time-dilation fields, and yet they were like fleas compared to the Xeelee. In fact, the Xeelee evolved for BILLIONS of years since the Big Bang, and their technology is so hyper-advanced as to be beyond god-like. Some of the desciptons Baxter gives of the struggle between the Xeelee and photino birds are headache inducing, such as the Xeelee throwing entire galaxies as if they were pieces of rocks at their enemies, and engineering their entire civiization in a multi-dimensional perpetual time-loop so as to give themselves more time AND options to defeat the photino birds. The “wings” of Xeelee craft are made of time-space costruct itself, allowing them to travel between universes, dimensions and time instantly. However, the most impressive description of all is of the “The Ring” an object 200,000,000 light-years across built by the Xeelee of time-space construct that is so massive that it can tear a hole in our Universe to another Universe, which they built to escape the photino bird once and for all. The last book of the sequance is “The Ring”, and it ends with the Xeelee finally finishing off Humanity by making all the stars in the MW die except for the Sun, and then they lock the remaining Humans on Earth inside a four-dimensional quantum prison, leaving Humanity to ponder it’s mistake eternally – for time never passes inside a 4-D prison – while watching the photino birds kill all the stars in the Universe until dakness is all that’s left. Humans finally understand that they should have been fighting the photino birds, and comprehend how foolish it was to oppose the hyper-powerful aliens. The book ends with the Xeelee finally conceding defeat to the photino birds after 20 billion years of war, and exiting our Universe via the ring.

    What I like about this book is that Baxter has a PhD in physics, so can afford to give minutiae descriptions of the technology and science behind the races in his book wthout looking foolish. The other thing I like is that most sci-fi portrays civilizations that are centuries or at best millenia ahead of us, whilst with the Xeelee Baxter describes a civilization that is truly hyper-advanced, being billions of years ahead of where we are today. The Xeelee make the gods from most mythologies seem like impotent pussies in comparison: not only do they have power over the entire Universe, they have almost complete power over reality, creating univeses, time-periods and their own laws of physics at will. Their science is simply beyond Human comprehension, being some 20 billion years ahead of ours. The incredibly advanced Human galactic civlization from the year 70,000 were looked upon by the Xeelee in the same way the Human galactic civilization would look upon a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tribe. Truly titanic and awe-inspiring.

  7. Stephen: Your review is much more nuanced and fairer than I can be. I tend to be imprisoned by my own ‘conceits’. But wasn’t that kid annoying?

  8. When I first read about this film in a mate’s Empire my first thought was “Oh no!” – still loving the original. I read the interview with the director who felt the same and didn’t want to do a remake. He seemed to have a brain so I thought I’d take a chance and see it.

    I thought it was pretty good. It doesn’t have that 50s magic of the original but it brings up a number of urgent issues for consideration and, refreshingly for a Hollywood film, doesn’t give us a happy ending. I liked the raising of the yes/no, black/white attitude of most ‘earthlings’ and to me showed that we need to move beyond such a simplistic way of thinking. I felt the mother/child situation which is pivotal to the film didn’t really work which was unfortunate. I found it moving in ways I didn’t expect and felt it a good but not great film.

  9. I had the choice to see The Day the Earth Stood Still or Inkheart over the weekend. I plumped for Inkheart. I really didn’t want to see Keanu’s Klaatu. I have too fond a memory of Michael Rennie in the role. I was scared that they’d done the same God awful job on it as they’d done on War of the Worlds.

    I guess I made the right choice, besides, Brendan Fraser is a lot sexier than the stick thin Keanu!

  10. Out of loyalty to the original, I have no intention of seeing this. My guess it is what Nora Ephron’s mawkish ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ is to Ernst Lubitsch’s lilting ‘Shop Around the Corner’ — so enchanting that you actually believe Jimmy Stewart is from Budapest!

    In general I approach remakes of classic movies with the same wariness I bring to contemporary or unusual settings of Shakespeare. Sometimes they work, like McClellan’s BLF Richard the Third — lots of resonance there. Others . . . this summer I saw a production of ‘As You Like It’ set in Occupied France. I dunno . . . something about those swastikas seemed to put a damper on the enchantment factor. And don’t get me started on the punk-feminist ‘Taming of the Shrew’!?!

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