Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Having just managed to survive the Great Eastern Seaboard Earthquake of Anno Domini MMXI, during which lawn-chairs toppled cruelly to the turf, and zoo animals expressed their discontent;

We *can* rebuild !

and being right now, even as I write (last words?), smack dab in the sights of fearsome Hurricane Irene, which politicians and the media (doubtless wishing not to be caught with their pants down Katrina-fashion) have been treating like the Storm of the Century, or of the Millennium, or of the Phanerozoic Era (the citizens have just been urged to write their name and next of kin on a piece of paper and place it in their left shoe, so that when they find the bodies... Not making this up) ;  my wife and I borrowed some movies from the library, focusing on disaster flicks, like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.  The package featured the Keanu Reeves remake; but to our delight, we found, as a Lucky Strike extra, the original 1951 B&W bundled therewith, and so we watched that first.

I sort of dreaded it, since from the title you’d think it would be a long panorama of things that fall down and go boom:  the planet ceasing to revolve or rotate  being the heliocentric terrestrial perspective on that ancient day when the sun stood stock-still in the sky.  But it turns out they didn’t mean that;  the movie might more candidly have been titled “The Day People Quit Driving So Darned Much (if only for half an hour)”.  Anyhow, pleasant surprise:  It isn’t really a disaster flick, and only superficially science-fictional, but rather depicts, with some skill, the aims and anxiety of our postwar/cold-war nation, at a time when I was in diapers, and my bride-to-be lay sleeping in the womb.   Such documents always fascinate me:  “See what we missed!”

A nice touch for linguists:   That theme of a linguist saving the day  appears to some extent here, when the alien tells a laywoman what phrase to say to prevent the irate robot from reducing Earth to a cinder.  “Klaatu barada nikto”, he says;  and he only says it once.
Now, the linguistic chops of most Americans lie between those of the earthworm and the paramecium on their less-talkative days.  The best we might hope for from your ordinary Joe would be, “Uh, Mr Robot?  Mm…  Kaku booboo noonoo…. Uh… Coocoo wawa boofoo… Hmm…. Parlay-voo espanyol?  Oo sont les toilettes ?”  But our heroine recites the passphrase letter-perfect, and the planet is spared.

~        ~        ~

UPDATE…  [imagine these words appearing on your screen  one stuttering character at a time, spit out by a clattering teletype]

Suzanne wanted to watch the sequel “before the power goes out”, so we booted up the 2008 version.

Hurricane update:  It’s barely even raining, with not so much as a breeze!  Sheesh!  I want my money back!

~ ~ ~

Right away you know that this version is “more ambitious”, since it starts out, not with the basic story -- which the 1951 forerunner wasted no time at all getting to, and stuck with it throughout -- but with some sneak-preview prequel whatever set in the Himalayas in 1928, in which blah-de-blah happens; the which will either be simply forgotten, or, worse, the movie will strain to somehow work in its relevance.   I’m thinking of “24”, which bit off more than it should even bother to chew, in the way of distracting loose-ended subplots.

Hurricane update:  Okay okay.  Here in Homestead County, so far it’s pretty much of a bust.  But you guys north of here?   Yooo -- ahhh --- dooooooooooooomed !!!

~ ~ ~


Okay so, this time around, it’s not our nukes that are freaking the aliens, it’s our SUVs, carbon emissions, all that…   Ironic note:  The movie studio here is 20th-C.-Fox, owned by international dirtbag Rupert Murdoch, chief patron of the climate-change deniers. 
Well, go figure.  Fox was also behind “24”, which presented a very sympathetic, very plausible, very presidential picture of a first black Chief Executive of the US.   Which may very well (so works the human mind) have helped Obama into the office he now holds.
(The Weltgeist smiles …)

Hurricane update:  All quiet on the Snowden Parkway front.
The thought occurs to me… Perhaps this “Hurricane Irene” is actually just … a hoax, like the Apollo landings!  Just something got up by the media to boost their ratings!  Everything is explained !!

~ ~ ~

[dateline:  Langley, Virginia… 9:21 p.m. …]


Stand-in for the President (for some reason, the President himself is missing in action during this entire film, apparently gotten out of the way  just so they could have a female in charge):  Which of our agencies gathered this intel?
Military guy:  None.  We got it off the Internet.


