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Watching the Future: Remakes, Redux, Redoux, Reflux

A few days ago, like most Internet denizens, I brought up YouTube to watch the brand-new trailer for Gareth Edwards’s film version of Godzilla, coming this summer.  And, like most who reloaded it multiple times, goggling at the waves flooding a small coastal town and Bryan Cranston’s desperate shouting to others about the impending danger of the Big Green One, the trailer caused me to embrace my inner ten-year-old, who spent far too many Saturday mornings and afternoons glued to the television resting in the corner of his apartment as it took him to Monster Island, where Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Rodan, and other oversized monsters did battle among scientists who knew almost nothing of real science, screaming mobs, and military men growing more and more desperate to save Japan from more destruction.  Add to this elements of Ligeti’s “Requiem” and I was able to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I even forgave the loud BWAARRP of horns that seems a permanent fixture of the modern American movie trailer.  I was excited.

And then held myself in check.  Yes, it looked good. Yes, Edwards, with his landmark Monsters, seemed knowledgeable enough about genre and genre tropes to make an interesting movie.  It looked impressive, and even somewhat scary, much in the manner of Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic…

And therein lay my problem.

This was a remake.

Remakes are in and of themselves not bad things.  Remakes that are often as good as, and are sometimes better, than the original actually number more highly than one would think.  For example, three versions of The Maltese Falcon exist. The classic is the third, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart.  Dick Richards remade the mundane noir Murder, My Sweet, starring Dick Powell as a charisma-free Philip Marlowe, 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 remains the classic, the other two are solid, worthwhile efforts.  (The less said of the fourth, the better.)  There are two versions of Richard Stark’s The Hunter: Point Blank (a surreal odyssey through the criminal underworld) and Payback (a cool, competent, undemanding entertainment).  Jim Thompson’s The Getaway rolled across movie screens twice, once full of director Sam Peckinpah’s psychotic artistry, the other featuring Roger Donaldson’s slick professionalism.  (One could also count 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.

So it can be done.  But for every remake that works there is one that doesn’t, and it becomes the poster child for the argument against them.  In the 1990s alone we had remakes of The Shining (made for television), Psycho, The Haunting, and Sabrina.  Before that, audiences suffered through 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), La Femme Nikita (remade well in Hong Kong as Black Cat, poorly in Hollywood as Point of No Return), The Big Sleep (Mitchum again, no substitute for Bogart), A Guy Named Joe (as Always), and Invaders from Mars.  Do we even need to mention the last decade, haven for such cinematic masterpieces as Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, The Crazies, Invasion (all right, let’s mention the fourth one), or Solaris?

Why do some remakes work, and why do some arrive stillborn at the local multiplex?  The reasons vary, from a lack of respect for the original to a failure to understand the conventions of the genre in which they are working; at times, what is being remade required no remake.

And sometimes, the original is so endemic to the time it was released that an update can never match its original.  That, at least, was what I felt as I left a press screening of the remake of RoboCop a few weeks ago.

Aside from the fact that it marked Paul Verhoeven’s first major American release (his previous work, including the incredible Soldier of Orange, came out of Denmark), I knew almost nothing about the original when I stepped into the late great Dobie Theater just off the University of Texas campus in November 1987.  I had hoped, perhaps in vain, that it might be a mindless, somewhat diverting exploitation picture, a post-grindhouse release that seemed kept alive only by limited releases (these being the days when midlist pictures actually saw a theatrical release, prior to the concept of straight-to-video).

And, on one level, that RoboCop was pretty mindless, in that it adhere often too rigorously to the conventions of the burgeoning action genre (this being the golden age of action cinema) as well as elements of noir (who is more alienated than the noir protagonist, especially one whose memory has been erased and whose nearly dead body has been stuffed inside an ambulatory, well-armed machine?) and undemanding thriller (of course there are subplots involving drug smuggling and gunrunning).  But on another level, it offered a healthy dollop of satire: scary-looking advertisements made by heart-transplant companies; an obsession with the baser aspects of American life, from awful television shows (including a Benny Hill–inspired character constantly braying the catch-phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”) to an obsession with sports cars (ads for the 6000 SUX, which boasts single-digit gas mileage) and weaponry (Peter Weller’s Murphy imitates a twirling gun technique from a television show his son watches).  It also took aim at the corporate mindset, obsessed with status and power; when a demonstration of the fully autonomous police drone ED-209 malfunctions, turning an OCP executive into bloody confetti amid thunderous gunfire, OCP President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) sheepishly states that it is only a glitch.  And there are elements that seem oddly prescient, as when New Detroit councilman Ron Miller loses an election and holds city officials hostage to negotiate a recount.  With his demands (which include a new car “with reclining leather seats, that goes really fast, and gets really shitty gas mileage!”) and disheveled look, he prefigures Rob Ford, only with a Tek-9 in hand and far more desperation in his eyes.

