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An alien civilization sent to pass final judgement on the works of humanity, as occurs in both of these science fiction films from last year, might marvel at the deliberately self-hobbling decisions made by Earthling filmmakers. Judging from the ludicrous contradictions and clunky casting of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Knowing, our extraterrestrial arbiters might well decide to let the human race perish in flames. How can a culture that spends vast piles of treasure on making movies repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes that keep the films from being as good as they can be? For these two examples, why have actors who aren't capable of conveying a normal range of human emotions been cast in the only two roles between the two films that require anything beyond looking gaunt and rapidly intoning plot developments?
The Day the Earth Stood Still, a joyless retelling of a scrubbed nuclear-era classic, has the beats and the music cues associated with major revelations, but no actual developments or identifiable feelings beneath them. Technically it's an action film with a massive killer robot and numerous calamities, but the quiet sequences with actors and the CGI scenes don't match up in the least, and the three main characters are unbearable. Jennifer Connelly isn't a strong enough actor to make her character's stupid behavior believable under the circumstances, Will Smith's kid Jaden is way out of proportion to the other performances and way too self-impressed (and his ghastly perm haircut makes him look like one of the cast members from a "Muppet Babies"-like children's cartoon featuring junior versions of Prince & The Revolution), and Keanu Reeves is completely empty of purpose as ambivalent alien Klaatu. The screenwriters know that some sort of human payoff is required for their environmentally-themed reboot and they put all the coefficients in place, but Reeves and Connelly can't make an inert script go. Director Scott Derrickson rushes to the credits without shooting the necessary epilogue so it's entirely unclear at the end of the picture whether the Earth has indeed been saved or more importantly whether any humans learned anything of value from the entire near-death experience. Destructive and stupid humans still nearly make a hash of everything as in the 1951 original when humanoid alien Klaatu and his implacable robot sidekick Gort arrive to incite Judgement Day, but this movie doesn't end with a speech about responsibility and progress going hand in hand. It ends with Reeves unconvincingly shielding Connelly and Smith from an attack of CGI metal bugs, for unclear reasons. I watched two big-budget Hollywood visions of the surface of our planet being scourged last night, and neither was as scary or as memorable as the TV-movie version of "The Langoliers" that ran on cable several years ago.
Knowing is visually more alive than The Day the Earth Stood Still; Dark City and The Crow director Alex Proyas is working from another real mess of a screenplay but his imagination is able to create excitement and tension anyway. He hides bogeymen in plain sight and has the sense to keep a realistic pace long after the film's internal logic has utterly unraveled. Proyas coaches his child actors to be spooky and oddly connected, as opposed to Smith's tiresome, precocious urchin in The Day the Earth Stood Still. His kids here don't behave in a logical way but even though Knowing doesn't make proper sense it has a coherence and feel for the whole that like the impressionistic Dark City proves Proyas's huge talent. It'd be wonderful to see him connected with a screenwriter on his level; like his last movie I, Robot puzzling out the intentions of the director of Knowing is way more intriguing than considering the motivations of any of the characters in the film. In a strangely anachronistic prologue, Knowing introduces a disturbed young girl in the 1950's who starts scrawling numbers on a sheet of paper for no reason. Also for no reason, the paper ends up in the hands of the movie son of Nicolas Cage, who really puts his one facial expression through its paces as the list of numbers inexplicably starts causing planes to hurtle from the sky and subway trains to leap their tracks.
Both of these movies boast the kind of dialogue that would seem too over-the-top for a Beastie Boys video and willfully expensive animated sequences of landmarks crumbling to dust. It's hard to tell because it's so badly handled, but The Day the Earth Stood Still is slightly better written. At the very least the screenplay pays lip service to the idea that the characters need to learn things and change, even if we don't see any of this happening. There's some sort of political point trying to be made by the Condi Rice type played by Kathy Bates, but after seven rewrites and numerous product placements it becomes utterly obscured. Knowing by contrast is utterly preposterous in its timeline, its physics, and its mushroom/Kubrick head shop-poster ending. It's the better film, though, thanks to Proyas, who creates an environment and tone that cry out for better characters and dialogue to inhabit them. Just like Dark City, the director often seems impatient with the limitations of his screenplay and starts telling a story of his own just with the visuals. Knowing would make a smashing silent film or music video, but unfortunately between dazzling uses of current technology (for storytelling purposes, not disconnected spectacle as in the other film) there's a lot of half-hearted acting from Cage and nine or ten whomping logical defects.
Neither movie is much good as a whole, but Knowing is worth seeing thanks to the audacity of a couple of its individual scenes. Both of these movies logically insist upon a total ridiculous, over-the-top sci-fi ending, and Knowing doesn't botch its lead-in. You might hate the movie's exploded, gauzy, allegorical finishing point, but at least it's ridiculous and over the top in a way that's true to the movie's essential silliness. The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, isn't nearly silly enough.