Play it Again, Sam

September 30, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has been said that Hollywood remakes films and TV shows because of creative bankruptcy. While there may be some truth to that statement, I view the situation in another way. Hollywood turns to remakes because filmmakers lack cojones. It takes more guts to go forward with something completely new than to recycle something that has already proven to be profitable. Producers and filmmakers talk incessantly about the desire to "re-discover" or "re-invent" a concept or approach but most of the time these are euphemisms designed to cover up the fact that a project is little more than a money grab.

The most common type of remake is one that takes an old movie or foreign film and provides changes designed to make it more "accessible" to modern American audiences. In some cases, when a movie is reasonably obscure, like Infernal Affairs (which Martin Scorsese remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed), there's value in the approach. It allows a subtitle-phobic multiplex population to explore something they might not otherwise have a chance to see. On the other hand, there's Rob Zombie's Halloween, which is about as unnecessary as remakes come. The original is in color, in English, and only about 30 years old. It stands up well by today's standards and is easily obtained in video stores. Why was Halloween remade? For financial reasons. The producers had run into a dead-end with increasingly silly sequels and decided that the best way to milk more money out of the franchise was to "reboot" it. 2007's Halloween was a modest success. My question: will the next one be a sequel to the remake or a remake of the (original) sequel? A similar question faced the makers of The Ring 2.

Lately, big-screen remakes of television shows have become popular. The craze probably started with The Brady Bunch. It wasn't the first of these films but it was the one that initiated the explosion. Since then, seemingly every kind of show has received an expensive upgrade. A few have been successful, many have been unmemorable, and several have been downright awful. There's almost never a legitimate creative reason for remaking at T.V. show. The goal of these projects is typically two-fold: draw in new viewers and appeal to the nostalgia of those who used to watch the program. I would have loved to be in pitch meetings where studio executives were convinced to greenlight My Favorite Martian and Leave It to Beaver.

What makes for a successful - or at least satisfying - remake? It's usually not a faithful regurgitation of the source material. Familiarity can be comfortable, but the last thing most serious movie-goers want is to watch a retelling of a story presented in the same way with the same characters (played by different actors). That's boring. We already know how it's going to end and what it's going to take to get to that point. All these years later, I'm still trying to figure out the point of Gus Van Sant's Psycho. It might have been a fun challenge for him to make, but it certainly wasn't a lot of fun to endure in a movie theater.

Good remakes generally fall into one of two categories. The first is when a director appreciates the premise and spirit of a movie but has an idea to take it in a new direction. This is pretty much what Scorsese did with The Departed. He used the framework of Infernal Affairs but experimented and changed significant portions of it. There's no doubt that the two films are closely related, but there's equally no doubt that the former is not a direct copy of the latter. You can watch The Departed having seen Infernal Affairs and still be unsure how things are going to turn out. That, in my view, is a good thing. There is, of course, a caveat. Sometimes the director's "new direction" is lame. Consider the latest and worst version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The dumb ending ruins the whole thing.

The second kind of potentially effective remake is something that stays true to the spirit of the original, and follows the storyline closely, but includes enough of a fresh spin to make it seem new. This is often the case when older films are remade. Peter Jackson's King Kong would fit into this category as would the recent update of 3:10 to Yuma. Both movies use the original screenplay as a template then insert new elements here and there that make the film seem more than just a current day carbon copy. (Hmmm... probably shouldn't use "current day" and "carbon copy" in the same sentence.)

There is a popular belief that critics are "against" remakes, but that isn't true. We're against pointless remakes or remakes that are made for no reason other than to line the coffers of the studio releasing them. Remakes that are embarked upon with real thought and artistic direction can stand alongside the best of the originals. However, while it can be a great pleasure to see something familiar re-imagined with a flair, woe to any director who takes a beloved film and screws it up.