It also benefited from an energetic pace—the movie moves so quickly that it makes other entries in the genre during that period, even things like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, seem like exercises in Tarkovskyian meditation—and a presentation of violence so over-the-top that one’s natural defense was laughter.  Consider the moment when one violent criminal, attempting to escape from Weller’s cyborg, drives a van into a container of toxic waste.  Melting and gurgling, begging for help, he stumbles into the path of a speeding vehicle that turns him into a splattery mess.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, RoboCop, general action silliness aside, crafts a rich if disturbing world, a heady mélange of Judge Dredd laced with John Brunner’s media-saturated novel Stand on Zanzibar and wrapped in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange‘s ultraviolent robes.  It was new, a fresh dish from impressive pop culture ingredients, and served to an unsuspecting public.  It was outlaw cinema from a major studio, something else one normally didn’t see, and something that two sequels could not repeat.

Nor could a remake.

It’s not that I was against director José Padilha remaking RoboCop.  But I didn’t think it could be successful because it seemed like a remake would miss much of the subversive element of the original.  A dollop of satire and transgressive attitude elevated Verhoeven’s effort to trash masterpiece, something that I had not seen in any of those who involved in the remake.  Joel Kinnaman, whose work on AMC’s The Killing always compels, seemed right for Alex Murphy, if a bit calculated.  So did Gary Oldman as the scientist who brings RoboCop to, er, life.  So did Michael Keaton as the president of OmniCorp.  Even the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as a talk-show host with a no-spin zone that would induce nausea in Bill O’Reilly seemed like a committee decision.

And it worsened as the minutes ticked slowly by.  For all of the bullets and bombs and explosions crammed onto the screen, little allowed for the genuine horror of violence, or even the thrills of professional entertainment.  For all of the machinations of its media, the corporations, and a corrupt police force, few drove to anything other than cliché.  For all of the subtext that might have served as the story’s backdrop—drones, obsessive media hype, evil corporations, misguided scientists—none of it found anything more compelling than a mediocre thriller.

And that, perhaps, was the biggest problem.  Verhoeven’s RoboCop worked because of its satiric elements, its kinetic pacing, and an absurdist worldview.  Padilha’s remake took things way too seriously, and never managed to rise above the other routine fare already clogging multiplexes.  It also fails to understand how absurdist the world has become.  When the swelling of Kim Kardashian’s backside garners more media time on CNN than the Ukrainian crisis and Black Friday becomes the nexus for gladiatorial combat, the events of Padilha’s RoboCop appear staid and routine, even dull.

Fortunately, RoboCop already has receded from movie screens.  Unfortunately, more remakes threaten to find their way to us, with the same neutered entertainment.  Do you really think you’ll be charmed by the remake of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?  Do you really want an update of WarGames?  Can you really imagine yourself terrified (in the right way) of Cronenberg’s Videodrome?

They’re coming.  And sooner than you think.

3 Comments on Watching the Future: Remakes, Redux, Redoux, Reflux

  1. I wonder if there is any mileage to musing about what we would *want* remade.

  2. Enough with the remakes, revamps, and reimaginings already. Are there no original ideas left in the world?

    Like you pointed out, there’s more to a movie than just the story that makes it great. A truly memorable movie is a sum of its parts (story, director, actors, editor, etc.) and no matter how well you do at replicating individual elements, you’ll never recapture the magic of the whole.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of remakes, especially ROBOCOP (2014). I knew when they announced the idea of the remake that it would never measure up to the original. I mean, without knowing anything about the remake, I envisioned it as an instant failure (in spirit, if not at the actual box office). I was not wrong.

    I did want to take issue in a minor way with the list of bad remakes you mentioned as anemic remakes, specifically CAT PEOPLE (1982) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990). I liked the CAT PEOPLE remake. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD followed the original film quite well. Of all of the first three Romero zombie films, both NIGHT and DAWN OF THE DEAD received quality remakes. Although, to be honest, the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD had little to do with the original film. By comparison, the NIGHT remake followed the original screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo.

    So, if you want to pick on a remake of a Romero zombie film, then I suggest going after the horrible, atrocious DAY OF THE DEAD (2009) remake, as that film really missed the point of the original film and did nothing to improve upon, or even to compliment upon, the original film.

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