The problem with being a movie-loving environmentalist is that you are forever suffering through the trailers of brainless flicks like Blades of Glory, railing against the mindless idiocy of it all, ruing the day Jim Carrey was born, wondering how much carbon dioxide was emitted to make that abysmal-looking Chihuahua disaster. Wishing that someone in Hollywood would just please, finally, throw some of the big money at issues like climate change, ocean acidification, and the global water crisis. Wishing someone would harness the power of Hollywood and bring it to the people.

Then it happens: Out of nowhere, one of the holiday season’s sci-fi blockbusters has a trailer with the booming tagline, “If the earth dies, you die. If you die, the earth survives.” The movie’s PR people are everywhere, delivering homilies on recycling, and you think to your green self: it’s time. People are going to watch this movie and fall in line with eco causes by the droves, like so many honeybees victoriously returned from the edge of extinction. So you march yourself to the theater and pay your $12. (Or in my case, you march yourself over to the advance-press screening room and you pay nothing.)

Only, then—confound it!—when the movie turns out to be a complete waste of time, you fear you may have forfeited your right to hate on it. Does the flick get a free pass—even a few brownie points—for trying? That it will help you answer this important question is the best thing about this year’s remake of the 1951 Golden Globe winner The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Unless you are a straight male or gay female, in which case the best thing about it is Jennifer Connolly's eyebrows.)

Cut to the chase: The answer is no. Even movies trying to raise awareness of critical environmental issues—especially those movies—have to be good to merit plopping down more than five dollars and spending two hours of your consciousness in front of them.

The most noticeable way in which Stood Still fails to do this—to be a good movie—is that it can’t decide what it’s condemning: war, violence, and unprovoked aggression; or humankind’s relatively new habit of trashing the earth. In their indecision, the filmmakers (director Scott Derrickson, and writer David Scarpa) manage to skim ineffectively over both issues. The original 1951 version of Stood Still was a successful (Golden Globe winning, in fact) post-WWII warning against nuclear warfare. Today’s remake, in a nutshell: an extraterrestrial being (Keanu Reeves) takes on human form and comes to save planet earth by exterminating the destructive human race. It’s all very Alan Weisman—very we’re the pest that’s plaguing the earth.

And the movie’s creators really seem to want to bring the old plot up to speed by working an Inconvenient Truth-esque message into the dialogue. Yet all they manage are a vague sense of masochistic eco-doom (we’ve brought this on ourselves) and some melodramatic lines about how the planet is dying, how humans are “destructive and they won’t change,” how “the real tragedy is, they know what will become of them, but they can’t seem to do anything about it,” how the cosmos cannot risk losing planet earth “for the sake of one species.” We even get a nice “tipping point” reference from Reeve's character, Klaatu. But the movie’s environmental message doesn’t evolve beyond lip service. We’re told, not shown, that the earth has got a case of the blues and that we’re to blame. Anyone unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of today’s pressing environmental challenges will leave the theater just as ignorant and indifferent as they were when they went in.

This Stood Still remake is more successful in bolstering the original’s promotion of diplomacy over violence and aggression than it is in its eco-evangelism. The first act of violence occurs when a soldier shoots Klaatu just as he’s emerging peacefully from the ship that has just docked in (where else?) Central Park. Is this how we welcome a guest, good citizens? Klaatu’s friend and guardian, Gort (a gigantic robotic space man whose favorite trick is to paralyze people with his red eyebeam and fatal-frequency buzz tone), isn’t treated much better. Authorities try to trap and squash him between giant metal walls, which he of course disintegrates at his earliest convenience. As the plot builds, government and military officials try harder and harder to contain and explode all threats, until eventually the secretary of defense (Kathy Bates) is forced to admit that aggression isn’t going to work, that something a little more like love will have to be used to persuade Klaatu not to exterminate the human race. (Calling Thich Nhat Hanh!) 

Enter Jennifer Connelly, in the form of Dr. Benson, Princeton University microbiologist. Naturally pacifist and trusting, Benson is made out to be some sort of ace intergalactic diplomat from the get-go and spends the rest of the movie trying to convey all of humanity's warm and fuzzy understanding through her two searching eyes (blame the writers and director for this, not Connelly herself). In an advance for female characters in big-budget American films, Connelly is the thread that keeps the plot moving.

On what could be construed as another positive note — for those who are into intergalactic communication — Twentieth Century Fox has decided to make this stellar flick the first motion picture ever transmitted into deep space. Believe it: Stood Still is officially the world’s “first galactic motion picture release.” It’s being aired into the galaxy on opening day and should be available for the viewing pleasure of “any civilizations currently orbiting Alpha Centauri” by around 2012. This could, come to think of it, be good for the rest of us too: Stagnant Keanu Reeves facial expressions, sketchy plotlines, and stock sci-fi dialogue might keep actual, dangerous space aliens far, far away.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Film review: The Day the Earth Stood Still
The self-righteous, treehugging moviegoer’s dilemma: Does a dud movie get brownie points for taking a stab at eco-themes?