Five Remakes That Suck and Five That Don’t
The disturbingly more frequent trend of remaking or recycling classic or popular films and/or properties into vehicles designed to appeal solely to a target demographic without any consideration given to quality or whether a remake is actually warranted or needed has really got me annoyed. Witness the recent release of Dredd, the remake of Judge Dredd which starred Sylvester Stallone or this year’s hollow version of Total Recall. And that’s just two remakes in the last few months, there are more coming to theaters soon. As was pointed out over at Nextmovie.com, there may be as many as 50 remakes coming our way in the near future! More often than not (and let’s be honest, it’s usually the former), this practice is done for profit and it has to stop. The number of remakes that Hollywood is producing seems to be increasing as their quality exponentially decreases.
Generally speaking, the better an original film is, the greater the chance the remake will, to be blunt, suck. But, as with any rule, there are always exceptions and remakes that prove successful are usually those that add something substantial to the title they are reworking or re-imagining (Dredd was actually one of those efforts that proved better than its predecessor). When compared to the film it was based on, most remakes do tend to follow a few basic guidelines or rules.
The reason many remakes exist nowadays commonly has something to do with name recognition and an existing fan base that can be easily exploited. Take for example the all too painful practice of remaking old, crappy (though not necessarily always bad) TV shows into shiny, crappy movies (Wild Wild West comes to mind). There also seems to be this belief that if you call something a re-imagining or re-envisioning rather than a remake it suggests that you’re improving the film in some way or actually being creative instead of regurgitating another person’s work. Sadly, this is usually not always the case. You need look no further than Tim Burton’s misguided Planet of the Apes to see what a gifted filmmaker can get himself into when he uses this excuse as a crutch to explain his film’s shortcomings.
Apart from improved special effects, most unsuccessful remakes (of which there are far more than successful ones) don’t transfer the subtext of their predecessors all that well. While original films may be filled with cultural commentary or serious discussion of other social concerns, remakes tend to be made more as popcorn entertainment. These issues are often removed from remakes which tend to become little more than louder, flashier action films. Recent examples of these types of failures would be films like Rollerball which took a socially conscious (and often disturbing) 1970s sci-fi film and turned it into a boring action movie with the lame and obvious message that violence is bad. Even a moderately successful remake like Dawn of the Dead will jettison the social commentary of its predecessor for more action and gore to quicken the pace and not risk losing the audience.
Another aspect that remakes oftentimes falter with is character development. While some filmmakers may believe that audiences will not sit through twenty minutes of exposition to set up a movie, they’re dead wrong. If it’s done well and the characters are well written and brought to life effectively, then moviegoers will connect with them and enjoy the movie that much more. Take for example Poseidon, the remake of The Poseidon Adventure, which quickly introduces a slew of annoying characters before immediately putting them in harm’s way instead of assuming the more languid pace of the original film and providing back stories other than simply checking off a list of stereotypes. There was little reason to care about any character in this particular remake and, in fact, may have lead to more of a reason to cheer for their inevitable deaths.
An unfortunate disparity that is almost certainly at the heart of any decision to proceed with a remake is the curious fact that, while many original films, though they may have been critically acclaimed, are often substantially outperformed at the box office by new versions (this surely is behind the remake of the sci-fi action classic Robocop). To Hollywood, this must seem like a justifiable no-brainer and provides very little incentive to stop the machine. On the other hand, the current state of the remake may be more of an indictment of mainstream audiences and the rampant consumerism that too often seems to dictate the creation of cinema than anything else.
So, without any further blustering on my part, here’s a quick look at five remakes that suck and five that don’t. While listing and ranking every remake ever made here just wouldn’t be practical, I tried to come up with those that best exemplified what could go wrong with a remake and what could go right. They’re by no means the absolute best or worst remakes ever made; they’re just my favorites or the ones that really irritate me. Also included are short lists of remakes that didn’t make the cut but are worth seeing or avoiding nevertheless.
REMAKES THAT SUCK
1. Psycho (1960) / Psycho (1998)
Gus Van Sant used the clout gained after winning an Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997) to mount his dream project – a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film. As far as dream projects go, this one is more of a nightmare. While the performances are admirable the film beautifully illustrates the greatest sin a remake can commit – tackling a superbly made film. Why not remake a lesser quality Hitchcock film like Family Plot (1976) or Topaz (1969)? Why go for what is considered one of his finest works? We may never find out exactly what went through Van Sant’s head as he persevered through the project to create what is possibly one of the worst remakes ever made. Thankfully, he’s since returned to his roots and has been producing smaller, character-driven films ever since.
2. Planet of the Apes (1968) / Planet of the Apes (2001)
The reimaging phenomena run amuck with absolutely horrid results. While the makeup and effects are solid in Tim Burton’s version of the 1968 tale of a topsy-turvy world in which apes are masters over humans, the lack of a strong lead character, or plot, ultimately do this one in. The tacked-on ending plays out not only like an obvious bid for a sequel but a desperate attempt to recapture the shock and horror of the original’s revelation that the planet was actually Earth all along. The socio-political commentary of the original is occasionally mimicked but the focus here is on action and little else. Luckily, the far more competent Rise of the Planet of the Apes saved the series from cinematic extinction a few years later
3. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) /
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
John Carpenter succeeded in giving the original film a feeling of claustrophobia and hopelessness that is completely missing in the remake. It’s more of a “here’s this cool scene” now “here’s this cool scene” kind of approach. While the first film retained the character-driven Western sensibility of the material it was derived from – Rio Bravo (1959), making it a successful remake in it’s own right – the remake quickly establishes the characters as stereotypes and after that there’s really no good reason to care what happens to any of them. The final scenes that take place in a forest smack in the middle of industrialized Detroit certainly doesn’t help the film’s credibility.
4. Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) /
Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)
This remake is an excellent example of Hollywood taking a multi-character-driven story and inexplicably shifting the focus to a single, bankable star. The children in the remake are given little more to do than be standard-sitcom kids while Steve Martin is put into one cringe-inducing slapstick scene after another. A family-friendly ending makes the film innocuous enough but there’s really no logical reason for the film’s plot to have arrived at that point. Furthermore, there’s no good reason for the remake’s sequel to exist either – other that the obligatory cash grab of course.
5. Sabrina (1954) / Sabrina (1995)
While the remake of the Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn/William Holden vehicle may seem like the perfect vehicle for the late director Sydney Pollack, whose style has frequently been called “classical” and whose movies have typically featured strong acting performances. The film is stale, and it shouldn’t be. It plays more like a simple update than anything more ambitious. Perhaps Pollack had too much reverence for the source material and just couldn’t make it his own. It’s certainly not as bad as the other remakes on this list, but it still begs the question why would you even bother in the first place?
Other remakes that suck:
- Charade (1963) / The Truth About Charlie (2002) – Simply put, Mark Wahlberg and Tandie Newton are NOT Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and regardless of how talented Jonathan Demme may be, he can’t change that fact.
- The Day of the Jackal (1973) / The Jackal (1997) – A riveting thriller is turned into a predictable cat-and-mouse cop drama that would have been more at home on television than on movie screens.
- La Femme Nikita (1991) / Point of No Return (1993) – And inconsequential remake that proves conclusively that Luc Besson has better visual sense than John Badham.
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) / Guess Who (2005) – The Spencer Tracy/Sydney Poitier drama is remade as an unwatchable Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher Meet the Parents clone.
REMAKES THAT DON’T SUCK
1. Seven Samurai (1954) / The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Possibly the best example of just how good a remake can be as well as simply a listing of two equally stunning films in their own right. Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Samurai film was effortlessly adapted to the Western genre – a practice that would be repeated with several of his films (see Yojimbo below). Character development is handled flawlessly and the action never undercuts the story. Although not the greatest Western ever made, The Magnificent Seven does nothing but enhance the genre.
2.The Fly (1958) / The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg cleverly reinvents the story of science gone awry as a tale of out of control disease (which has been frequently – though erroneously – ascribed to the AIDS epidemic). Exceptional special effects and splendid performances from Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum give this film a resonance far greater than the original. Though, like most successful remakes, both films tend to be quite good on their own. The original is still a classic of the early sci-fi genre.
3. The Thing from Another World (1951) / The Thing (1982)
While I have never been accused of being a great lover of the films of John Carpenter, his remake of Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World may rival Cronenberg’s previously mentioned remake as one of the greatest ever produced. Carpenter successfully recreates the isolation and tension of the first film while simultaneously intensifying the film’s narrative by fleshing out the characters more fully and adding the element of shape shifting to the creature’s repertoire. The film becomes less a tale of invasion and more a nightmarish examination of societal destruction from within.
4.Nosferatu (1922) / Nosferatu (1979)
Werner Herzog brilliantly recaptures the eerie atmosphere of F.W. Murnau’s silent, classic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While not necessarily superior to the original film, Herzog’s version does a fantastic job of interpreting the earlier film which is undoubtedly aided by the unbelievably creepy performance of Klaus Kinski as the title character. Perhaps this is what Van Sant was trying to accomplish with his failed Psycho remake?
5. Scarface (1931) / Scarface (1983)
Brian De Palma’s hyper-violent version of the Howard Hawks gangster classic is every bit as over-the-top and engaging as the original. It certainly doesn’t hurt that both feature exceptional performances from their leading mean (Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in 1931 and Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 1983). While De Palma’s film may not feature as intricate a plot as Hawks’s, it doesn’t play like it was simply replaced with additional violence. It seems natural that Tony M’s world would adhere to his simpler and more violent world view. This is a rare instance of a remake that offers a bit less in one area, yet makes up for it in others while not detracting from the quality of the overall work.
Other remakes that don’t suck:
- Cape Fear (1961/1991) – While Scorsese’s remake isn’t as good as the original, it rises above the usual remake due to Scorsese’s manic direction and De Niro’s inspired performance.
- Dial M for Murder (1954) / A Perfect Murder (1998) – An entry that narrowly escapes the “suck” list due to exceptional work from Michael Douglas as an aging overpowering prick of a husband.
- A Night to Remember (1958) / Titanic (1997) – While not a direct remake, it essentially tells the same story and in fact improves upon it a bit by telling the tragedy through the use of the Romeo and Juliet archetype.
- Yojimbo (1961) / A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – The best of the “spaghetti” westerns that refrains from aping Kurosawa’s film and instead preserves its emotional resonance.