It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not fond of the studio movie-making machine and haven’t been for a long, long time. Taken over decades ago by accountants, lawyers and frat boys, the Hollywood film industry is like one of those terrifying zombie flicks where the dead just keep on walking even though their bodies have long since deteriorated. And what is it that keeps them going? Us. The audience. So isn’t it time we had a wake and moved on?
I recently had the displeasure of watching the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Why, you ask, did I even bother? Well, first there’s simple curiosity. But second, I had read a review claiming that if this film hadn’t been made in the shadow of the original, beloved classic, it would have stood on its own as a smarter-than-average science fiction tale.
The new THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the perfect example of the Hollywood machine at work. It is a beat for beat what-not-to-do guide to filmmaking and storytelling. And what makes this so apparent is the film’s first 15 minutes which seem, quite surprisingly, to hold real possibility. Watching it, I thought to myself, “Wow, maybe a good remake of this film IS actually possible.” And I still believe that’s true. However, not in Hollywoodland. Despite director Scott Derrickson’s moody opening passages, the film quickly descends into the most ridiculous and obvious studio notes clearly given by execs who, despite possible good intentions, don’t know anything about filmmaking and/or storytelling. Every commercial trap is on display here. Logic is tossed headlong out the window as Klaatu, who is under minute observation by every scientist and government official, is interrogated by one man with no other supervision! Where did everyone go? Kathy Bates as Secretary of State, the military, the scientists? Are they all gathered somewhere watching DANCING WITH THE STARS instead of hearing what this alien has to say about the fate of mankind and a possible impending attack on the planet Earth? Whatever the reason, this minor oversight allows Klaatu to escape, only to seek out the one place where an alien can find help.
Yes, that’s right. Because McDonald’s is crucially important to the film’s plot and a known meeting place for aliens who want to discuss whether or not to save or destroy mankind. I mean, where would you meet? As soon as I saw those golden arches reflected in Jennifer Connelly’s car windshield, I knew that good storytelling was not the main concern of this motion picture.
And then there’s Jaden Smith, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son. I hate to get on the case of child actors, but young Jaden is EVERYTHING that’s wrong with Hollywood kid actors today. Precocious and completely unbelievable as anything more than a manufactured idea of what a kid should be. Again, I don’t blame Jaden who clearly is committed to the role, but it’s a type of portrayal that makes me want to run screaming. There is zero believability here. Jaden’s Jacob Benson is to children what McDonald’s is to hamburgers.
As for the other performers, I’m a big fan of Jennifer Connelly and she is what allowed me to stick this film out to the end. Even Keanu Reeves is acceptable in the role. Sure, an actor of more depth would have brought more weight to the role, but we do get a glimpse early on of just how Mr. Reeves would have worked here if a script and vision had been present. John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt is simply an odd bit of casting and a complete waste as this character is gone from the film mere seconds after being introduced.
As someone who has worked as a studio writer for a time and had the misfortune of watching my directorial debut taken away by a studio and re-cut into an incoherent mess, I can recognize the mark of studio interference a mile away. I don’t know what the original script looked like for this remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, but I’m not ready to blame screenwriter David Scarpa or director Scott Derrickson for the mess that is this film. I’ve worked with producers that have gone on and on about wanting to make a quality film, about wanting to push the envelope, take chances, appeal to a smarter audience… And never once in my personal experience have they been able to follow through. After dozens of rewrites and meetings, the scripts always came back to the same tired formulas that plagued the previously produced films of these vision-less individuals. And it’s not to say that making good films is not somewhere on their priority lists, but I’m afraid it’s either far enough down that when something has to go, the quality and integrity of the storytelling is one of the first to get the axe, or they simply have no idea what good storytelling is. It’s also that many modern day execs do not understand–nor do they want to–that they are not the creative individuals behind the film. Gone are the days when producers would be proud of the creative team they’d assembled; when they understood that there are those folks who can do something they can not. Just as a great filmmaker might not make a great producer, most producers do not make great storytellers. But most producers working in Hollywood don’t seem to be able to find pride in pulling together talented individuals to make the best film possible. Nowadays, they need to do it all.
