Many decades ago, when the movies still were young and naive, and the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still wasn’t even a gleam in the robot Gort’s cycloptic eye, a Russian director named Lev Kuleshov put on a famous series of cinematic experiments. He took one straightforward shot, of a movie star’s handsome but expressionless face, and intercut it with unrelated shots of noteworthy emotional potential — say, a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, a rather fetching young woman.
With the images toggling back and forth, the star’s face necessarily remained impassive, yet audiences commended his expressiveness — the subtle skill with which he’d conveyed, in turn, hunger, sorrow, attraction. Later they called this the Kuleshov effect, and it seemed like the true and absolute essence of cinema: editing itself as a powerful maker of meaning. So powerful, actually, that your actor didn’t even need to act.
Which brings us to Keanu Reeves. These days, if there’s a go-to movie star for handsome-but-expressionless, this must be the guy. When it comes to blankness bordering on the unnatural, he’s a natural. Plus, as history has shown, you put him in a straight black suit, hook him up to some electrodes on occasion, liken him both to Christ and to a fish out of water, and he’ll hold that camera’s attention like — well, like the Earth’s standing still. Call it the Keanu effect.
That’s right: I am saying that the cheesy new Keanu Reeves remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, however utterly unnecessary and half-assedly realized and anticlimactic it may be (quite, it’s fair to say), is also, in fact, a model of the true and absolute essence of cinema. I am offering a way to really appreciate this film, if only you can open your mind.
Without even doing much, Reeves really is the best thing about it. If we’re being honest, all the cool shots of buses and stadiums crumbling into dust have been given away in the trailer anyway. Far more compelling is Reeves as the alien Klaatu, who, on behalf of several other civilizations, would like to remind humanity that Earth is a rare and precious little terrarium, and humanity had better not go on ruining it for all the other species. (It’s a minor variation on the no-nukes 1951 original.) Humanity doesn’t want to hear it, natch, so Klaatu coolly decides to turn out humanity’s lights.
He has a better rapport with appliances, anyway — from the polygraph he uses to control its operator’s mind to the train-station vending machine he persuades to give him a free tuna sandwich — and with animals, whom he herds into his ark-like spaceships for their own protection (although apparently the tuna should be on guard).
And he has help: from his creepy huge humanoid robot Gort, and from Jennifer Connelly as the rather fetching young biologist who reaches out to him when everyone else around seems (albeit futilely) to be pointing weapons. When she tearily and repeatedly pleads with Klaatu, “We can change,” he replies with a blank stare. When she sorta proves it through an emotional reconciliation with her unappreciative step-son (Jaden Smith), Klaatu goes even blanker. With such a face, who needs special effects?
No, the movie never puts the kid in a coffin (well, almost) or presents Keanu with a bowl of soup, but you can bet that if it did, his reaction would be equally profound.