Friday, May 08, 2009

How 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' Made My Weekend

Remakes of popular classics are, by definition, one of the worst possible encroachments on our treasured memories.

The recent Indiana Jones is a perfect example of how a good idea can be ruined by a need to be topical, with-it and savvy. The same goes for the Avengers movie, which shouldn't have been produced in the first place, as well as Bewitched, Starsky and Hutch and, yes, Charlies Angels, too.

The unbelievable Star Wars prequel trilogy (must find a suitable title for those three movies) was another sad instance of an attempt to revive a franchise and ending up with something else altogether. I'm sure the jury is still out on that one and while it can be said that Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader was shown as a tragedy in the classical sense nevertheless one couldn't help asking, but why on earth? I've yet to see the new Star Trek movie and since it's about Kirk and Spock's early years... one can only hope that the obvious need to extend this franchise is done in more subtle ways.

Having made my distaste for re-makes quite clear, I need to point out that there can be a few exceptions, too.

It's really not possible to satisfy anyone with remakes because the original usually is so much part of a certain era's cultural landscape that a remake just doesn't succeed in reconnecting that past. Some would say that's not the idea of remakes in the first place and the only purpose is to show that the 'story' or 'plot' is relevant across generations, and still has the capability of registering profits for studios. This could be right in a way because Charlies Angels the movie is so far removed from Charlies Angels the tv show. Those of us who grew up watching the show found it a bit hard to relate with the fast-paced, sexually charged, campy look of the movie even though the show had all these elements but not in such obvious ways. Maybe we were just too fixated on Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd... and somehow however attractive the new Angels were, they were no match for the original threesome. Alright, I'm just being biased, that's all.

And this brings me to last week's DVD that I rented and inspired this post.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" comes with two discs -- the original 1951 version and the new Keanu Reeves version. I didn't grow up with the original and so there were no cultural or emotional milestones that connected me with the original. To me it was just another black and white movie produced long before I was born or even thought of. The new version is lot closer to my cultural experience and should resonate with what I'm expected to appreciate.

What I did, however, was to watch both movies back-to-back to get a sense of how a plot could be 'adapted' and 're-made' for a new generation that has no 'link' with what people in the 50s experienced. And it would be no exagerration to say that it was quite an eye-opener and one of the most delightful experiences I've had for a long, long time. It has to be added that this 'delightful experience' had nothing to do with the merits of both the movies and more to do with the similarities and dissimilarities that I noticed between the two.

The film is essentially about a flying saucer that lands on Earth and an alien named Klaatu walks out of the saucer alongwith a robot named Gort. Klaatu comes in peace but gets shot by an overenthusiastic military personnel and is promptly hospitalised. The 'government machinery' is suspicious of his intentions and has him apprehended but Klaatu escapes and a manhunt ensues. He warns of an impending apocalyptic scenario unless people of the earth change their ways and it is left up to ordinary citizens to show him that the Earth is not such a bad place, and we earthlings should be given a chance. In both versions, he prefers relaying his message not to one nation but to all nations that represent the planet, and this suggestion is not appreciated by the powers-that-be that are in contact with him.

It's amazing how we have this love-hate relationship with alien beings. Sometimes we like to show them as ferocious and how alien savagery initiates the process of bringing earthlings together. And then we have these other bewildered aliens who come in peace but are hunted down by angry and paranoid humans. In both cases, it is always the disunity amongst humans that gives these 'alien' plots their driving force... almost as if we're trying to figure out why we hate each other so much and how only an 'outside' force is required to unite us or to tell us that we've lost our way.

The original 1951 movie was made right after the Second World War and has a strong anti-nuclear message. Klaatu says that as long as Earthlings fought amongst each other it was not a problem to other alien beings in the universe. However nuclear energy used for destructive purposes had the possibility of unleashing violence beyond the earth's atmosphere and this was something that the aliens will not tolerate and unless governments on earth promise to eliminate these weapons earth will be safe... if they don't destroy these weapons, then, the aliens will destroy earth before earth becomes a destructive force for other planets.

