BACK when he was a film student in the early 1990s,
Scott Derrickson found himself having dinner with legendary Hollywood director Robert Wise at a festival they were attending. A huge fan of Wise's diverse body of work – which includes The Sound of Music, West Side Story and the first Star Trek movie – the aspiring director quizzed him at length about cinema and the movie business before confessing that his favourite films of Wise's were The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Haunting. The veteran director – who died
in 2005 – then proceeded to give Derrickson a piece of advice. "He told me that the horror genre was the best genre for a film-maker to
start in because it really allows you to show what you can do with the craft of film-making," says Derrickson. "That's what he did, so I basically took his advice and it has been working out
pretty well ever since."
He's not kidding. Having broken through with the $140 million-grossing horror hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the 39-year-old director knows that the advice he received that day is one of the reasons he's currently sitting in a London hotel room chatting about his own big-budget, Keanu Reeves-starring remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Not that his close encounter with Wise instilled in him a burning desire to emulate his career quite so directly. If anything, Derrickson was resistant to updating The Day the Earth Stood Still because he loved the film so much. It wasn't until he read the script and realised how much the ideas in the original continued to resonate that he started to rationalise the whole remake process.
"First of all, I realised that it's not The Wizard of Oz; it's not one of those classics that a significant proportion of the modern public has seen, so that took some of the weight off my shoulders. I also realised that remakes are a part of the Hollywood tradition. It's not an instant no-no and there's something about science fiction in particular that lends itself to the process. I mean, there's a reason why Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been done four times." Indeed it was Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of that particular classic that Derrickson used as his benchmark for The Day the Earth Stood Still. "I really looked at that and tried to work out what Kaufman did. And what he paid great attention to were the elements of the original story that would work for modern audiences. Then he brought in what was new in terms of cinema at that point. So I really just tried to do that."
The new film, then, retains the general premise of Wise's 1951 original, with Reeves in the role of Klaatu, the intergalactic emissary visiting Earth to deliver its human inhabitants a stark ultimatum to ensure the planet's continued survival. Befitting the current social, political and even economic climate, however, the world into which he arrives is a much more threatening place than the conservative 1950s America of the original. Consequently, Reeve's Klaatu is far removed from Michael Rennie's congenial visitor; he's weird and distant, more malevolent than benevolent.
"I think Michael Rennie was such a perfect symbol of the 1950s," agrees Derrickson. "He's very positive and then, at the end, he delivers a very menacing message. I like the idea that our Klaatu is more menacing to begin with, that he's morally complicated and even self-contradictory. There's something about him that just feels like a good symbol of our era."
Of course, as much as he has updated things, Derrickson knew he also had to find room for two of the original film's most iconic elements. Listen hard, and you will hear the legendary phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" buried in the action early on. Fans of Gort, Klaatu's giant robot protector, can also relax in the knowledge that after toying with numerous modern concept designs, Derrickson opted to pay homage to the 1950s robot look of the original by turning Gort into a towering cyber-man – albeit one composed of swarming nanobot technology. "It was my special-effects supervisor actually who said to me, 'What are we doing? Why aren't we sticking with Gort?'" admits Derrickson. "As soon as he said that it was so obvious. There's just something interesting about this alien technology choosing a human shape to present itself to humanity."
In fact, if you wanted to, you could read that as symbolising humanity's own capacity to destroy itself. That, after all, was the theme of the original, and its allegorical significance has not diminished. With a paranoid US government launching pre-emptive strikes against Klaatu, it's not hard to read the film as a comment on the war in Iraq and America's post-11 September 2001 foreign policy in general. But while Derrickson admits those things were playing on his mind, it was the underlying environmental theme that held the most significance. As Klaatu says in the film, he's "a friend to the Earth", but it's the planet's survival, not ours, that is foremost on his mind. Derrickson says: "What's interesting about the environmental crisis is that, as with the nuclear build-up during the Cold War, it's something with which we can literally obliterate ourselves. It's pretty unique to have developed technology that can have those kinds of repercussions."
It's also pretty depressing that themes and warnings that were pertinent in 1951 are arguably even more relevant and urgent today. Derrickson, however, doesn't necessarily see this as cause for despair. "I do find it predictable that the human capacity for evil and stupidity continues, but I'm also a real believer in the human capacity for growth and change.
"Sometimes I think human beings have to make some really bad, disastrous choices and put themselves in peril before they really reckon with how much they need to change."
Does he think Barack Obama's election victory is perhaps a reflection of that?
"I felt optimistic that some significant change was coming and that the film would be coming out at a time when we might be able to celebrate that change. I didn't expect it to be as dramatic as it has been, but the film was certainly made in the hope that there would be some willingness to take drastic measures to right some wrongs."
He's wary about labouring these points too much though. He didn't, he says, want to preach at audiences. "I really don't think this movie is telling anybody what to do or how to live their lives. It's really just a reflection of certain attitudes in the air. If you get that, great, if you don't get that, that's great too. If you just want to see some cool alien shit and some explosions, then good for you. You'll get what you paid for."
The Day The Earth Stood Still is released in the UK next Friday.