The Day the Earth Stood Still is pretty good as science fiction thrillers go, but sadly, there isn't much more to say about it. A remake of the 1951 classic, this film tries to increase the freaky factor with modern-day special effects and to update the original movie's message about nuclear war with a vague moral about humankind's general mismanagement of the planet. This actually sounds like a fairly solid premise, but it doesn't always work -- even if you don't think about the massive shoes it's trying to fill.
The story begins with Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), a young widow who was left to care for her eight-year-old stepson, Jacob (Jaden Smith), when her husband died the previous year. She spends her days in a university lab working as a research scientist in astrobiology, so naturally when a big alien orb shows up in Manhattan, she's called in by the U.S. government to offer expertise on its inhabitant -- an alien representative named Klaatu who, in order to survive Earth's atmosphere, must manifest himself in the form of Keanu Reeves. Of course, the government, led by Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), reacts hostilely to Klaatu's arrival, thus failing the test he was sent here to administer: to decide whether humans can continue to be trusted with planet Earth.
With Dr. Benson's help, Klaatu is able to get the upper hand with his Secret Service captors and use his alien powers of electricity to escape. He takes off with Benson and young Jacob, who's very surly and unresolved over his dad's death. They learn what Klaatu was sent to Earth for, but of course, they also demonstrate the love-in-the-face-of-turmoil that might convince him to spare humanity -- despite its epic squandering of a planet that can support complex life (a rarity in the universe at large). All three of the main actors turn in solid performances, even little Smith (the spawn of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith), who plays Jacob. And in a very cool and unexpected choice by the filmmakers, the role is devoid of any and all quippy racial stereotyping; the fact that Helen's stepson is black is never even mentioned in the script. It also has to be said that Keanu Reeves was kind of born for this role. It sounds a little pejorative to say that his biggest talent is playing someone kind of non-human, and a little dead-behind-the-eyes, but not everybody can do it, and he does it better than everybody.
Unfortunately, that whole first act -- when there are mysterious vessels landing and giant expressionless robots emerging and people completely freaking out -- should feel pretty scary and ominous, but it really doesn't. It's not boring either, but if Cloverfield can conjure up an eerie sense of foreboding, apocalyptic danger, you'd think that this movie could, too. Instead, it just feels vaguely weird. Things pick up quite a bit when the action starts, and events build toward the awesomely strange method by which the aliens were planning on wiping humanity and its structures off the Earth. But even then, it can sometimes feel a little chintzy, and the idea that we're supposed to be imbibing an important message from the story feels watered down -- because if the filmmakers were hoping to draw a parallel between 1951's threat of nuclear war and 2008's threat of global warming, they don't take a very direct route in doing so. Like everything else in the movie, this idea still comes across, just not as sharply as we'd like it to.