Wednesday, December 15, 2010

To Remake or Not to Remake

Scene from 'Metropolis' (1927)That is the question. A friend on a totally unrelated channel (some whimsical fad site called Facebook) complained recently that "they" were doing a remake of True Grit, the classic John Wayne western. Said friend and his armada of cohorts suggested that only The Duke is The Duke, and that this movie (and by implication ALL John Wayne movies) should definitely not be remade. Since I abhor controversy, I quietly stepped away from the thread. (lie lie lie)

The whole "discussion" did get me thinking, though, about what is and is not a good remake, and just what is it that makes a science fiction movie a good candidate for a remake? I had to ask myself: are the rules any different? Are there any of my favorites that I would cringe to see redone? Would someone want to or dare to remake Fritz Lang's 1927 classic Metropolis (pictured here)?

These questions required raw data for further analysis. Yes, I am afraid that it just begged for yet another list, the D. E. Helbling Top Ten Favorite Science Fiction Movies List, of course! That list is, in order from Mostest Loved:
  • Deep Impact (1998) (IMDb)
  • Independance Day (1996) (IMDb)
  • When Worlds Collide (1951) (IMDb)
  • Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home (1986) (SEQUEL) (IMDb)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (1996) (SEQUEL) (IMDb)
  • The Matrix (1999) (IMDb)
  • Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) (IMDb)
  • Soylent Green (1973) (IMDb)
  • War of the Worlds (2005) (REMAKE) (IMDb)
  • Minority Report (2002) (IMDb)
"What!?" You ask: "Where is Star Wars?" Oh, now what? Now you are demanding more DATA to support my guidelines? The list is not long enough to impart great wisdom on the proper science behind making science fiction remakes? Dang you all to purgatory ... you are forcing me to cough up more information just to prove my point. OK, OK, here is the rest of what now constitutes The D. E. Helbling Top Twenty Five Favorite Science Fiction Movies List:
  • Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) (IMDb)
  • The X-Files (the movie) (1998) (IMDb)
  • The Omega Man (REMAKE) (1971) (IMDb) (Original: 1964's "Last Man on Earth" starring Vincent Price)
  • Outland (1981) (IMDb)
  • Johny Mnemonic (1995) (IMDB)
  • Dr. Strangelove (1964) (IMDb)
  • Men in Black (1997) (IMDb)
  • Jurarassic Park (1993) (IMDb)
  • The Postman (1997) (IMDb)
  • The Man in the White Suit (1951) (IMDB)
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) (REMAKE) (IMDb) (Original : apparently 1905's version, with several other remakes before and after)
  • War of the Worlds (2005) (REMAKE) (IMDb) (Original: 1953's version, all of them of course derivative of the radio play version)
  • Altered States (1980) (IMDb)
  • This Island Earth (1955) (IMDb)
  • 2010 (1984) (SEQUEL) (IMDb)

Now before you flame me on the content of the list, remember I did not say these were The Best. They are my Favorites. This is indisputable, and subject to change on a sometimes hourly basis. How does this play into the whole to "To Remake or Not to Remake?" question? Thanks, straight man on the sidelines, for asking. Let's assume for the moment that the reason a movie studio would do a remake is to make money. This will be the Business Motivation. But what about the the actual moviegoer, the science fiction fan? Do the producers and studios care? Surely some do. There are many such film projects where the love shines through. Assuming all the business and marketing concerns were already assessed, here are some reasons why I imagine Hollywood movie producers might go for a remake and presume the fans will come along for the ride:

  1. The original movie has a really good story, but is largely unknown to current (under 30 years old) audiences, barring uber-nerd science fiction movie historian types, so it would seem new to these current ticket buyers. And we would not have to come up with a new idea!

  2. The original movie was quite popular, even successful. With a cast of recognizable faces, backed by more current special effects technology, this cow could be milked again. And we would not have to come up with a new idea!

  3. The original movie sucked quite badly, but it made a few bucks. With a cast of recognizable faces, backed by more current special effects technology, this cow could be milked again. And we would not have to come up with a new idea!

