Published on April 24th, 2014 | by SgtKaiju0
The Craft Service: The Remake
In this ongoing series, The Craft Service, I’m going to be looking at films but from a view behind the camera, looking at the trends and techniques that make the films we all know. This week, the dreaded remake….
Ah, remakes. A much maligned and often derided part of the industry and one that draws a lot of ire from the audience. Except when it doesn’t. (More on this later)
There is a view that the world of remakes is a very modern trend but it can be traced all the way back to the 1904 production of the short The Great Train Robbery, a cynical cash-in on the 1903 short film, The Great Train Robbery. We’d have to wait for 1921 for the first full length remake with Cecil B. De Mille remaking his own 1915 film, The Golden Chance as The Forbidden Fruit.
And this very much set the trend for the golden age of cinema. Very often the same director would remake one of their own films, to take advantage of new technology or bigger stars. This period established this method of remake as somehow ‘acceptable’, that the idea of a director remaking his own film is ‘good’ whilst someone else remaking it is ‘bad’, just look at El Mariachi and Desperado.
The remake continued very much in this theme, as a quiet theme running through cinema. As the film-making technology spread through the world, films were remade for local audiences, local customs and the whole world of creative cinema was opened up to Hollywood to remake for the mass audience. Some remakes were clear and obvious, like in the case of Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the 1922 Nosferatu, or the more subtle and conceptual, as in the case of George Lucas’s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress as Star Wars.
This last one opens up a can of worms in the cultural Zeitgeist of Remakes Are Bad and (as mentioned at the opening) only really applies when we don’t like the new film, or don’t know the old. From Scarface to Oceans 11, from The Thing to The Fly, there are many cases where the remake has almost totally eclipse the original (Scarface (1932), Ocean’s 11 (1960), The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Fly (1958) respectively). The list of ‘good’ remakes that are ignored in the discussions goes on:
The telling point here seems to be, is the film any good? In all these cases the remake is a great film in its own right. In the research for this article, I failed to find a remake where the original was forgotten and the remake wasn’t a good film, except maybe The Longest Yard (2005).
For all my defence of the remake, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The recent spate of remakes certainly fall into the ‘bad’ category. For every Star Wars there is a Total Recall (2012). For every The Thing there is a Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).
The list of bad remakes could go on forever, the glut of them in the last decade is enough to drive even the most loyal film fan to madness. Even ignoring the horror genre with its history of never letting a good idea die, the current trend is certainly growing and a critical failure. The last two years only have seen remakes in the form of Conan The Barbarian, Robocop, Carrie, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Delivery Man, The Great Gatsby, Evil Dead, Lone Ranger, Red Dawn, Silent Night, Pusher, Total Recall, Mothers Day, LOL and Dark Shadows. And not one of these films could be classed as memorable, no matter how generous the reviewer.
I think there are a couple of factors driving this influx of these remakes, one economical and one cultural. The first one, economical, all tied to the democratisation of technology. Before the currently information age, if you wanted to see a film, the only place to do so was in the cinema. Ticket sales were guaranteed for most films, followed buy a secondary market on VHS or DVD. This financial security allowed the studios and filmmakers to take bigger risks, to take a chance a script without history. But times changed, technology changed. Firstly the tools to make a film became available to the masses, cutting into their hegemony of production, so they fell back on the one things they had that the new-comers didn’t, rights. Only the larger studios have the money to either buy or maintain the rights to previous properties. Add into this mix the rise of internet piracy and the studios are in a more perilous financial position than ever. And this peril has lead to a more conservative Hollywood than ever. Just look at the amount of films in the cinema at the moment at are either remakes, sequels or adaptations. The money isn’t there anymore for the large studios to take risks. We’ve had a goddamn Battleships film for gods sake!
Adding to this a cultural movement of retro-ism. As we move into the 21st century we are reconsuming the 20th at ever increasing rates. We can see it all around us in the 80s inspired fashions, the 90s set shows, from retro weddings to the revival of the hipster subculture. This could be tied to the idea of a millenial era, looking back on where we have come or linked to the idea of a uncertain future for the current youth, that in the world of recession, drone attacks and war, looking back allows us to regress to a simpler time, at least in our minds.
So where does this all leave us? How do we find our way through the crap to the good? As I see it, there are a few common themes that can help or hinder a remake:
– What is the draw? Many of the remakes that fall into the ‘bad’ category are accused of being a cynical cash-in. And this is entirely true. They are trading on the original name rather than the current film. Total Recall is a key example of this. A hot mess of a film, it is clear the intention was for nostalgia for the original to paper over the cracks in their story/action/script/science. If you look at the remakes that tend to fall into the ‘good’ category stand by themselves. Oceans 11 traded on its cast and cool, you could be forgiven for not even knowing there was an original. The remake needs to stand up by itself, not just a cash-in.
– Is It Something Different? One of the most derided remakes of all time is Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. It was boring. We had already seen this film and better. On the flip-side we have 21 Jump Street. The original TV series was a straight police crime procedural but the remake framed it as a buddy comedy, telling a new story within an existing world. And thus 21 Jump Street is well liked whereas Psycho is mostly forgotten.
– Is It A Good Film? This is possibly the most subjective of the themes but in many ways the most important. Let us consider the twin cases of Fright Night and Dark Shadows. Both of these films fitted in the first theme, trading on their casts to draw rather than the original series, both of them reimagined a straight laced show as a comedy and yet both fell flat, being both a critical and commerical failure. And why? They aren’t very good films. On the other side of this, let us look at Star Trek. The remake traded entirely on the existing fans and knowledge, it is as straightlaced as the show was and yet is routinely praised, due in no part to it’s quality. The casting is spot-on, the action exciting and the script strong.
Whilst there are no clear answers to the question of how make a good remake and there is no end in sight to the genre in the future, I would hope that we can see it isn’t all bad news. We might have to wade through many terrible remakes to find the gems, but when we do, they are more than worth the effort.