The film opens with Keanu Reeves on top of a snowy Indian peak in the 1920s. He encounters a green, glowing orb which, it transpires, is there to harvest his DNA in order to clone his supple body and send him down as a human emissary at the point when the future of the human race is beginning to look bleak. (How the original missed this 'essential' backstory is anyone's guess). Flick forward to the present, and NASA have come across an oddity on their radars. There's a huge mass hurtling towards the earth at outrageous speeds. It turns out Keanu’s back, this time with an assignment to obliterate the human race.
Tonally, it’s all over the shop, difficult to peg as either a serious-minded action flick with an imagination-free ecological message or a self-satisfied ‘Disaster Movie’-style mockeryjig which rolls out the clichés for us to point and laugh at. There are moments which retain the camp sheen of the original, but at no point is there anything to suggest they are intentional. The first cause for concern is the casting; Keanu Reeves, who essays Michael Rennnie’s hyper-intense Klaatu as a fleshpod devoid of emotion, irony and depth, can really chalk this up as one of the lesser entries into his already questionable acting canon.
And who to play the political spokesperson for the planet? The threat has been made, the masses are panicking: paging Kathy Bates! Also, the usually impressive Jennifer Connelly crops up doing a ‘running around looking concerned/confused’ act (see also ‘Labyrinth’) as an affable astrobiology lecturer who’s dropped into the control room of the disaster in order to convince Keanu that the world is worth saving. Obligatory gooey-kid sidekick arrives in the form of Jaden (son of Will) Pinkett-Smith, who really is the only one on screen who, it seems, is there for his CV and not the paycheque.
The first laugh comes from the doomy astro sage’s decision not to land his death vessel at the political hub of Washington DC (as in the original), instead logging co-ordinates for the cosier environs of New York’s Central Park, presumably to dole out shockwave-based punishment to the Mocha-slurping yuppies of the Upper East Side. Is this a veiled suggestion that the power base in the US has shifted north to the economic nucleus of Wall Street? An attempt to cash-in on the post-9/11 paranoia where big cities are also the juiciest targets for ‘terror attacks’? Or simply, because the makers haven’t bothered to watch the original?
But let's return to that death vessel for a moment. It’s not really a vessel as such. Instead of the shiny, iconic flying saucer from the first film (a great design for those with one eye on the toy market), we get a luminescent disco ball which looks like the sort of hippy-dippy Earth Mother rubbish that Athena used to slap on posters and punt on to new-age farmers-market types.
When the aliens decide to reveal themselves, there’s no tension whatsoever as the bay doors creek open and they slowly descend from the steps (a la ‘Close Encounters…’). Keanu and his looming metallic CGI protector, Gort, simply appear out of a glimmering light until one of the more trigger-happy grunts from the US army swiftly decides to let off a test round into the former's chest.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity here (and one that would have certainly mellowed the hearts of the sci-fi die hards likely to pelt the screen with urine-filled molotovs) is the decision not to intone the famous ‘safe words’ from the original – ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ – which were used to call off Gort’s spree of wanton destruction. There are moments in the final scene where you’re waiting for them to be said, where Keanu takes a sober glance into the middle-distance and raises his arm to the blizzard of chaos, but, alas, those hallowed words never pass his lips. Could the writers have not made something up? A cool, quotable phase for the 21st century?
Then you’ve got Gort. He’s metallic, he’s massive and he’s got a laser in his eye – why, oh why would you then decide to have him transform into a cloud of microscopic metallic locust-type creatures that ravage everything in their path? Couldn’t he have stomped around New York blowing things up with lasers? The infuriating moments are numerous, but there is still something about this laborious , product-placement filled guff which just raises it above the one-star mark. Perhaps it’s the fact that the message is, in the end, so limp and vague that, for all its faults, you almost forgive it for not being too preachy.