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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Film Remakes and the Necessity for Critical Distance

Hollywood is hopelessly obsessed with remakes.  We all know this.  And if we don't, it's really not that difficult to figure out how obsessed Hollywood really is.  But I'll make it easy for you here:  here's a list of 57 remakes which were marked as "in development" as of July 2013.  Some of those may have been dropped, but the fact of the matter is that there were 57 remakes in various stages of development last year.

There's nothing inherently wrong with remakes, of course.  After all, many remakes tackles films that are now 30+ years old, which means the primary viewing audience -- let's say 15 to 40 -- probably hasn't seen them anyway.  Some remakes are attempts to update concepts which haven't aged well, or which really are pretty darn cool and would benefit from newer film technologies and bigger budgets (technically, this year's Robocop fits into this category, but that film is terrible).  It makes sense, too, why Hollywood studios would choose to remake a film:  it's safer to reboot something that was already a success -- or which has a following or concept that would work well in today's market -- since the discussion surrounding the remake will naturally include buzz about the previous version; obviously, this can sometimes backfire, as in the case of Total Recall or Robocop (or perhaps it's more often than not), as it's difficult to find remakes which are absolutely better than their predecessors.  There's almost always something "missing."

I tend to think of remakes in two ways:

  1. They are indicative of Hollywood's inability to imagine new things and, in a sense, its refusal to take chances; and
  2. They are only a good idea if there is sufficient critical distance from the original source material.
It's the latter of these two modes that I want to discuss here.

Part of the problem with remakes and reboots, as I see it, is the obsession with doing so before the original material has time to breathe.  Amazing Spider-Man may be a decent superhero film, but it comes on the heels of an existing "canon" of Spider-Man films -- the Sam Raimi lot.  Setting aside what we think about Raimi's take on Spidey, the films were financially successful and were generally well-received.  The latest batch is half a decade removed from the original; rather than continue the story with a new cast, this new Spidey flick completely re-tells Spidey's origins.  If the intended audience for remakes are a "new" batch of viewers, which is, admittedly, my argument, then it makes little sense to re-tell an existing narrative when the audience is hardly "new."  One can point to many other examples of this, such as the Battlestar Galactica movie-reboot-remake-monstrosity that will hit theaters at some point in the next year or so.  Would it not make more sense to continue an existing narrative?

What I want to suggest about all this is a kind of "too soon"-ness.  It's not that these reboots and remakes of 30-years-or-less-old flicks are bad in and of themselves; in fact, many of them might be perfectly fine movies on their own or improvements over their predecessors (given the absence of emo-hipster jazz dances in the new Spidey films, I suspect this is a point most of you will understand).  Rather, the problem these films pose is two-fold:
  1. Their "too soon"-ness courts comparison, largely unfavorable, and creates the conditions for viewer fatigue, and
  2. They remind us that Hollywood is largely a business, and so any means by which they can procure profit from licensed properties will be taken, including rebooting and remaking things well before they've fallen away from public consciousness, perhaps under the false assumption that doing so will naturally draw new and old fans alike.
To the first, I think comparison is both beneficial and detrimental.  If a film succeeds in remaking something that wasn't all that great to begin with, but is fondly remembered in a kind of "cult" sense (i.e., Red Dawn), then the comparison to the original is largely positive.  If Red Dawn (the remake) were actually better than Red Dawn (the 1980s cult classic), our conversation surrounding it would be about what it does right, how it succeeds where its predecessor did not and where it succeeds on its own merits.  But Red Dawn did not have that reception.  It is right for us to compare it to the original and laugh at the fact that the remake is an obviously lesser film, suffering from poor pacing, bad acting, and so on.  It is also right for us to recognize the absurdity of its altered premise.  The original Red Dawn took place right at the tail end of the Cold War, nestling itself right into pre-existing American fears and cultural narratives.  In 1984, the Soviet Union was a real threat in America's public discourse.  But North Korea, the primary villain of the remake, is only a threat in the most limited sense.  While the U.S. currently considers NK a dangerous nation, it is not one which we actively discuss as having the capacity to invade the United States -- if anything, we should recognize that North Korea's only staying power is a nuclear deterrent.  The remake's politics, as such, are conspicuously nonsensical in comparison to its predecessor and remind us of the specificity of the cultural context in which the original Red Dawn arose:  it is simply untranslatable to the cultural context of 2012.[1]

Much of the problem with Red Dawn rests in the fact that its conceptual origins are a) not detached from the present era due to chronological proximity, and b) coupled with a narrative which always reminds us that this is a remake.  In other words, it is difficult for the studios, let alone the public at large -- except, perhaps, a limited portion of the present viewership (teens) -- to disentangle the narrative of Red Dawn (2012) from the history and narrative of Red Dawn (1984).  And that disentanglement is necessary, I would argue, to avoid the fatigue of remake/reboot fever.  I'm calling it critical distance, though you're free to use a different term.  In sociology, critical distance refers to the tenuous balance between literal distance from the subject and the necessity for some degree of nearness.  Here, I want to suggest that critical distance refers to the necessity of disentanglement from the narrative of the remake and the narrative of origins as well as a degree of conceptual rigor which demonstrates a kind of filmic "ownership."  Red Dawn fails on all fronts precisely because it could not be disentangled from its remake/origins narratives and because its concept was never a departure from those narratives -- it was always just a lesser Red Dawn (1982).

