Whether you call them remakes, reimaginations or reboots, you can’t escape them. Recycled cinema is an unavoidable part of moviegoing, and while the bad outweighs the good, there can often be exceptions to the rule…
Just last month it was announced that Leigh Whannell had signed on to write the remake of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. You could almost hear the collective scream of, “WHY? We don’t need a remake of Escape from New York!”
While I fully concur, let’s stop for a moment and consider that we also didn’t need a remake of The Thing, The Fly, True Grit or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but aren’t we glad they exist.
These are of course exceptions to the rule. A majority of remakes are terrible – misguided attempts by Hollywood to make a fast buck through recycling rather than taking a chance on an original idea. But when done properly, remakes can be a good thing. Let’s take a look then at what makes a decent one…
The key is to do something different. Oscar Wilde once said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” – that may be true, but it doesn’t work for movie remakes. Gus Van Sant’s much maligned shot-for-shot Psycho remake (1998) is a case in point, or pointlessness. So is Kimberley Pierce’s 2013 carbon copy of Brian De Palma’s superlative Carrie (1976). If we wanted exactly the same plot and dialogue, we’d simply watch the original. Don’t flatter, be bold and surprise.
Bring something fresh or offbeat to the existing story and characters, as well as an interesting cast and filmmaker. Nostalgia will only stretch so far.
Directors that make the material their own have delivered some of the very best remakes. The Fly (1986) and The Thing (1982) are instantly recognisable as David Cronenberg and John Carpenter films respectively, and far removed from their 1950s counterparts. And the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010) is arguably better than the 1969 John Wayne oater. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) is nothing like Dario Argento’s 1977 original, but it captures that film’s malevolent essence and brilliantly extrapolates the central concept.
The remake cycle encompasses almost every genre, although it’s predominantly horror movies that are regurgitated ad infinitum. In this instance, however, it’s the remakes of ‘untouchable’ classics that often curiously turn out better than they had any right to be. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004), Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes (2006), and the aforementioned Suspiria are prime examples. (Conversely, Rob Zombie demonstrated what not to do with Halloween in 2007.)
Foreign language films are also frequently anglicised for subtitle-shy American audiences, with The Departed (2006), Let Me In (2010) and The Birdcage (1996) among those that didn’t get lost in translation.
Then there is the relatively recent trend of remakes that celebrate gender equality. Not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. Ocean’s 8 worked, Ghostbusters didn’t, and now The Hustle – a female-centric update of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – is on the way. So how about a male take on Pretty Woman (Zac Efron is pretty enough), or an all-female version of The Thing or The Shawshank Redemption?
Remakes, like sequels and Disney live-action versions of animated classics, aren’t going away. So try not to become apoplectic the next time an old favourite gets the remake green light. The end result might pleasantly surprise you, and if it does turn out to be absolute rubbish, you’ll always have the original.