  4. Few people heard of and no one cared about the original movie, but with a cast of cheap actors and a few cheesy effects, this cow might be milked more successfully this time around, even if it goes straight to video and cable TV. And we would not have to come up with a new idea!

  5. The original movie was great over in Finland/Serbia/UK/Australia/Russia (insert favorite film-producing non-US country name here), and with some recognizable faces and some quantity of effects, we can make it seem like we did it first. And we would not have to come up with a new idea!
Sensing a theme? Let's hope you are not lactose intolerant, cuz yes, it sure tastes like there is a whole lotta milkin' goin' on. Sorry, no seriously harsh intent here. I sincerely love most of the new movies that are coming out. From my list of faves above, you can see there are number of remakes and sequels in the lot. So I am not by any means Remake Hostile. I am particularly interested in seeing certain movies remade, with fresh cast, with updated PC-ness or lack of PC-ness, with better effects. In a few cases, I have found previous remakes to be vastly superior to the originals, but never because of the effects ... usually because the script updates and the actors made the story more relevant or more real to me than the originals. So, what are my go-nogo rules for remakes?

  1. If the original movie was done in the last twenty five years, or any direct sequels were done in the last twenty five years, wait another five years and ask the the questions again ... OR ... make another sequel .... OR ... make a prequel.

  2. If the original movie sucked, but the story was good, do the remake!

  3. If the original movie was good, but the story sucked, do the remake!

  4. If the original movie sucked and the story sucked, do NOT do the remake unless you need a financial loss project for tax purposes.(How else can you explain The Langoliers ?)

  5. If the original movie was good or bad or indifferent and the story was or was not good, but the project keeps my favorite actors, writers, and producers employed (sorry, that's another list for another day), do the remake!

Given these criteria, which of the above list are actually eligible for remakes? Only these:

  • When Worlds Collide *
  • Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
  • Soylent Green *
  • Outland *
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • This Island Earth
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • Altered States

A perhaps interesting coincidence ... IMDb suggests that at least a few of them (see *) actually have a remake "in development". Even Metropolis appears to have one such movie bun in the studio oven. Since I have no IMDb Pro account, I cannot see the details on these movies of the future, but I can certainly look forward to them, with anticipation, anxiety, and perhaps a bit of outright terror. Or not.

This whole dissection process had me scratching my head, trying to see patterns where there were none, to sort out the chaos where there were too many patterns. Then I went back and read the original thread on that Facebook fad website page thingee ... and I finally got it. They didn't care about the movie True Grit per se ... they objected to the idea of someone else playing a character that they so firmly pictured in their minds, a character they had come to love, as he was portrayed by The Duke.

Now it all made sense.

I tried to picture Dr. Strangelove without Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones. Even if I did substitute a Jeff Bridges, a Matt Damon, a Josh Brolin, all of whom I thoroughly enjoy as actors (and all of whom are in the new True Grit), I could not imagine them replacing Peter Sellers' Captain Mandrake, or his President Muffley, or his Dr. Strangelove. Same for George C. Scott's General 'Buck' Turgidson, Slim Pickens' Major Kong, or James Earl Jones' Lieutenant Zogg. And who other than Stirling Hayden could so aptly convey General Jack Ripper's keen obsession with "vital fluids"?

I will have to face this same struggle with any remakes of When Worlds Collide, as I cannot easily picture a more suave, yet sincere David Randall than the one delivered by Richard Derr. And Barbara Rush as Joyce Hendron ... no, there cannot be another! Someday, when I am older and greyer and more round, I will be bemoaning the replacement of Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Keanu Reeves, because it is actors who bring our wonderful science fiction characters to life. It is actors who make the just OK stories interesting and the great stories unforgettable. But that doesn't make the remakes bad. Every generation can and should lay claim to their own list of Favorites.

Someday my children and my grandchildren will, if all is right with the world, form their own lasting, unerasable memories of outstanding acting portrayals in future remakes of remakes of truly awesome science fiction movies, including Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and yes, even Star Wars.

May we all live long enough to see 'em ...

- D. E. Helbling

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