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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 14, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Earth Stood Still, Geek Squad, Google

The Day the Earth Stood Still was originally filmed in 1951. That was the year I was born; I never saw it until I was an adult, doing commentary during a science fiction film festival at the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

By then I was a jaded watcher of science fiction films. I didn't really like very many of them. I found the "classic" Forbidden Planet, for instance, to be silly from beginning to end. Soylent Green and Silent Running all depended on gross overacting -- a common trait of sci-fi films.

So I admit to being a rather hostile audience for the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Sure, it starred actors of some credibility, like Patricia Neal and Sam Jaffe, with Michael Rennie as the alien. But good actors have been in appallingly bad movies before; and they weren't exactly the A-list in 1951.

To my surprise, the movie won me over. The acting was very good. The giant robot was hokey-looking, but it worked well enough in the story. The writing didn't make me turn my face away from the screen in embarrassment, as most sci-fi movie scripts do.

And the message, a standard homily by the time I saw it, might have felt fresh and even a little dangerous in 1951, despite the fact that it's expressed in every singing of the carols "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains."

There are people who think of The Day the Earth Stood Still as one of the great movies of all time. They might hate the new version because of the changes it makes. The message the alien brings us is now environmental; people get a lot of pleasure saying bad things about Keanu Reeves's acting.

But I think the new movie is not only far better than the original, I also think it's very good.

Let's begin with the fact that the script is smart. At no point was the science in direct contradiction with known reality or with itself (how many sci-fi movies can make that claim?). I didn't feel like I was losing IQ points just by watching it.

The people behaved as real people do. Yes, the little kid, Jacob, had a simplistic kind of motivation -- but it made sense, given his age, and Jaden Smith gave an excellent performance.

The "villains" weren't villains at all, which I appreciated. They were people with responsibilities and no clue about what to do. They acted as people usually act, and learned and changed on about the normal schedule.

The alien's powers -- and the limitations on them -- were usually well explained. And while there was some inconsistency in the presentation of the nanobots -- sometimes you could see them, about the size of fleas, and sometimes you couldn't, as when glass started cracking without any visible nanobots -- but it was within the range of acceptable variation, for me, at least.

All of this sounds analytical, but science fiction invites analysis -- and, on screen, usually falls apart when the slightest intelligence is applied. So it really is a remarkable thing that David Scarpa's script and Scott Derrickson's direction hold up under reasonable scrutiny.

The story, however, is strongly emotional and personal -- which is why good actors were willing to get involved. I could believe that Kathy Bates was secretary of state -- but also that the character was a real human being who knew that she had screwed up. Jennifer Connelly was credible as a scientist -- but also as a loving stepmother and grieving widow. I even bought John Cleese as a brilliant scientist.

Which brings me to Keanu Reeves as the alien, Klaatu. When I hear people mocking him as a "wooden" actor (or, harking back to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, as an inarticulate one), I have to laugh. Such comments only show how effective Reeves is -- because even critics are fooled into thinking that he is the characters he portrays.

Stillness on the screen is very, very hard to do. So is alienness. I think of the most memorable and heart-wrenching performance as an alien: Jeff Bridges' brilliant performance in the title role of Starman.

Bridges decided to adopt mannerisms that reminded us throughout the film that his character was uncomfortable in human shape -- in effect, he had a visual and audible "accent" that he never lost, forcing us to get used to him, rather than having him adapt to us. It worked perfectly for that script.

Keanu Reeves did not have that option. A Starman-like performance would have elicited hoots and howls from the audience, because in this film it would have been over-the-top. Everything he does at the beginning happens in an official rather than personal context; his performance has to be absolutely dignified in order to maintain credibility and stature.

I watched every choice Reeves made and thought, each time, Yes, that's right. I can't think of many actors who would have played the role as effectively -- Anthony Hopkins, probably; Ben Kingsley; but can you imagine the nightmare of such a role as this played by a scenery-chewer like Al Pacino or a mannered show-it-with-your-face actor like Dustin Hoffman? Both very good, mind you, in the roles they're suited for (a list which, alas, does not coincide completely with the roles they actually performed); but even in Rainman, Hoffman did not achieve (or aim for) anything like the power-in-stillness Keanu Reeves creates from beginning to end.

Because it's not a matter of showing nothing. It's a matter of showing tremendous things without the use of facial expressions or vocal inflections. What's left for an actor to work with? In most cases, nothing. In this case: enough.

No, Keanu Reeves will once again go unmentioned at Oscar time -- but only because most people in Hollywood are so ignorant of what good acting is and which achievements are actually hard that they usually give the Oscar to an actor for achievements largely owed to the screenwriter, while the actors who do the really hard things (like comedy or subtle stillness) are passed over.

