It seems to me that a lot of people tend to complain about the plentitude of reboots, remakes and sequels in the film market. It might just be the vocal minority, though, considering how much money they tend to make.
“It’s a shameless cash grab” is the argument that tends to be made and that’s not necessarily inaccurate, but it’s also the reason they’re not going anywhere any time soon. That means we’re going to have to deal with them and that means we should take a closer look at these things we supposedly hate.
One of the biggest issues that stems from having so many series-related films is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for original storytelling. It doesn’t mean that innovation is dead, only that major studios tend to be less inclined to take a chance on something unproven. Reboots, remakes and sequels have established fan bases. They’re basically a given profit. So the studios will green-light those projects with far less hesitance than they would have with an original concept because the same level of risk isn’t present.
Now, this leads to smaller indy studios picking it up, or actor-produced films pr crowd-funding. This tends to result in a smaller budgeted but tighter story with less interference. And this can be good! And this could also turn out really poorly. However, that could be said about anything.
So it’s not that original storytelling has disappeared so much as largely relocated. Major studios still take risks sometimes; we just, as an audience, have to hope it turns out more like Looper and less like Transcendence.
Now, the second major argument is that the bulk of sequels, reboots and remakes are a pile of shit. There’s always “the original was better” or “this didn’t need a sequel”. There’s the dreaded threequel that inevitably blows the goodwill of the first two movies. There’s a methodology to how bad things get fucked up, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to get fucked up.
I’m going to lay out some tips, some things to consider when constructing one of these stories. Because my blog isn’t (yet) followed by millionaires and producers and people of interest, this probably won’t change shit. But who knows? Getting the ideas out is a start, and I will start with remakes. I’ll cover the others in subsequent posts so that it’s not one unbearably long piece to digest.
There is a subtle distinction between remakes and reboots and I’ll do my best to explain it. To start with, a remake is basically a re-telling of a specific story that had been done before. When doing a remake, it’s important to keep most of the same details.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong did this pretty well, though it ran a little long (almost twice as long as the original). It kept the core of the story, the original characters, the dangerous natives, fucking dinosaurs. Most importantly, it kept the heart of the original story. King Kong isn’t just about giant exotic monsters and a damsel in distress, it’s about a creature that finds beauty in something exotic (Ann Darrow), being captured and exposed to a world it’s completely unfamiliar with and then dying tragically. It’s important to feel sympathy for Kong. It’s important to show the craziness of Skull Island to really ramp up the wow factor. And it’s important to keep the major plot beats there. The remake really was a love letter to the story that captured the imaginations of audiences in 1933.
The A Nightmare on Elm Street remake was also well done. The idea was the same: Nancy (Thomson in the original, Holbrook in the remake) and friends are haunted and murdered via dreams possessed by immolated child killer Freddy Krueger.
The plot beats are the same: it starts with Nancy’s friend, there’s a boyfriend accused of murder who gets jailed and dies in jail, there’s pulling pieces of Freddy into the real world. It missed out on the iconic and gruesome death of Nancy Thomson’s boyfriend (young Johnny Depp) but kept the twist ending.
What I liked about the remake was that it played with your expectations. It knew that it was going to be released to an audience that wasn’t alive when the 1984 original was released but it also knew fans of the series would come to see it. So you see the glove come up in Nancy’s bathtub and expect her to get pulled under. She doesn’t and leaves the bathroom without incident, but then her room is ashes. You see Nancy’s mom on the doorstep at the end and expect her to get pulled through the window of the door. She doesn’t, but then she’s murdered via the mirror just inside. It keeps the major things but tweaks them just enough to surprise and give love to the original.
This is kind of a side-note, but a couple other things they did well: the burn make-up they used on Jackie Earl Haley was fantastically grotesque. Much more realistic and unsettling than Robert Englund’s get-up.
And while I love Englund and I own all of the Elm Street films, one of the major problems was that the series stopped taking itself seriously as a horror franchise. It became campy and absurd, with Krueger dropping puns and cheesy one-liners left and right and finding increasingly absurd ways to carry out his murders. Haley, meanwhile, took lines of dialogue that could and would be used with slapstick anywhere else in the series and delivered them in a genuinely creepy, horrifying manner.
Now let’s look at a remake that didn’t do its job: 2012’s Total Recall.
Now, when they announced that the film was going to be remade, they said that it was going to be closer to the Philip K. Dick short story than the 1990 film. As Screeenrant’s article HERE points out, though, it seems like they focused much more on recreating major plot steps and character relationships in Arnold’s film than the story Dick wrote.
So why does a film with Colin Farrel, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale and Bryan Cranston have 43% on Rotten Tomatos while the original is in the 80s? Because people wanted to see what today’s graphics and a less campy tone could do for Total Recall.
The remake had twice the budget and yet they completely removed Mars from the story (they did do an insane amount of work in the background of the high speed chase which goes to show they had the talent to have great art direction).
They talked a ton about how one of the areas, the one hosting the resistance, was highly radiated. Do we get the mutant weirdness that made the original film so endearing? (“Open your mind, Quaid!”) NOPE, they’re humans.
Most obnoxiously, they removed the ambiguity the original film’s ending had. In 1990, you weren’t sure if Quaid had dreamed it all or was actually a spy who succeeded in his mission. In 2012, they pretty much tell you Colin Farrel was in fact a bad-ass the entire time. The Total Recall remake fell flat because it kept the skeleton of the story but stripped all the guts out and rearranged the bones into something that vaguely resembled the original animal.
Why remake a film at all? Because there are good stories out there. Classic ones that resonated with a different generation. Modernizing them with newer storytelling techniques, better technology and actors more relatable to the younger audiences allows them to experience the things we did and allows us to experience the things our parents did.
Stories have long lifespans and there is plenty of scary or thoughtful or exciting or fantastic or thrilling tales that genuinely deserve to be enjoyed by more than one generation. Human interests shift, though, especially in relation to emerging technologies. Ten years ago, the internet was pretty fucking slow. Twenty years ago, the idea of kids having smart phones was ridiculous.
The story can persevere, even largely in its original form, but there do need to be concessions in the way that it’s shot and paced and marketed. I admit, too, that plenty of films have stood the test of time and are incredible on their own (I’m looking at you, Carpenter’s The Thing), but again, a lot of teenagers will be hesitant to see a movie from the 80s or before on “trust me” alone.
Remakes can serve as bridge to appreciating the source material. “You liked that? You should see the original, see how well it holds up”. And maybe they will think the dated graphics are cheesy and the acting is hammy and they’ll prefer the remake because it’s “their” version. And now they’ve taken ownership of it.
Remakes work when you pay attention to the qualities that made the original so spectacular. The scenes and moments and relationships that made you feel things. But if you’re going to remake something, you need to respect it. Straying some and making differences can serve to better the story and smooth out inconsistencies or weaker aspects, but if you lose the soul, you lose the audience.
Was I inspired to start these focus articles because I desperately want to pen the Creature From the Black Lagoon remake? Well, that’s anyone’s guess (Yes, I do).
Part Two: Care Needed: Reboots
Part Three: Care Needed: Sequels