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Hollywood remakes an alien

20th Century Fox
A crowd gathers around the "Central Park Sphere" in a scene from "The Day the
Earth Stood Still," a remake of the classic 1951 movie about alien visitation.

Although the modern-day reincarnation of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" may not rise to the classic status of the 57-year-old original, it fortifies the science-fiction story with some fresh science facts.

The original 1951 movie was a black-and-white, Space Age parable about a planet in peril ... from the potential threat of nuclear war. Calling the movie a "parable" is particularly apt, because veiled allusions to the Christ story are shot through the tale about an alien visitor (Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie) who brings a message of peace and unity to a world riven by the Cold War.

The new "Day," opening Friday with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, preserves the basic story of an alien with a mission who comes down to Earth. This time, however, the mission is not to keep earthlings from trashing the celestial neighborhood, but to keep humans from trashing Earth.

"We can't risk the survival of the planet for one species," Klaatu explains in the film.

Will the remake's environmental message resonate the way the original film resonated for an earlier generation? "I can't think about this movie having long-term impact in the way that the original did," Scott Derrickson, the director of the new "Day," told me this week. "If it did, I'd be shocked."

Like the first "King Kong," the first "Day" was such a classic that it couldn't possibly be matched, "even if you make a perfect film," he said. That's the big reason why he was reluctant at first to take on the project.

He changed his mind, however, after reading the script, which recast the 57-year-old story from a 21st-century perspective.

"What I tried to do was take a picture of this moment in time. ... What that moment seemed to be is that we're living in an age where we've made quite a mess of things: the war, the economy, the planet, this thing that keeps us living," he said.

And yet, Derricksen said, humanity seems to do its very best when things are at their very worst. That's when people somehow find a path to change they can believe in. "I wanted to make a film about that reality, that the precipice of disaster is sometimes the very place where transformation takes place," he said.

That doesn't mean the new "Day" is purely a message movie. "My first job is to entertain," Derrickson said. To do that job, he built in plenty of breakneck chase sequences, big explosions and woo-woo special effects. No one will mistake the movie for a philosophical treatise - or a science documentary, for that matter. But when possible, Derrickson tried to have the movie reflect what scientists have learned about the cosmic frontier over the past half-century.

"We went through a tremendous amount of effort to root the science of the movie in real science, and also to pay particular respect to the profession of science," he said.

Derrickson's main ally in that effort was Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute. Shostak was brought in as an adviser because the film's leading actress, Jennifer Connelly, plays the role of an astrobiologist - and wanted to learn more about what such scientists really did.

Shostak said he was impressed by Connelly's interest, and by the fact that an Oscar-winning actress was cast as an expert in a scientific discipline that is still building up its credibility. "How many movie characters can you name who were astrobiologists?" Shostak asked during an interview this week. "I think Jennifer Connelly might be the first."

Eventually, Derrickson asked Shostak to look through the script and mark anything that didn't ring true to a scientist's ear. He got back a sheaf of papers that were covered with red marks. "So I told him, 'Can you fix it, please ... and stop being so condescending,'" Derrickson joked.

Not all of the suggestions were taken, a fact of life that Shostak accepts. "It's Hollywood," he told me. "Their job is not to teach you science." However, there are a few scientific riffs worth paying attention to: 

  • Real astrobiology: The dialogue for Connelly's first scene, which is set in a Princeton classroom, was rewritten to reflect questions that astrobiologists might actually consider: For example, which microbe would be more likely to live on Callisto, one of Jupiter's ice-covered moons: radiation-hardened Deinococcus radiodurans, or a type of thiobacteria that can survive in sulfuric acid? (I'd go with the first choice on Mars, and the second choice on Europa or Venus. But Callisto? Feel free to weigh in with your space-geek selection below.)