~ ~ ~

OK, bottom line.
The Rotten-Tomatoes consensus of contemporary critics  exalts the 1951 movie to the skies, and roundly pans the remake.   In this, there would appear to be some critics’ bias.  I very much doubt if contemporary audiences would render the same verdict, especially if they did not watch the two movies side-by-side.
True, the original movie was a (minor) milestone for its time; whereas the remake is just one in a barely-distinguishable plethora of thrillers.   Moreover, the original was seamless, comprehensible to Ma & Pa Kettle, entertaining and more-or-less understandable to any 8-year-old child;  whereas the latter was probably hard to follow for anyone who hadn’t seen the original and hence known what the plot was supposed to be.  It’s not worth pointing out the dozen or so junctures at which the remake made no narrative sense:  the original lasted an hour or so, and was probably shot in a couple of hours; the remake may have had 3,000 hours of footage in the can, and in the course of (locally-careful) editing, crucial logical transitions were lost.  (Suzanne thought it one of the most disjointed movies she’d seen;  but I suspect that her expectations had been raised by knowing, from the original, what it all was supposed to mean.  The remake is truly no worse than dozens of other summer movies.)
But the later movie had beauties of its own -- principally cinematographic:  shots of aching beauty (in a forest; along a highway; beside a bridge) which occupy no more than a couple of seconds of screentime, and hence would have been lost on an earlier generation, but which we can now freeze, or rewind, and savor.
Granted, there are cases where (say) the French make a decent movie; which American cinebusiness refuses to distribute, but instead remakes it in English, possibly better possibly worse.  Go ahead, denounce that.  But here there has been a lapse of over fifty years;  a remake is no more reprehensible than a new production of Hamlet.

Just one tiny observation that tells it all:
I have elsewhere lauded the pains taken by contemporary movies to get even recondite details right.  As:  Old Norse (in Buffy, of all things), and Arabic -- right down to the appropriate dialect.
Likewise here.  The original made excellent use of the professor’s blackboard:  the alien, trying  against odds  to gain in interview with the professor, corrects his physics.   The remake attempted to go them one better:  read Wikipedia on how they recruited experts to write down genuine equations of General Relativity.  From what I saw, this really is true.
Only… in the actual movie… once the PC-police had had a go at it, the professor was no longer a physicist, but had won a Nobel Prize for… “biological altruism” (a category unknown to the committee in Stockholm).  So the equations were ludicrously far off.
Likewise… in the original movie, the professor played more than a dramatic -- a moral role.  How the world’s squabbling political leaders could not come together for an audience, was carefully outlined, in a way true to the geopolitics of the time; in the remake, all this was skated over.  In the original, the international scientific community was explicitly counterposed to that of the politicians who had just brought us the sequel to the Great War:  hail this or denounce it, the position was coherent and clear.  (Democracy/demagogy vs. technocracy/aristocracy.)  In the remake, it is not at all clear why the alien goes to this particular professor (painstakingly clear in the original), nor how they even find his house.  No allusion at all is made to the possible positive role of international science  -- lame indeed, given that the central problem is put forth as ecological -- and the episode just vanishes into irrelevancy.  (Oh, yes, and by the end -- that Himalayan business is never properly explained.)  More than a narrative failing, this is a moral failing.

~    ~    ~


There are clouds -- clouds everywhere, utterly obscuring the sun.  Citizens are urged to shelter indoors.
A neighbor surveys the wreckage.  “That-- that flowerpot,” he stammers.  “It used to be upright; and now it’s… it’s…”  He cannot finish the sentence; but silence is more eloquent than words.
The governor has announced that special medals will be issued to all citizens who braved, and survived, this storm.

[Update, mid-morning]   My G*d, wh*t's th*t ???  That yellow thing, up in the sky???  The sun, mother, give me the sun !!!  The sun has survived the storm !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In sum:
This may not have been the Storm of the Century,  but it was certainly the Storm of the News Cycle.

~    ~    ~

Though this wasn’t quite clear in the narrative murk of the remake, Wikipedia (the All-Wise) confidently states:
The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still features a grey goo nanoattack on human civilization.
In a quite recent development, an anarchist group with the ineffable title of “Individuales Tendiendo a lo Salvaje “ has taken to sending package-bombs to Mexican scientists engaged in robotics or nanotechnology.   An impassioned plea from a researcher appears in the current issue of Nature:

Home-made bombs are being sent to physicists in Mexico.
An extremist anarchist group known as Individuals Tending to Savagery (ITS) has claimed responsibility for the attack.  The ITS expresses particular hostility towards nano­technology and computer scientists. The group praises Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

This sounds like a High Concept proposal for a new disaster-movie;  but it’s the world in which we live.

~    ~    ~

It turns out that the original movie may have played a role in the history of world summitry. As Lou Cannon tells it, in President Reagan (1991, p. 61), Reagan's aides were worried about "Reagan's preoccupation with ... 'the little green men', and ... struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan's speeches."  But in his first meeting with Gorbachev, in 1985, popped out with an extemporized proposal, to the effect that, in the event of a alien attack, the U.S. would cooperate with the Soviet Union in repelling it.  (Actually, there is no downside to promising such a thing; not making fun here.)  Reagan's aide "was convinced that Reagan's unique proposal ... had been inspired by a 1951 science-fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. ... It was a film with a peace message, one that, in a Hollywood still quivering from Red-hunting congressional committees, would probably have been permitted only in science fiction."  -- This is quite true.  That film depicts people with varying skin-tints  actually sitting down right next to one another.

[Update]  An audio taste, of what it was like:   "Telstar".
Alternate video:


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