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Take Two:

A Few Thoughts on Hollywood's Obsession with Remakes

Not too long ago, it was announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed to star in Westworld, a re-make of the 1973 sci-fi film starring Yul Brynner as a murderous "gun slinger" android in an amusement park of the future (Delos). The casting seems to fit—Arnie's been a murderous android before—but it got me thinking about remakes and the reasons Hollywood persists in re-making genre pictures that were pretty well done in the first place. Why not remake bad movies instead. Like anything directed by Ed Wood...

I should state unequivocally that I don't think all re-makes are a terrible notion. Sometimes, a remake can successfully update a good concept to make it more relevant to a new time. In this regard, I inevitably recall the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Sure it was a re-make of a great 1950s picture directed by Don Siegel, but remake director Philip Kaufman captured the zeitgeist of the uncertain 1970s by making the body snatchers represent not the "Red Scare" of the restrictive McCarthy 1950s, but the alienation and isolation of the "me" generation. The result was a fine film that stands proudly next to the original.

And, I'll plead mea culpa here, I don't even despise the much-denigrated 1976 remake of King Kong. For purely sentimental reasons, no movie could ever hold a candle to the original 1930s King Kong, but at least the 1976 version was an interesting (and controversial...) updating. Instead of being a lush, innocent, romantic adventure about exploring the unknown, the remake featured selfish characters hunting for oil and trying to rape the natural resources of the untouched Skull Island. Instead of an innocent woman dreaming of becoming a movie star, like Fay Wray in the original, the remake's heroine (Jessica Lange) was a publicity-seeking opportunist seeking her fifteen minutes of fame. These changes may have seemed like heresy to a generation weaned on the original 1933 King Kong, but again, these alterations nicely captured the zeitgeist of the age. Even the canny use of the newly built World Trade Centers instead of the art deco Empire State Building in the remake's finale worked well for the disco-decade re-think.

But all re-makes are not created equal, and that's the problem. The remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and King Kong stayed relatively close to their source material, while updating key elements and spinning new themes out of old narratives. Both films also benefited from updates in special effects technology and audience sophistication. I suspect that failed remakes are the ones that "re-imagine" so much of the original material that it becomes unrecognizable, while simultaneously exploiting new special effects at the expense of traditional film elements like plot and characterization.

Heaven knows I looked forward to the new Planet of the Apes film. I followed the project as it passed like an unwanted child from director to director (Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Michael Bay, and finally Tim Burton...). The original Franklin J. Schaffner film has always been one of my genre favorite films. With exciting new ape make-up by Rick Baker, the updating promised to be quite exciting. But the finished film was, shockingly, one of the most empty features I'd ever sat through. What made the first picture (and its sequels) such a delight—and something that fans went back to for thirty years—was its philosophical foundation. The first Apesfilm concerned itself with many things, including the transition of cultures, man's self-destructive impulses, the futility of nuclear war, and even the innate hypocrisy of organized religion. The film was dense with meaning, and that fact made multiple viewing rewarding. By comparison, the new Planet of the Apes was so thematically barren that even one viewing was painful and boring. Sure, there were a few half-hearted "monkey see, monkey do" jokes about ape-human racism, but the gags were so obvious—well, a monkey could have typed 'em.

Why did the new Planet of the Apes disappoint me (and countless others)? Simply stated, it betrayed the original film's heritage of thoughtful debate. The original Planet of the Apes premiered in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and hippie-dom. Those were all influences in the narrative. It has been more than thirty years since the film's release, so the Planet of the Apes remake arrives in a "new world order" of nation-building, remote control wars, stolen elections, presidential impeachment, Y2K and AIDS. Yet the remake might as well have been produced in 1950 because has zilch to say about our post-millennial existence. Frankly, there are all kinds of relevant issues that might have been addressed in a new Planet of the Apes movie. If nuclear war is no longer a legitimate fear to exploit, then what other apocalypses frighten us today? Why didn't the remake try to address such a notion as its premise rather than settling on a space-time distortion that looked as though it had been lifted from a mediocre episode of Star Trek: Voyager? How has the issue of race relations developed since 1968? How have animal rights issues changed? How has man's self-destructive impulse changed? You won't find the answers to any of these questions in the re-make, and that's why it is nothing but a flat, cliff-notes version of a great book and a great film. By next year, it'll be forgotten (if it hasn't been already...)

The 1999 remake of Robert Wise's classic 1963 film The Haunting represents another botched opportunity. The original film, about a team investigating a haunted house, featured no real visual effects, only clever (and jolting...) camera work and sound effects, yet was one of the most terrifying horror films ever made. The director remembered the axiom that less can be more, and that what is imagined is more frightening than what is seen. Jan De Bont's remake threw that notion out the window and became an over-the-top extravaganza of lousy CGI special effects. Was it scary? No more so than an episode of Scooby Doo. In this regard, the imaginative The Blair Witch Project was "spiritually' a better and more faithful remake of Wise's The Haunting than its crappy namesake. What happened to the remake? An old script was dusted off and dumbed down, filled with big-name actors, then infused with new special effects at the expense of everything else. It is a textbook example of why remakes fail.

I hate to be one of those cranky guys who complains about how bad movies are today, and I often write about positive film experiences in this column. And I'll be the first to admit that television is better now than it ever has been in history. It has to be good, because there's so much competition among networks, basic cable stations, premium cable, et al. Excellent TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape , The X-Files, Law & Order, Felicity, Alias, 24, The Shield, Witchblade, and others have to be good or viewers don't return the following week. All a film must do to succeed in today's environment is have a hyped-up, great opening weekend. After a strong premiere, word of mouth was disastrous on Planet of the Apes and grosses fell something like 60 percent after the first weekend. Contrast that with The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix, or The Sixth Sense—excellent films—that built on strong word of mouth and played for months in theater houses. The gimmick of the re-make—and this is despicable—is that it exploits popular movies as brand names. Planet of the Apes has a built-in audience of fans (I'm one of 'em...), so the studio knew that the film would make money, regardless of quality. That's probably why no thought went into the script or the ludicrous, meaningless climax. The Wild Wild West is a brand name, and the feature remake made money even though fans hated it. Sad to say, remakes today are nothing more than marketing; crass attempts to sell us something because we liked it once before. Hopefully, one day soon, studios will learn that audiences don't like the taste of vomit. Regurgitated remakes rarely taste as good the original meal.

And yet I still have hope. I'll go to see Westworld and hope that it has been updated in a way that makes it relevant to today's zeitgeist. I'll probably see Michael Bay's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, even though I know it will never hold a candle to Tobe Hooper's original masterpiece. But I'll definitely pass on the Dawn of the Dead remake by the director of Scooby Doo. I'd rather shove hot pokers in my eyes than bear witness to that particular travesty. Mark my words, it will be rated PG-13, star someone from the WB, and feature CGI zombies...


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