Studios are scrambling for new ways to describe their regurgitated fare, but will painting the old wagon with fresh paint stop the wheels falling off?
Some of the greatest Hollywood movies of the modern era are remakes. Martin Scorsese’s grubby Boston gangland thriller The Departed riffs shamelessly on the Hong Kong crime epic Infernal Affairs, while David Cronenberg’s 1986 body horror classic The Fly is an update on the 1958 Kurt Neumann chiller. The Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit is generally considered to be superior to the hokey 1969 version starring a past-his-best John Wayne, while the 1982 version of the Antarctic science fiction horror The Thing is a better movie than the 1951 film The Thing from Another World from which it drew inspiration.
And yet the very term, along with its younger sibling the “reboot”, seems to have become a dirty word in Hollywood in 2016. If Star Wars: The Force Awakens had been made a few decades ago, it might easily have been sold as a remake, but with George Lucas’s prequels having already been blamed for ruining countless childhoods, the movie was pitched as a sort of “re-quel”, a sequel with all the elements of a remake necessary to inspire nostalgia but enough new material to move the story on and set up future adventures.
One imagines Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters might have saved itself a lot of pain by following a similar approach. At least the team who put together the (otherwise much-hated) first trailer got one thing right, as they tried to pitch the new version as a sort of pseudo-sequel to the Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd version. “30 years ago, four scientists saved New York,” read a caption. “This summer a new team will answer the call.” Sadly, by this point, it was already too late: the media had long been referring to the movie as a female-fronted remake, and the “bro” brigade was already on the warpath.
It seems others are now keen to avoid making the same mistake. With one eye on sidestepping the gaping pothole marked “ruined childhoods” that seems to manifest wherever these types of movies are being shot, the Rock this week on Instagram insisted the new version of the Robin Williams fantasy romp Jumanji is most definitely not a remake. “For the record, we are NOT making a reboot, but rather a ‘continuation of the story’,” he wrote.
Roma Downey, producer of the new Ben-Hur movie, was at it too last week at the LA premiere for the swords and sandals, ahem, reworking. “It’s been almost 60 years since the Charlton Heston film,” she told Variety. “There is a whole generation of people who haven’t even seen the 1959 film. And there are so many differences in this version, so if you brought grandpa along, he wouldn’t recognise it.” Studio Paramount has been pitching the film as a new version of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which, naturally, the 1959 version was based on too. But it’s not a remake, just so’s you all understand.
Then there’s the forthcoming new version of The Craft, the little-remembered witchy 90s teen chiller that’s been reworked with Leigh Janiak, director of the critically acclaimed low-budget 2014 horror Honeymoon, in the hot seat. Yep, you guessed it, this one’s not a remake, either.
“I wouldn’t say that we wouldn’t so much call it a remake as a ‘twenty years later,’” producer Douglas Wick told Hitfix in May. “There will be callbacks to the original movie, so you will see there is a connection between what happened in the days of The Craft, and how these young women come across this magic many years later.”
Here’s the thing. If the term “remake” has become taboo in Hollywood, studios only have themselves to blame. From the slash-and-burn cinema of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, with its slew of ill-considered horror rehashes, to Sony’s incessant attempts to bring back Spider-Man with almost exactly the same story as last time (now abandoned, thankfully, in favour of handing the wallcrawler over to Marvel), audiences are simply fed up with an approach to cinema that looks a lot like asset stripping.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. The Force Awakens was so slickly and lovingly made that all but the most po-faced of Star Wars fans found themselves far too wrapped up in nostalgia to complain. Jurassic World arrived just long enough after 2001’s middling Jurassic Park III that audiences found themselves grudgingly enthralled by the prospect of meeting all-new awe-inspiringly photorealistic CGI dinosaurs. And Mad Max: Fury Road belatedly cut away all the fat and gristle of the long-running dystopian desert warrior saga to reveal the gleaming bones of a road chase movie so relentlessly minimalistic that it actually broke new ground in cinema.
But let’s be honest: all of the above are remakes of a sort. Painting the old wagon with fresh paint is one thing, but it’s not going to stop the wheels falling off further down the line. Ben-Hur looks likely to lose Paramount and MGM up to $100m after bombing at the domestic box office this past weekend, and even Steven Spielberg couldn’t convince audiences to come out for his new version of the BFG earlier in the summer. Let’s not even mention last year’s pointless remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s enduringly thrilling 1991 surfer crime romp Point Break.
Perhaps Hollywood can learn something from TV. The current Netflix smash Stranger Things, by way of example, was reputedly written by the Duffer Brothers after they lost out on the chance to oversee the forthcoming big screen remake of Steven King’s It. With its gloriously nostalgic riffing on 80s themes, from ET to Stand By Me, the supernatural thriller is certainly better than the much-loved but deeply flawed TV movie double-header that inspired it. What’s more, it’s likely to be superior to the new big screen It, which recently lost the visionary director Cary Fukunaga and is being produced by sometime horror philistines New Line (makers of those terrible remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, alongside Platinum Dunes).
Small-screen producers seem capable of picking choice candies from the glorious snack pack of the past without ruining everyone’s sweet tooth. Hollywood, meanwhile, seems determined to serve up a relentless platter of regurgitated and recycled fare. And it’s slowly making large portions of its audience sick.