I’ve told this story before, but I’ll repeat it here as it is wholly appropriate. A producer friend of mine who was working on a sequel to a blockbuster action film at the same studio that produced THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL once claimed that I, by Hollywood standards, would be termed a “difficult director“. When I, somewhat shocked, asked why, the answer was revealed, “Because you have an opinion and you’re not afraid to voice it. You have a vision.” Yes, this was the answer I was given. Verbatim. This producer went on to explain that the film she was working on had a director who appeared to have no vision. “He does what we ask him to. If he has a vision, he doesn’t express it.” She then went on to explain that this lack of vision was why the first film they did together was a bad film. Her term, not mine. She then went on to explain that the sequel she was now working on would also be a bad film. But the first made money despite critical and public trashing. And, as fate would have it, the sequel was also trashed by audiences and critics alike. But I’m sure it made money and therefore justified its existence. But what would those films have been like had there been a creative vision behind them? What if the producers of those films had not only allowed the filmmakers to express themselves creatively and do what they do best, but had actually inspired them and created an environment in which that creativity could flourish; where that kind of vision would be encouraged? I’m sure the opening weekend would have been just as successful. Hell, that’s all marketing anyway. But at the end of the day they could have also been proud of the film itself and not just its box office performance. And I dare say that even that would, most likely, have been even stronger. But the creatives are not important in today’s Hollywood, despite what many producers will tell you.
When Sony Screen Gems took my film, THE PLAGUE, away from me in the editing room, we were told point blank by Sony Pictures Executive Director of Acquisitions, Scott Shooman, “We own this film now and see no reason for the writer and director to be involved.” At that time, no one at Sony Pictures or Sony Screen Gems, including Mr. Shooman, had ever met nor spoken with me. The film was re-cut from scratch into something so bad it didn’t even appeal to the audience Sony targeted it to. It failed. Both artistically and, if one is to believe Mr. Shooman who claims the film lost money, financially. Even veteran cinematographer Bill Butler who had shot such classics as JAWS and THE CONVERSATION among so many others, was not invited to color-time and complete his work. The film was put together, frame for frame, by producers. One of those producers, Jorge Saralegui–who had been an exec at Fox at one point in his career–spoke endlessly on and off set about his experiences working with certain world-renowned directors whom he didn’t appear to either admire, respect nor understand. Saralegui couldn’t refrain from commenting on how director John Woo, during the filming of BROKEN ARROW–which Saralegiu apparently oversaw the production of while an exec at Fox–was “shaking in his boots the whole time.” Saralegui then went on to claim that Woo had no idea how to direct an action scene! Yes, the very thing thing Woo was known for the world over long before he ever came to Fox to make the disaster that is BROKEN ARROW, was the very thing Saralegui was criticizing him for. As it stands, BROKEN ARROW is a film that does not seem to represent the filmmaker at all. Saralugui would tell this story over and over again (to hear more observations on this by Seattle filmmaker Janice Findley who spent some time with Saralegui, go HERE). Jorge Saralegui also complained endlessly to me about working with French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet on ALIEN: RESURRECTION. Saralegui went as far as to suggest that Jeunet didn’t have a clue where to put the camera! This about a director known for his extraordinary visual sense! In listening to Saralegui’s stories, I got the sense that he actually felt as if he’d single-handedly saved these films not only financially, but artistically. I knew for certain at that point that both I and my film were in deep trouble. I turned out to be correct. In the editing room, Saralegui, displaying what I can only call a seemingly uncontrollable viscousness and rage which had become a familiar sight to many of us on set, vomited up “This is no longer your film. It’s mine!” When I calmly pointed out that he had done exactly the same thing to John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Saralegui’s response was, “That’s right! And now I’m doing it to you!”
I suppose at least I’m in good company.
But how, I must ask, in this environment, can a good film be made? One starts to believe if a good film does come out of Hollywood, it will be a result of an oversight on someone’s part. It is simply something that does not exist at the studio level. Producers no longer know how to produce. And writers are not allowed to write and directors not allowed to direct. But the films keep coming and they are miserable.
It took a lot of effort on the part of many to make THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL as bad as it is. They took a great story and a timely concept, and stripped it of all integrity. It is truly an amazing feat. But not surprising. Just shamefully disappointing. But it is the rule in Hollywood these days, not the exception.