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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 4
In Which We Look at One of the Positive Aspects of One Particular Summer Release's Success, and What, Hopefully, It Could Mean for Future Releases
Inception

As I write these words, Christopher Nolan's Inception has grossed over $165 million in United States domestic ticket sales. While not exactly the same level of success as his previous movie -- The Dark Knight grossed $351 million after its first two weeks -- it nonetheless bodes well for Nolan, who took what could have been an incomprehensible, self-indulgent mess and managed to find a successful blend of art-house indie flick and crowd-pleasing blockbuster. It may not be perfect (as my review stated), but at least it managed to be one of the summer's top tier movies without asking its audience not to check its brain at the door. That itself would make its success remarkable; indeed, it's difficult not to come across an article discussing its ending or its influences. However, what gives me the most hope is that Inception is one of the first film successes not based on an existing property or a remake of another picture.

This got me thinking about how many remakes have flickered across movie screens recently. Though remakes have a long history, their recent sheer numbers appear to border on epidemic. One cannot hear of movies currently in production without learning that it is a remake of this work or that. Indeed, at the recent Comic-Con director Matt Reeves defended his recent remake of Tomas Alfredson's masterful Let the Right One In, and I have heard many fans of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy breathe a sigh of relief at the casting of Daniel Craig in the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though I immediately wondered why it needed to be remade in the first place. I cannot bear reading of some young auteur daring to remake Escape from New York, Red Dawn or Total Recall without groaning. (Total Recall, especially, was bad enough the first time; do I have the stomach to try to sit through another go?)

Understand that, while I am a hard core movie nerd, I am not one who believes that remakes are in and of themselves bad things.  Indeed, there are many remakes that are often as good as, and are sometimes better, than the original.  For example, The Maltese Falcon has been made three times. The classic is the third, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart.  The mundane noir Murder, My Sweet, starring Dick Powell as a charisma-free Philip Marlowe, was remade in the 70s as the atmospheric Farewell, My Lovely, starring a world-weary Robert Mitchum as the iconic detective.  Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been adapted for the screen four times, and while the first is still the classic, two of the three remakes are solid, worthwhile efforts.  (The fourth, called simply Invasion, I have not seen, but from what I've heard it is a misfire on almost every possible level.) There are two versions of Richard Stark's classic crime
Let Me In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
novel The Hunter: Point Blank (a surreal odyssey through the criminal underworld) and Payback (a cool, competent entertainment, especially in Brian Helgeland's director's cut).  There are also two film versions of Jim Thompson's The Getaway, one full of director Sam Peckinpah's psychotic artistry, the other featuring Roger Donaldson's slick professionalism.  (One could also count Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn as an adaptation of Thompson's novel, but if it is then it's an uncredited, rather loose version.)  And let's not forget the now-dated Steve McQueen vehicle The Thomas Crown Affair, polished with a hyper-sexy gloss for Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.  Or Here Comes Mr. Jordan remade as Heaven Can Wait. Or 2004's iteration of Dawn of the Dead, or 2009's Star Trek or The Last House on the Left. That's just off the top of my head, though I know there are others.

So it can be done, and quite well.  However, for every remake that works, there is one that doesn't, thus becoming the poster child for arguments against them.  The 1990s alone saw remakes of The Shining (made for television), Psycho, The Haunting, Sabrina and Godzilla.  Before that, there appeared anemic remakes of Cat People, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Night of the Living Dead, The Desperate Hours, Rear Window (remade as The Bedroom Window, with Steve Gutenberg, a pale shade of Jimmy Stewart, and then the even worse Disturbia with the even paler Shia LaBoeuf), La Femme Nikita (remade well in Hong Kong as Black Cat, remade poorly in Hollywood as Point of No Return), The Big Sleep, A Guy Named Joe (remade as Always) and Invaders from Mars.  And I haven't even started on the recent adaptations of successful shockers from the Golden Age of Splatter: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and House of Wax. Again, that's off the top of my head. Do I even want to express my revulsion at the recent travesty of Steven Spielberg's abominable The War of the Worlds or 2008's The Day the Earth Stood Still? Or even the pointlessness of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes?

The Haunting The Day the Earth Stood Still Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Haunting The Day the Earth Stood Still Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Why do some remakes work, and why do some arrive stillborn at the local multiplex?  The answer, I think, is similar to Leo Tolstoy's quote about happy and unhappy families.  From what I can tell, the remakes that work usually have either a strong story or dynamic characters going for them.  Whether Doc and Carol McCoy are played by Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw or Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, the story propels you along, and you sit riveted to the screen because you need to see the outcome.  Often they are made by craftsmen rather than auteurs, people who simply love and understand their subject matter and want to do right by it.  Yes, there are exceptions (David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly is a prime example of an auteur approaching a remake), but even then they tend to have the same amount of respect for the material and the benefits of working with good material.

Bad remakes are bad for different reasons.  Some fail because the people involved have little or no respect for the original.  Paul Schraeder felt the original Cat People "wasn't that great" and certainly wasn't a classic.  Some fail because the makers do not understand the conventions of the genre in which they are working.  Jan de Bont thought the same rules that applied to action also applied to horror, and the resulting remake of The Haunting was an effects-riddled mess.  Some fail because the makers love the material but do not understand why the originals worked.  The Emmerich brothers' remake of Godzilla lacked the camp fun of the original, while Tom Savini's remake of Night of the Living Dead couldn't match the original's claustrophobic intensity.  Some fail because the movie is a genuine classic, making the need for a remake pointless; witness Gus Van Sant's lifeless remake of Psycho and Brent Ratner's dull remake of Manhunter.  And then there are those that fail due to the director's sheer ineptitude: The Desperate Hours (in my opinion, Michael Cimino should never have been given access to a camera or a studio, and that includes his work on The Deer Hunter), Bedroom Window (only Hitchcock could do a decent Hitchcock movie, and he never would have given Steve Gutenberg the time of day), Point of No Return (which turns a decent story into an action movie flatter than week-old opened champagne, no thanks to John Badham) and King Kong (sapped of wonder and excitement by John Guillerman, and then sapped of wit or intelligence by Peter Jackson).

If I never have to sit through another remake, I'll be happy. Which is why I take Inception's success as a positive sign. It proves that yes, as long as it's good, a movie can find an audience without pre-existing material.

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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