For a positive example, one might look at Ron Moore's re-make of the 1970s classic, Battlestar Galactica.  Setting aside the endless arguments about the ending or its various internal issues, the series took the original concept and twisted it just enough to give it both a sense of contemporaneity and ownership.  Moore's BSG always felt like its own thing to me.  It certainly borrowed from the original canon, but it seemed fearless in its desire to find its own path instead of remaining fixed.  Though comparisons are inevitable, the narrative surrounding Moore's BSG never seemed dominated by concerns that it would be "like the original" or that it would fail where its predecessor had succeeded.  In truth, classic BSG hasn't aged well anyway, and so Moore's BSG could easily be disentangled from concerns about fidelity and adaptation (of origination).  Rather, the focus for BSG always seemed to be on its successful departures, drawing attention to its character development, its manipulation of the robot revenge plot through flesh-based Cylons, and so on.

Similar things could be said of John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 film, The Thing from Another World.[2]  Carpenter's 1982 film -- The Thing -- hardly deserves comparison, given its grotesque imagery (for the 80s), brilliant handling of horrific suspense, and its influence on scifi horror thereafter.[3]  This is not to suggest that contemporary audiences of the film loved it (Roger Ebert apparently gave it 2.5 stars out of 4).  But it has since been revered for its special effects and ability to evoke terror -- a product, if you will, of the public's critical distance from Carpenter's creation (I think it's also fair to say that 1980s audiences were mostly unaware of the 1951 precursor).  Indeed, Ebert's review makes no mention of the original, while Vincent Canby's NYT review makes a superficial comparison and pans the film for being emotionally lifeless; in fact, when the film is compared to its predecessor, it is usually to mark its differences in style and tone.  This is a markedly different kind of comparative discussion to that surrounding Red Dawn.  The Thing (1982) may invite comparison, but only superficially or in a setting where comparison is a necessary component (academia, for example).  In many respects, the film is taken on its own merits, revered or hated for its grotesquery or tone or style -- now more favorably than in the past.  In truth, Carpenter's The Thing is utterly terrifying -- it scared me when I was a kid in the 90s, and it still scares the crap out of me to this day.

If I had seen the 2011 prequel of the same name (literally, The Thing is its title), I might be able to comment on its relevance to this post.  Alas, I have not done so, which means I leave you to decide if that film managed to exist in a kind of critical distance vacuum, or if it is confused not just in title, but also by its placement within the existing filmic frame.

In any case, I hope the point I'm making is clear.  It is nice to think that we should treat films entirely on their own merits, but it is also realistic to expect that remakes and reboots always court comparison, and that the nature of that comparison will depend equally as much on the film's adaptation of whatever precedes it.  I'd argue that the closer a remake is to its original material, the less we are able to disentangle it from the narratives of origins and remakes.  New-ness or "too soon"-ness reduces a film's potential to rigorously re-define the perimeters of the source, since it is always already compromised by proximity.  We will compare Spider-Man (2002) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) so long as both are part of our cinematic conversation of the character.  We will do the same to Red Dawn (1982 / 2012) and the sea of other remakes that pollute the industry.  My hope is that we'll end up with more examples of The Thing or Battlestar Galactica or The Fly (1986) or The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).


[1]:  This is even more true when one takes into account the fact that the only real perceived "threat" to the United States also happens to be one of the largest foreign film markets in terms of size.  Granted, China doesn't exactly translate well to the situation either, since it is only a threat in an abstract, group-specific sense.  Unlike the U.S.S.R. (in America's mind), China is not currently the ultimate bogeyman to U.S. foreign policy.

[2]:  It is also a re-adaptation of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"

[3]:  In much the same way as Alien just three years earlier.

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  1. . Unlike the U.S.S.R. (in America's mind), China is not currently the ultimate bogeyman to U.S. foreign policy.

    ...although I recall, between Jan 2001 and September 2001, there was an awful push to make China so. Remember the spy plane incident? Remember the chatter about China being the "next threat"?

    9/11/2001 changed all that. But that urge was there.

    1. I don't recall that exact incident...well, sort of as a vague memory, I guess, but not in any concrete sense. I was a bit busy with trying to be an adult around that time, and the year after, I'd discover stage-3 Hodgkin's lymphoma and the joys of chemo and surgery...bleck.

      That said, I agree that there have been attempts to make China into the ultimate bogeyman, but they have largely failed because the way discourse travels is different today than it was in the 50s or 60s. And it's just not in our benefit to treat China like a bogeyman, since they are one of our biggest trade partners and all. In the good old days of the Cold War? Well, there were some..."secret" dealings, but generally we had as little to do with them on economic terms as possible.