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Now or Then – The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 or 1951?

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Now: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Then: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Remaking a beloved classic is always a dodgy proposition. In 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, alien emissary Klaatu (stone-faced Michael Rennie), accompanied by his giant robot Gort, visits Earth to tell us to learn to live together or suffer the consequences; apparently a group of interplanetary civilizations are watching us and are none too pleased with our warring ways. In the big-budget 2008 remake, alien emissary Klaatu (very stone-faced Keanu Reeves), still accompanied by Gort, visits Earth to basically set the aliens’ destructive plans in motion — though this time the damage we’ve done to the environment has been added to our list of sins. In both versions, Klaatu befriends beautiful widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal in the original, Jennifer Connelly in the remake) and her son, who show him the good side of humanity. Can the remake hope to measure up to the original?

The Alien’s Arrival
2008 version: Before it lands in the middle of New York’s Central Park, Klaatu’s luminescent space-globe is first mistaken for some kind of meteor or intergalactic missile, prompting the entire U.S. military to mobilize and go into full-on freak-out mode.
1951 version: Before it lands in the middle of Washington, D.C., Klaatu’s flying saucer prompts all the citizens of the world to gather around their radios in disbelief. Then a giant crowd greets the mysterious visitor.
The Winner: 1951 version. Yes, its relative sobriety feels goofy today — why aren’t the earthlings screaming and fleeing in panic? — but the iconic image of Klaatu emerging from his spaceship is one for the ages.

The Bad Guys
2008 version: The U.S. government, led by Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates) — filling in for the president, who’s in an undisclosed location — isn’t willing to give the aliens the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they pursue Klaatu with everything in their military arsenal.
1951 version: The U.S. government is initially suspicious of Klaatu, but the real damage is done by Helen’s boyfriend, Tom (Hugh Marlowe), who rats Klaatu out because he wants his name in the papers.
The Winner: 2008 version. Predator drones armed with Sidewinder missiles are a lot scarier than some loser who wants to be famous — though neither poses much of a challenge for our new alien overlords.

The Humans
2008 version: In the movie’s most interesting scene, Klaatu meets up
with another alien, one who’s been here for more than 70 years and
warns the newcomer that humans are destructive and due for
annihilation. He shocks Klaatu, though, by announcing that he’s not
leaving, saying that he feels fortunate to have lived among us all
these years.
1951 version. In the original version, the humans, including Helen and
her son, serve mainly to help us learn more about Klaatu.
The Winner: 2008 version. Surprisingly, it’s the one that actually asks if humanity is worth saving.

Action Scenes
2008 version: The F/X highlight comes when Gort transforms into an ever-growing storm of metal locusts that consumes everything in its path.
1951 version: Not really an action film, despite a car chase at the end. The suspense here is dramatic, rather than visceral.
The Winner: 2008 version.

Message to Earth
2008 version: Technically speaking, there isn’t really a message here. Klaatu says he wants to meet with world leaders, but he’s really here to destroy humanity in order to save the planet: “If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth lives.”
1951 version: It’s deliciously open-ended. Klaatu delivers his warning that aliens will destroy the Earth if humans can’t learn to live together… and leaves.
The Winner: 1951 version. At the onset of the Nuclear Age, its warnings felt genuinely resonant and prophetic.

The Verdict
2008 version: It’s surprisingly faithful to the original in many ways, but its modernized, effects-laden spin will probably make purists angry.
1951 version: It’s a genuine movie classic, but it has also dated in many ways. The cardboard characters don’t help much, either.
And the winner is…: 2008 version. It won’t have the lasting power of the original, but this is a surprisingly compelling modern take on what is at heart an extremely earnest tale.

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