08 March 2010

Reboots & Remakes: What Works & What Doesn't

by guest columnist Gabriel Novo. Follow him on Twitter.

Hollywood is not a business built on risk. They like bankable stars in four quadrant films in order to maximize the return on their investment. Plots are formulaic to meet the general public's entertainment needs, plugging into their sitcom derived expectations of a happy ending. Focus groups are used to taste test the product before distribution ensuring it satisfies the palate of average America.

When it comes to safe bets, there's nothing safer than a movie or property that has already made money. The sequel has always been a hallmark of this thinking working under the Hollywood mandate of "Give me the same thing… only different!" Taking this ideology even further we now are being treated to a parade of reboots and remakes. Reboots are shock paddles to the heart of a dying franchise (think Batman in the 90's) wiping the slate clean and hoping to recapture the magic of its former glory.

Remakes are straight regurgitations of already seen films with occasionally a better budget, plot or cast. Both hope to leverage an existing fan base in an attempt to get as close to a guaranteed return as you can in the world of movies.

Sometimes these flicks are incredible successes further cementing the re-hash path as a viable option in Tinsel Town. Other times they are miserable flops making us wonder who thought it was a good idea in the first place? Here are some examples of both sides of this colorful spectrum.

The Good
Star Trek had a mountain of expectations working against it. A long, sordid past of lackluster films, TV shows that had been banished to syndication hell and egos of epic proportions (William Fucking Shatner anyone?). In spite of this massive handicap it ended up being one of the best examples of a reboot ever (up there with Batman Begins).

Respect for the source material is a must for any successful reboot and
Star Trek had it in droves. They kept the sense of adventure from the original series, threw in enough fan favorites to whet the appetite (tribbles, red shirts, green chicks) and handled the characters with the loving care they deserved.

The writing was exceptionally tight in this movie. Strong character development was shown across the board leveraging well focused scenes to flesh out the characters without drowning in exposition. Spock and Kirk's childhood moments encapsulated their inner turmoil perfectly, revealing not only the characteristics which would make them clash so fiercely, but the similarities that would forge their friendship.

They even worked around the continuity issue by tweaking the story just enough to give the writers more flexibility with canon while still maintaining suspension of disbelief for a science fiction audience. The ensemble cast was treated as a whole, not allowing any one role to be pushed to the sidelines, weaving characters together for parallel development which kept the pace moving well and avoided juggling too many separate story threads at once (i.e.
Spider-Man 3).

If more reboots work toward making the concept better instead of just re-hashing it then we could revive some much loved franchises.
The Bad
Psycho. Do I really need to go into this? I guess I must.

First of all, you can't catch lightning in a bottle twice. You're lucky if you ever do it at all. Hitchcock was a genius because he consistently churned out amazing films in a style that was groundbreaking and unique. Why anyone could think to follow in those footsteps is beyond me. If you were to go as far as trying to redo a master director's work then the best you could hope for is to adapt the essence of the film instead of a straight remake (i.e. Kurosawa's
The Seven Samurai transformed into Sturges' The Magnificent Seven).

Gus van Sant did fantastic jobs with
Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, but that was all within his own directorial style. Trying to play the game with someone else's rulebook just doesn't work. It's like The Three Tenors trying to do a concert a la The Rolling Stones, as talented as they may be in their own respect, it will only come off as awkward and sad.

Treading on hallowed ground aside lets compare casting choices. A film is only as good as its performers and as much as I love Vince Vaughn's perpetually tired visage he can't hold a candle to Anthony Perkins. I commend him for trying, but in the same way you patronize your buddy who sings in a cover band, he may think he's a rock star, but he's not. Same goes for Anne Heche. No one really stood a chance in this film. There was too much history around it and it was too iconic of film especially to attempt a scene-by-scene retelling.

I liked this flawed little film's chutzpah, but it was a text book case of how not to do a remake.
The Ugly

Just about every horror movie remake falls into this category: Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, etc. I'm a huge fan of the genre in both literature and film so I'm not bashing it as a whole, but these remakes tend to scrape the very bottom of the barrel. Horror is as much about the essence of a time and place as it is scary scenes and ominous music. What most of the retreads fail to capture is the atmosphere that spawned the original.

The gritty realism and documentary feel of
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is what captivated audiences when it first came out. The slick remake missed it completely as did Rob Zombie's attempt at homage with House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil's Rejects. Just like Orson Wells' radio broadcast of War of the Worlds will never fool the public again, these nuggets of fear cannot be recaptured because the audience's beliefs and perspectives have changed. Newer generations of audience members have been desensitized to the violence and shock value that many of these older films contain which makes a scene-by-scene remake fail so miserably.

The only reason the
Freddy vs. Jason reboot was successful (though some might disagree with that statement) was because Robert Englund tapped into the mischievous fun of the Freddy character and adapted it for the current audience instead of relying on tired old popcorn scare tactics. Seeing Krueger before he became the master of dreams was an incredibly disturbing scene which effectively repositioned the fear of a child murderer into a more modern framework.

Reboots and remakes are here to stay as long as the Hollywood studios think there's a buck to be made. Hopefully the directors wrestling with these projects will learn from the obvious successes in the field and avoid the horrible mistakes of the past. 

Gabriel Novo is a writer, blogger, unrepentant movie fanatic and computer nerd by trade.  When he's not traipsing around the globe you can find him in a creative fervor over at Cuban Nomad or analyzing 0's and 1's at RetroHack.  He also tends to mutter incoherently @gabrielnovo. 


Anonymous said...

Great post...I think I would rather listen to the Three Tenors covering Paint It Black than watch Vince Vaughn try do do 'menacing.'

Raquel said...

Well let's just say seeing Vince Vaughn's name with anything other than his usual comedy routine is just a horror unto itself. :P

Great job Gabriel! Totally agree on the choices for each area.

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