The new version doesnt use a nuclear holocaust as the 'danger' but the environment becomes the villain and once again a warning is issued that unless earthlings shape up the earth will be destroyed. However, in the current version, the decision is already made and Gort has a more important role in the matter than in the original. While in the earlier version, Gort was subject to Klaatu's commands, nothing much changes in the command structure in the new version except that in the new version Gort is more autonomous and is pre-programmed and Klaatu has to travel through a storm to 'change' the command.

What I found more interesting is that the story's essential premise of the earth gone haywire and its imminent destruction is as relevant today as it was five decades ago. Nuclear holocaust is still very much a threat but the environment, too, reveals some dangers due to humanity's irresponsible tinkering. In that sense, the film was easily able to 'update' itself without losing the essential plot. I'm sure even if the story is given another makeover fifty years from now there will be some 'new' danger that will require alien scolding. This is a really curious phenomenon: is it hubris or something else that makes us, as a species, so self destructive?

Ideally, education and technology should have eliminated the savage instinct and made us more responsible, cultured, and humane but that hasn't happened. We seem to be technologically more sophisticated in our destructiveness and education hasn't really done much to build cohesiveness or a sense of unity. If anything, it has given us better explanations for perpetuating our prejudices and our violences because we are not a peaceful race and it would require a major shift in our basic thought processes to make it possible. The greek word for repentance is 'metanoia' or 'new mind', and perhaps, that's what is required: a complete rebooting of the mental framework.

In the 1951 version, the saucer lands in Washington DC but this time it lands in Central Park, New York because this time Klaatu apparently is well informed that the United Nations, the official representative of a majority of countries is located in this city. I was wondering what subtle message was being conveyed by making an alien spacecraft land in Washington DC and not anywhere else. I'm sure many would contest that the message was not subtle at all but a bold statement on US power, supremacy and supposed hegemony. It is understandable since the cold war was at its paranoid heights, and each bloc wanted to emphasise its own moral superiority. While these compulsions may have been there, I do think it was quite bold for the film to take a neutral and an almost 'non-aligned' position because eventually the government machinery is not shown in a favourable light as much as Moscow is shown to be obstinate.

Another glaring difference between the two version was the near absence of any 'black faces' in the original... there were only few in the crowd but nowhere else and this could be more to do with the era being less politically correct and shot many years before the civil rights agitation began in earnest. Hence, the newer version made appropriate changes keeping in mind the changes to the demographics. If the earlier version had a single white woman and her white son as Klaatu's friends, the newer version also has a single white woman but in this case she has a black stepson. This would have been impossible in the earlier version because it would have implied that a white woman actually married a black man, and was willing to adopt his son as her own.

The tension between the woman and the boy was less to do with race and more to do with relational problems that any step parent has to face. I think this has been a welcome change because it shows that race is no longer an 'issue' worth bothering about and the real tension in relationships is of 'individual' nature. In fact, that should be the case in all circumstances but is rarely so and we use 'race and ethnicities' as our favourite excuses for any breakdown.

Another big difference between the two movies is technological. While the earlier version was focused on the story, the newer version used a lot of special effects to massage it further to spice up the narrative. In the same vein, the newer version brought in a lot more complex details into the film such as, doing away with the linear narrative of the 1950s version and introducing other elements, too. Hence, we have a Klaatu lookalike making a discovery of a sphere in the Himalayas in the 1920s that seems to suggest the aliens have been visiting our planet for many years now. Or having him meet an old Chinese man who happens to be an alien spy left on earth for many years. His task was to give a report on the planet and recommends earth's destruction because it fails to meet the grade. However he refuses to leave the planet along with Klaatu because he loves it here and finds the planet a pleasant world despite its various contradictions.

So in a sense the film is worth watching but only if you view both versions back to back. I wouldnt recommend the newer version by itself because, for all its technology and special effects, it is not engaging enough and many of the plots seem rather forced. But if you compare both films together, it can be a very interesting socio-cultural and anthropological study. I'm not sure if that falls in your idea of entertainment, and if it is, then the films will be worth viewing. However, if cool effects is all what you're looking for, then, 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' wont disappoint.

But what I really need to find out is: how does this film match up to those who grew up on the previous version? Their answer will be far more interesting than anything we may have to say.