One of the pitfalls of being a full-time movie critic is that you sometimes have to give less-than-positive reviews to films that you really, really wanted to like.
It’s even more difficult when the director who made the film is someone you admire. But the new remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still marks just such an occasion.
There were many reasons to look forward to this film. For one thing, it is based on a classic science fiction film from 1951 – and the story, which concerns an alien who comes to earth to give us a warning, is eminently adaptable. Instead of warning us about the perils of the Cold War, he can warn us about other, newer problems.
Also, the new film was shot in Vancouver, and it was directed by Scott Derrickson, a Christian who is active in Hollywood and has been very open about his beliefs – not least when he co-wrote and directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a popular and intelligent horror movie that got people talking about faith and reason.
Derrickson has been juggling several projects since then, including an adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; but the first project to go before the cameras was this sci-fi remake, which the studio had been developing for some time. And the results, alas, are a mixed bag – for theological reasons as well as storytelling ones.
First, the storytelling. Like many remakes, this film is caught between the need to bring the material up to date, and the pressure to recycle familiar elements from the original film – even when they don’t seem to fit the internal logic of the new film.
Take, for example, the alien messenger (and not-so-subtle Christ-figure) Klaatu. In the first film, he was played by Michael Rennie, who went on to play the apostle Peter in The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators. Here, he is played by Keanu Reeves, who has already played the founder of one ancient religion (in Little Buddha) as well as a Christ-figure of sorts in the Matrix trilogy.
This time, however, Klaatu is not a man who shows up in a flying saucer. Instead, he inhabits a human body cloned from the DNA of a man who died years ago, and he emerges from his spherical spacecraft pale, naked and covered in goopy, placental slime – not unlike the actor’s first real-world appearance in The Matrix.
So far, so modernized. But then a robot emerges from the sphere, too – and it looks pretty much just like the robot from the earlier film, only much, much taller. Why does the new robot assume the rather old-fashioned form that it does, with a visor and a beam-shooting eye? The film never says, not even when the robot undergoes a stunning transformation that makes this question even more pertinent.
This time, the message Klaatu brings has nothing to do with our military, per se, but with our treatment of the environment. In fact, Klaatu doesn’t try very hard to give the human race any sort of warning; instead, after escaping from military custody, he decides to protect Mother Nature by wiping us out altogether.
This leads to a series of impressive, if gloomy, special effects that you have probably seen in the commercials, in which alien technology is, ironically, used to wipe out human technology. But obviously, a major Hollywood movie can’t just let the human race die out like that, so Klaatu has to change his mind for some reason.
Unfortunately, the reasons given are not all that compelling, and the alien’s change of heart comes across as awfully rushed, even trite. Klaatu spends much of his time with a scientist named Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), who argues with her all the time – and it is through his exposure to these people that Klaatu learns that humans can love and forgive each other.
The thing is, none of this should be a surprise to the aliens, who have supposedly been observing us for some time. Can it be that they really haven’t figured out what families are like, or what human relationships are like?
Would a few days with the Bensons really be enough to make the aliens halt a global apocalypse that had already been put into motion, and that had been years in the making?
Theologically, matters are even more complicated. Many of the messianic motifs that marked the first film – such as Klaatu’s death and resurrection – are missing, and have been replaced by new motifs that are even more cryptic in application.
Most significantly, the final scenes, which Derrickson has said are meant to evoke Christ’s atonement, send conflicting signals. The aliens seem more godlike, but they also seem more fallible – and Klaatu himself is changed by becoming human.
In the original film, Klaatu represented a certain ideal, a vision of what we humans could become, and our survival depended on becoming more like him.
In the remake, on the other hand, our survival depends on bringing Klaatu down to our level and making him more like us. That may or may not have theological significance, but it does suggest something about how our culture has changed.
Incidentally, I spoke to Derrickson a couple of days before the film came out, and my interview with him is now up at ChristianityTodayMovies.com. Check it out.
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On one level, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his play Doubt is a fairly obvious sort of movie: the title tells us it is about doubt; the first scene depicts a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) giving a sermon on doubt; and when a nun (Meryl Streep) accuses the priest of molesting a boy, we are never told whether the priest did, in fact, commit the deed in question. Instead, we are kept in, well, doubt.
But it is still fascinating to watch these actors speak this dialogue, and to realize how our own prejudices may or may not be influencing our interpretation of their lines.
The film is set in the Bronx in 1964, at a time of profound change for the Catholic Church; the council known as Vatican II would not end for another year. So we may be tempted to side with the priest, who represents, at least on the outside, a force of positive change – as opposed to the stern traditionalism of the nun.
But the film also takes place at a time when many cases of sexual molestation committed by Catholic priests were kept secret by their bishops – only to become a full-blown scandal in recent years. So we may be tempted to side with the nun, because she is the only one challenging her church’s patriarchal hierarchy.
These and other factors should keep the viewer on his or her toes, not because the film ever clarifies whether the priest is guilty or not – it doesn’t – but because it can help us to become aware of the way we interpret what we see and hear.
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After The Passion of the Christ came out nearly five years ago, many Christians were eager for a sequel – but none was forthcoming. Soon, however, we may get a sort of prequel – though the people making it may not want to call it that.
Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote The Passion, sold a script to MGM two years ago called Mary, Mother of the Christ – and now, according to Mary co-writer Barbara Nicolosi, cameras may be ready to roll on the new film by as early as March. Nicolosi, who also founded the Act One screenwriting program, has posted a few brief excerpts from the script at her blog, Church of the Masses.
And why do I say the makers of this new film might not want to call it a ‘prequel’ to The Passion? Because Fitzgerald has taken director Mel Gibson to court, claiming that he was underpaid for the work he did on that film. So the new film has nothing to do with Gibson – who has been ordered to give a deposition by mid-January.
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Residents of Hollywood North, mark your calendars. Theologian John Stackhouse and movie producer Ralph Winter will be teaching a week-long course on ‘The Ethics of Filmmaking and Other Media’ at Regent College at the end of July.
Winter is best known as a producer of effects-heavy blockbusters, from the Star Trek movies to recent comic-book franchises such as X-Men and Fantastic Four. But he has also worked on several Christian films, from Left Behind to Hangman’s Curse and Thr3e. He is currently developing an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters with Walden Media, the company behind the Narnia series.