  • Real nanotechnology: One of the threats that comes up in the movie is a variation of a standard nano-doomsday plot device known as "gray goo": the ability of fictional nano-bugs to swarm over their target and turn it into ... another swarm of nano-bugs. The late author Michael Crichton used this in one of his sci-fi novels, "Prey" - and although that book was never made into a movie, "Day" provides the next best thing in nano-meltdowns. Could it really happen? Almost certainly not the way Crichton imagined it. Nevertheless, experts have voiced concern about nano-safety as recently as this week.

  • No flying saucers: The original "Day" indelibly imprinted the flying-saucer image on a generation of UFO fans. The metallic, engine-driven spaceship became a cliche of outer-space operas, ranging from "Star Trek" to "Star Wars" to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." For his new "Day," Derrickson wanted to create a totally different kind of UFO: Klaatu and his pals come to Earth in shining lights that look like globes of swirling clouds when they come to rest. "I love the idea of trying to create an alien spaceflight technology that came from an entirely different place," Derrickson said.

  • Real equations: Shostak said one of the most important things he did was to check the equations that Klaatu writes on a blackboard for a Nobel-winning professor (played in a cameo by "Monty Python" veteran John Cleese). "The equations there are in fact some of the fundamental equations of general relativity, but what happens is that Klaatu adds another term which might account for dark energy," Shostak explained. "We don't know what that term is, but he does. ... Klaatu establishes his creds by showing that he knows more about general relativity than we do."

In his Space.com tale about being on the set, Shostak recounts how he told Derrickson that Keanu Reeves seemed to be writing the equations too slowly on the board. The way Shostak told the story, Derrickson answered that Reeves was doing it just right for the role. "Hey, Seth, he's an alien," Shostak quoted him as saying.

For the record, Derrickson told me he doesn't remember making that crack but was happy with the way the scene turned out. He was also happy with the contribution that Shostak made to the movie.

"It was a big lesson to me on the science front," he said.

For his part, Shostak hopes "The Day the Earth Stood Still" will leave young viewers yearning to learn more about life on Earth and beyond. Some of them may end up starring as astrobiologists in a real-life sequel.

"The thing I would tell schoolkids is, 'You know, there are actually people who make a modest living studying the possibility of life beyond Earth," he said.

Update for 9:35 p.m. ET: To mark the opening of the new "Day," Twentieth Century Fox has arranged to have the whole movie transmitted via a 5-meter dish antenna (the kind used for TV uplinks) in the direction of the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

The transmission will be made by Florida-based Deep Space Communications Network, a commercial venture that has been sending signals spaceward for more than three years. (One of their previous clients was Craigslist.)

"We are thrilled about beaming this film into space," Jim Lewis, the venture's managing director, said in a news release. "This will be our first full-length movie transmission. And what could be more relevant to send into deep space than a movie about the earth's acceptance of visitors from outer space?"

Deep Space says the transmission is due to begin at noon ET Friday, but don't expect a film review from the Centaurians anytime soon. The triple-star system is four light-years away, which means it would be four years before anything could possibly reach Alpha Centauri.

In fact, SETI experts say it's unlikely that a decipherable signal will ever get that far. Shostak has looked into how far radio signals of various strengths could carry into deep space, and his conclusion is that TV transmissions would be drowned out by static long before they get to Alpha Centauri. Tightly focused military radar signals might carry farther, but the Pentagon has no plans to air the matinee.

This has led NBC News space analyst James Oberg to call Twentieth Century Fox's transmission "a publicity stunt" based on "claims about interstellar communication that are really technologically strained, if not entirely bogus."

A publicity stunt? Hatched in Hollywood? Who knew!

Update for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 12: Our review of the new "Day" is out, and if Gort the robot enforcer really existed, he'd be seeing red right about now. Great headline, though: "Klaatu Barada Stinko."


To keep up with Shostak's quest on the scientific frontier, tune your Web browser to his weekly radio show, "Are We Alone?"  Shostak stars in a Cosmic Log pilot podcast we put together last year. You can also click through our list of six signs that aliens might exist, and watch interviews with Keanu Reeves from NBC's TODAY Show and from "Access Hollywood."