There was one misstep in the film. When Keanu Reeves meets Mr. Wu, actor James Hong needed to give a performance that suggested that he, too, was an alien. Yes, I know he's gone native, but that doesn't mean he should have so completely and passionately mastered human inflections.

The scene would have been far, far more effective if he had said his passionate speeches through the same affectless face that Keanu Reeves was using.

Even with that small complaint, though, one thing I loved in this movie was the restraint. There was no Charlton Heston or Bruce Dern overacting; nothing that invited parody, like Phil Hartman shouting "Soylent Green is peee-pul!"

The Day the Earth Stood Still is that most incredible of things: A credible sci-fi movie.

And now for some moderate spoilers -- you might want to skip this part if you haven't seen the movie.

I appreciated very much that the filmmakers did not hammer us with a politically correct message.

There are people who will disagree with that statement, of course, because after all, isn't Klaatu's message that we're destroying the biosphere and human beings need to be eliminated in order to save life on this planet?

Isn't that the politically correct message of Environmental Puritanism?

Yes and no. Because the film is extremely careful never to imply what specific human activities are causing the problem. There is not a breath of the pseudo-science of "global warming" alarmists. In fact, the destruction of the biosphere is left deliberately vague.

Only the solution -- the utter destruction of the human race and all its artifacts -- is made clear, as when a football stadium is destroyed but the grass on the field is left intact.

To put it simply, I -- and most other sci-fi writers, regardless of our politics -- have used precisely this motif in our fiction, because it is a possible one. I've used the device in some of my lightest stories ("I Put My Blue Genes On") and some of my very best ("St. Amy's Tale," for instance, and my best sci-fi novel, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus).

In other words, it's a common motif, and its use does not imply that the filmmakers are raving lunatics of environmentalism. Human beings have been careless, wasteful, and destructive of all other life on the planet, and we are barely doing anything yet to prevent further damage and repair what we have already done.

If the stupidest and most dictatorial elements had not taken over the environmental movement long ago, I would be part of it, because their fundamental point -- that humans have a responsibility, which we have shirked, to make our footprint on the biosphere as light as possible -- is, in my opinion, both true and important.

What I found fascinating about this screenplay is that even though this point is not openly discussed, the aliens are, in fact, merciful. At one point, Keanu Reeves, just before he kills a man, explains, "The pain will only be for a moment."

That is the moral principle that the aliens are using for the destruction of the human race. From their point of view, the failed race (us) will be eliminated with merciful (and irresistible) efficiency. Then there will be plenty of time for evolution to produce another intelligent species, perhaps one that will do a better job of taking care of its world.

But at the end of this film, where does Klaatu leave the human race? Alive -- in all our urbanized billions -- but without any working machines.

Again, this is something that I, and other science fiction writers, have posited over and over again, and depending on just how deep the no-machinery rule goes (is it only electrical machinery that is banned? Will windmills and water wheels still work?), it is nearly as devastating in its total kill-off as the flesh-and-metal-eating nanobots would have been.

Without any mechanical means of harvesting huge fields of grain and other foodstuffs, without any transportation to bring them to market, without any refrigeration or packaging (all done by machine, of course), and without any pumping of purified water into our water towers, cities would be uninhabitable in a few days.

Urban hordes would flee the cities, on foot if need be. Farmland would be overwhelmed and stripped as if by locusts. Within weeks, only a handful of scavengers would survive in all but the most remote and self-sufficient areas -- and the scavengers would not be the people most capable of organizing themselves for longterm survival.

My guess is that, in the scenario suggested by the ending of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the human population of Earth would crash down to about ten million people, worldwide. In the U.S., that would leave us, after a year, with about half a million people spread out over a countryside covered with corpses.

And those half a million people would have at least a year, but probably more, of having to fight constantly, the few pockets of agricultural self-sufficiency against the brutal scavengers, now organized into roving bands. This prediction is based on history -- it's what happens when the authority of high civilization collapses or loses the ability to defend itself.

We call the leaders of these roving bands of scavengers "knights," and their code of conduct vis-a-vis each other, "chivalry." That is, when we're not calling them "dons" and their code of conduct "la cosa nostra." Or "alpha males" and "survival of the fittest."

This is almost always what happens in the aftermath of anarchy; because anarchy is inconsistent with human nature.

That is the human future that the "optimistic" ending of The Day the Earth Stood Still implies. Not pretty -- but Klaatu does not promise he is leaving humans in charge. Instead, he is taking away our capacity to destroy the biosphere, while leaving our genetic heritage in existence, in the hope that we will learn something.

