On Monday, I talked about a much-maligned trend in filmmaking: the tendency to crank out familiar properties instead of original stories. I pointed out that, as these remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations tend to be cash cows, they’re unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon. I wanted to highlight some examples that are done well, as well as examples that are done poorly, so I could highlight how to turn even the familiar into something enjoyable.
Just because something is guaranteed to make money if you slap the favorite bits together and put a polish on it doesn’t mean you should. A good story doesn’t necessarily require a huge budget; what it needs is care from the people involved. These are worthwhile stories to be told. Even something like a blockbuster or a slasher flick are meant to entertain, to take away the stresses of reality for an hour or two. However, distracting one’s mind doesn’t need to be mindless. With proper attention to plot, character relationships, and the elements that put asses into seats in the first place, you can turn anything into something better than “run of the mill”. (SEE: Jered’s 3 1/2 Magic Rules For Writing).
In part one of this column series, Care Needed: Remakes, I talked about how recycling classic stories of adventure or horror or intrigue is actually a solid idea to keep the fantastic stories alive and relevant with multiple generations of audiences, provided the people involved in the project don’t sacrifice the soul of the story. Today, I’ll be talking about:
Reboots aren’t exactly remakes and they’re not exactly sequels (although Predators was sort of both sequel and reboot and Rob Zombie’s Halloween was sort of both remake and reboot). Instead, they serve to give a franchise new life after it has grown stale.
They serve as original takes on familiar stories. A re-telling, as it were, to get people interested again in a franchise that most people think should have died. I mention, in Create a Horror Icon In Six Steps, that one needs to know when to call it quits or go in a different direction.
Predators did this well. After an iconic science fiction horror film with Schwarzenegger and an under-appreciated sequel with Danny “Too Old For This Shit” Glover, and two terrible outings in cross-over films with the xenomorphs, the people in charge knew that a new direction was needed.
Gone was Earth. Gone were the good guy commandos. Instead, we got several unique mercenaries, serial killers, drug lords and convicts with fleshed out, distinct personalities. Still there was the hunt. Still present was the feeling that these bad-asses were out of their league. Still there were the neat traps and the iconic monsters and the mano a mano fights.
Friday the 13th benefitted from a reboot as well. The storyline involving Jason Voorhees’ disfigurement and Pamela Voorhees’ psychotic murder spree was explained succinctly early in the film, getting it out of the way and setting up Jason’s appearance and subsequent massacre.
They keep elements of the original movies, like the fact that Jason gains his hockey mask later on instead of always having it. They have likeable – and detestable – characters (one of my six rules), which made the many creative kills both dreaded and rewarding. Many knocked the film for focusing on the violence and the nudity, but that’s what made early slasher films like Halloween, Prom Night and the entire Friday the 13th franchise popular. It’s joked about by Jamie Kennedy’s horror buff character in Scream. Hell, Kevin Bacon takes an arrow through the throat right after getting his rocks off in the first Friday film.
The thing is, the nudity in this film was worked not only for comedic value but also to show how careless these teens were. The characters were fleshed out enough that the audience felt a connection with them. They were fun. And the violence, the murders, when they did happen weren’t played for laughs. They were brutal and unrelenting and it left the audience with the same kind of tenseness and dread that the original series once invoked.
Did it work? Well. The film had a budget of 19 million dollars and took in over 90 million. So, a little bit.
The Amazing Spider-Man was a reboot to the franchise a mere five years after the critically panned (but still financially successful), cluttered piece of shit that was Spider-Man 3. People lost their minds (yet forget that Batman Begins waa only eight years after Batman and Robin, and no one gives a shit that Batman vs Superman is coming a mere FOUR years after The Dark Knight Rises).
And sure, it ignored the first three films, and sure it told the origin again, but so has every Batman and Superman movie. Amazing Spider-Man at least took it in a different direction, with a focus on Peter Parker’s parents and his intelligence (fully half of Spider-Man’s character and an aspect the first three films ignored completely). They introduced a new villain instead of rehashing a popular one for the second or third time. The action was top-notch. They brought in Gwen Stacy, Peter’s actual true love.
And despite some plot holes and revisions made in the editing room and the cluttered mess in the sequel (which I will talk about later), it was a solid film with a fresh feeling. It became one of the most successful reboots of all time.
If you’re going to completely reboot a franchise, though, you need to have those familar elements. The same concept that would make a terrible remake can also make a fantastic reboot. You get those things that people crave and then you subvert expectations. You do things that haven’t been seen before. But you keep it tight, because if there’s too much clutter or too little familiarity, it can work against you.
In this way, reboots can potentially be more difficult to pull off than a reboot. With a remake, 80-90% of your work is done. You can tweak things here and there to modernize it and add your personal touches, but the core is the same. You have to be a lot more creative with a reboot, taking a handful of character types, signature creatures or weapons or locales, plot beats and twists, themes and concepts but then build a brand new story with it.
Look at Terminator: Salvation. It had a budget of $200 million and grossed over $370 million worldwide which, while not the box office success they wanted, does not equal a flop. But it has a 33% on Rotten Tomatos and is 50-60% on Metacritic and IMDB. Why? Because there was a cyborg. Because it took place entirely during the war with Skynet. Because Arnold didn’t show up until the end, sort of.
I loved the hell out the movie. Terminator 2 and Terminator 3 both showed there were other models besides Schwarzenegger’s. The first film showed there were killer vehicles and other android/cyborg types. So to see the earlier and more vehicle-looking designs should have been cool. Seeing the “new” Arnold model at the end should have been a fun reveal. But the entire film was set during the war instead of trying to preemptively prevent us losing it. Instead of the iconic T-800, we got the T-600. It didn’t look sleek and futuristic because instead of being set in the “past” (our present), it’s at home in the gritty, fucked-up, devastated future. It was too new, too unfamiliar and despite that I love the film, it’s an example of a reboot that didn’t deliver because it went too far in a different direction.
That movie has less than half the Rotten Tomatos score of T3 and grossed $60 million dollars less. T3 ripped off the high speed chase in Terminator 2 and had Nick Stahl’s acting and that ending to suffer through, but it had a T-800, the past fighting the future, and a shiny new-model villain in Kristanna Loken.
Audiences are picky, man.
Reboors are hard to do, but they can bring back terror and action and excitement as long as you care enough to keep the defining features/qualities that made the original concept so appealing and weave them into a narrative that feels comfortable and sensible, but also fresh.
Give a shit, is what I’m saying. Don’t sign on to do a project if you have no investment in it. It isn’t fair to the original concept, it isn’t fair to your audience and you’re short-changing yourself as a creator.