Keanu Reeves and director Scott Derrickson tell Alison Jones why they decided to remake The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Impassive actor Keanu Reeves is truly playing a little green man from outer space in his latest movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic.
As visiting alien Klaatu, he is on an environmental mission to save the planet from mankind.
The film’s theme is a reflection of the period it was made. In the original – made during the post-war years and at a time when America and the Soviet Union were flexing their nuclear muscles – the travelling spaceman came to make a plea for peace, or else.
Director Scott Derrickson was acutely aware of the responsibility that came with remaking the much-loved movie.
“I was a bit sceptical when I first got the script. I do love the original.
“Reading it I felt that the update made a lot of sense. I liked the idea of telling basically the same story but updating it to different social issues.
“I also kind of thought that modern audiences are not really familiar with the original. For the most part they haven’t seen that story and I liked the idea of bringing it to a new audience.”
The choice of Reeves to play Earth’s judge and jury, seems a logical one. Though his character takes on human form, he is unfamiliar with its emotions.
Reeves has always been something of a blank canvas as an actor, leading some critics to accuse him of a lack of depth, but which, in the right role, can be translated into inscrutability.
“I thought it would be fun to play an alien,” he says. “There is kind of a compression to Klaatu, He observes everything. He is an alien entity in a human body just looking out. But he gradually become affected by the people around him and experiences what it is like to be human.”
Klaatu’s mission is simple. To try and appeal to the world leaders to unite to save the planet while simultaneously trying to remove as many other species to safety before permanently wiping out humans and the machines they have made.
Mankind, being jumpy and suspicious, greets Klaatu and his giant robot companion Gort with hostility and bullets. It is left to Jennifer Connelly’s astrobiologist and John Cleese’s physicist to plead the case for the human race.
However, when pressed for reason’s why he thinks that we are worth saving, Reeves seems a little stumped.
“As a species we can be pretty warm and fuzzy,” he concludes. “Maybe for this (film) it would be the adaptability, the heart and soul. We are not all that bad.”
Derrickson, fortunately, is a little clearer on our positive qualities.
“I think Klaatu experiences that there is something sublime about humanity. I love
the fact that people work harder when they have lost their way and that we sometimes have to make a series of bad decisions and back ourselves into a corner before we really find the gumption to make hard choices and change.
“I don’t think this is a message movie or that it is telling anybody how to live. It is more an expression of what I see happening which is that we have made some bad decisions, certainly in the United States, and regarding the environment, we have in the world.
“But people seem to be recognising that and are trying to figure out what we have to do to undo that. What hard choices must we make to prevent further destructiveness?
“That is a part of human nature that is very admirable and is worth celebrating."
Reeves adds: "I think the historical moment that we are in here definitely influences how you view the film.
“It could be part of the hopeful movement of change ‘We can do this. We can confront this crisis’. Or it could be like ‘Who are you kidding?’ that this is kind of a shout in the dark from an American-centric point of view.”
Reeves is part English, his mother Patricia is from Hampshire and his father, Samuel, was Chinese-Hawaiian, and he was born in Beirut where his mother was working as a casino showgirl.
He believes his heritage has inspired a fondness for British comedy like The Two Ronnies and Monty Python and he embraced the opportunity of working with Cleese, however, briefly.
“To meet him was fantastic. He is a lovely, lovely man. Everyone on the set was so excited and he is very genereous. It was great to spend those couple of days with him.”
“There was literally a mild depression that set into the crew when he was done because he was just like such a bright wonderful presence,” enthuses Derrickson. “After he had left everyone was just quiet and at one point the cameraman said ‘Could we bring John back?’ Everybody enjoyed him so much.”
Reeves and his two sisters had a gypsy-like lifestyle as children was their mother travelled the world with them before settling in Canada where she became a costume designer.
He continued the “vagabond life”into adulthood. He left home at 17 and moved to Hollywood three years later but preferred living in hotels and out of suitcases to putting down roots.
Now 44, he has only recently bought his first house, though he is a millionaire many times over thanks to his success with The Matrix trilogy.
A collector of motorcycles he is unable to resist the lure of the open road, and his body bears the scars to prove it
Small wonder then that he cannot pinpoint the last time he “stood still” for a day, or any length of time.
“I’ve been stood up,” he offers, though is understandably reluctant to go into details. “Yeah, I really want to go back there...”
And after attending four different high schools in five years he claims the “most alien” he has ever felt was “the first day in a new school”.
With the exception of Bill and Ted and the three Matrix films, he has shown a reluctance to make sequels, refusing Speed 2 on the grounds he didn’t “want to keep doing the same things over and over again”.
However, he has retuned to the sci-fi genre numerous times, in The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction and A Scanner Darkly, and he sites Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Donald Sutherland, as a favourite movie.
He says he likes the films’ “big ideas” and that, in spite of their futuristic settings, they are usually based on age old myth and fable or, as in both Matrix and Day, have quasi-religious overtones (Klaatu’s spaceship also serves as an arc).
“You have got to have it containing metaphor, allegory or fable,” says Reeves. “You can’t do it without it really. Unless you have like a science fiction divorce story. Like a science fiction Kramer vs Kramer.”
“That would be the sequel to the Soderbergh Solaris,” interjects Derrickson, (talking about the George Clooney film in which he plays a grieving psychologist on a space station who resurrects his dead wife through his memories). “They realise they don’t want to be together.”
One film series that Reeves has, rather improbably, considered reviving, is that of Bill and Ted (from Excellent Advenure and Bogus Journey). However, he admits he is a little old to play a teen slacker who travels through time to finish a history project.
“Now Alex (Winter, who played Bill) and I are in our mid 40s maybe we have to talk about Bill and Ted in our 50s.
“I wouldn’t say no but there would have to be a reason to do it and we don’t have one right now.
“We’ve spoken about it with the writers and said ‘You know how Bill and Ted they were supposed to save the world? Well what if they didn’t?’
“We see them still trying to write the one song that would save the world, but they are so fixated on it they are ignoring their children, they ignore their wives. So this whole thing that was supposed to save them takes away their lives.
“What has been cool about Bill and Ted is that my peer group liked it, then went on to have children and now they’re showing the film to their kids.
“So I am getting little ones coming up to me once in a while and going ‘be excellent’ .”
* The Day The Earth Stood Still is on at cinemas now.