The only fundamental contradiction in this story is that the luxury to worry about the environment and have a plan to restrain human excess is a product of high civilization. The "noble savage" is a myth; low-tech societies have shown little or no propensity to preserve anything in the face of their own perceived needs.

Only high-tech societies have shown any hint of a willingness -- or ability -- to revise their own behavior to reduce our destructive footprint. So in the act of taking away our freedom to choose how to learn our lesson, Klaatu guarantees that we will temporarily reduce our footprint -- but probably lose our ability to learn from the experience.

Bummer, huh? While I doubt the filmmakers intended this, Klaatu's "solution" is every bit as short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive as any dumb thing we humans have done. The aliens no more foresee the destructive consequences of their choices than we do.

*

You want to know what Google is really for?

Our fourteen-year-old was working on the set of Weaver's production of See How They Run, and she got paint on a favorite pair of jeans.

My wife googled "get paint out of clothing" and came up with a website that suggested mixing hand sanitizer with rubbing alcohol (to thin it out), then using a Q-tip to work it into the spots of paint.

It took some time and work, but it did the job -- the jeans have no trace of the paint on them.

That is what computers and the internet are good for. And here I thought it was all about creating videogames.

*

We finally replaced a massive CRT television with a larger-screen -- but much thinner and lighter -- LCD television.

At Best Buy, the very knowledgeable guy in the TV department pointed out that HDTVs come from the factory with the colors on their "hottest" settings. This makes them look great in the store -- but it ultimately cloys at home, because the vibrancy makes everything look fake.

So we paid to have the Geek Squad come out and calibrate our new TV. Yes, we could have attempted it ourselves -- but manipulating color is a very tricky thing to do, especially when you start from a position of complete ignorance.

They had to wait until we'd used the TV for a while, but when they came, they absolutely knew what they were doing. This is not the experience we've had from guys who come to install electronics, who usually know less than we do. Installers are too often merely movers, who are way out of their depth as soon as there's something slightly unusual.

The Geek Squad guys carefully showed us the difference between the ultra-vibrant settings and the much more realistic color settings, and we were sold. Now, instead of a neon-sign aesthetic, the TV feels like a window on the real world.

Watching the Giants-Cowboys game, for instance, it felt like I could toss a paper cup and have it land on the field, it was so immediate, sharp, and real.

So if you're buying an HDTV at Best Buy, in my opinion you'd be better off buying a smaller TV than you can afford, and paying the extra to have the Geek Squad come out and calibrate it.

In the long run, it will give you the better TV-viewing experience, even if the size of the TV doesn't make your friends weep.

*

Between one visit to Barnes & Noble's website and the next, I suddenly lost access to my account information. It seems that they added a new level of security to customer accounts. It was for my own good!

Now you have to provide them with a security question. The kind of thing you normally set up in case you forget your password. You provide them in advance with the answer to a question about things that only you would know.

The only trouble is, you have to choose from a predetermined list. What is your city of birth, favorite author, mother's middle name, father's middle name, favorite car, pet's name, favorite film, or favorite team?

Those are the only choices you can make.

Now, for me -- and, I suspect, most people -- city of birth and parents' middle names are not security questions at all -- they're a matter of public record and anybody could find them out. I have no pets. I have no favorite teams. I have so many favorite authors I would never remember which one I had picked.

Even "favorite car" is no security at all -- I review everything, remember? And it's all online. So any identity thief who cared to look could get the short list of possible answers.

Still, I had to try something, so I attempted "favorite film." Guess what? They only allow a range of 6-15 alphanumeric characters for the answer -- a ludicrous restriction when film titles are possible responses! What if your favorite movie is M.A.S.H.? Or $$? Or Hud? Or Ferris Beuller's Day Off?

Remember, these are supposed to be questions whose answers you will remember no matter what.

So I gave up and went with mother's middle name. But again, my mother has two possible middle names, both consisting of four letters. One letter too few for Barnes and Noble, who apparently want no customers whose mothers had short middle or maiden names!

What is the result of this? I now have less security, because I either have to use my father's middle name or my city of birth (both easily learnable), or I have to make up a false answer to one of the questions and then remember what I made up.

Oh, and their security answers are case sensitive, like passwords. Heaven help you if you don't remember to press the shift key at all the right spots.

Folks, security questions are not passwords. They're not supposed to follow password rules! They're supposed to be information you simply know that other people won't.

This is stupid programming at its worst. Didn't anybody think these questions through? Didn't they take into account how much of this information is easily findable for most people? A check on Facebook or MySpace would probably bring in most of it.

Why not let us make up our own security questions? Why put any length or case restriction on it at all? Other websites do this, so it's obviously possible!

Isn't there room in the world for people whose favorite movie is Z?


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