Mining the past

IT’S like déjà vu all over again.

If you’re of a certain age, and still partial to a trip to the movies on a Friday night, you may be forgiven if over the next couple of months you start feeling like you’ve time-slipped back to the future, aka the 1980s.

Robocop, a remake of the 1987 sci-fi flick directed by Paul Verhoeven, hits a screen near you next week. Endless Love, a remake of the 1981 romance starring Brooke Shields, gets released the following week, with Gabriella Wilde and Alex Pettyfer making eyes at one another this time round. About Last Night, which starred ‘brat pack’ veterans Rob Lowe and Demi Moore when it was first released in 1986, is another to get a 21st century update when it appears in late March.

There’s more. Godzilla gets yet another remake this year, and will rampage through your neighbourhood multiplex during May. A director has been appointed to the remake of Point Break, the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze surfing classic from 1991. And speaking of Swayze, fans of Dirty Dancing (1987) may want to look away now. A remake is in the pipeline, with director Kenny Ortega — he of High School Musical fame — already at the helm.

The reasoning behind the swathe of remakes is obvious. While it’s too simplistic to say that Hollywood has run out of original ideas, it is true that the cost of making movies is now so high that accountants are playing it safe and banking on the comfort of familiarity to bring punters through the doors. Of the top ten films at the US box office in 2013, for example, only Frozen and Gravity were in any sense original movies. The remaining eight movies were either sequels, such as Despicable Me 2 and Iron Man 3, or origin tales of established characters, such as Superman in Man of Steel and the Wizard of Oz in Oz The Great and Powerful.

Familiarity, it’s fair to say, doesn’t necessarily breed contempt with movie-goers. But then remakes, it’s also fair to say, aren’t necessarily always second-rate retreads of the original movie. The 1983 version of Scarface, starring Al Pacino, deserves to be judged on its own merits, not simply as a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic starring Paul Muni. Hawks remade his own Rio Bravo (1959) as Rio Lobo in 1970, while John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was a gritty, urban remake of Rio Bravo. Carpenter also remade the sci-fi horror The Thing From Another World (1951) as the pithily titled The Thing (1982), a thriller so good it even stood up to a further remake in 2011. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and King Kong (2005) are good examples of classics getting a contemporary remake for a new audience, while Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) was a spirited remake of La Jetée (1962), a French film that was originally composed of still photographs. Hollywood doesn’t always cover itself in glory when remaking foreign movies, but Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) was a superb version of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002). And even auteurs, the Coen Brothers, remade the John Wayne western True Grit in 2010.

As even that brief list demonstrates, there can be valid artistic as well as commercial reasons to remake a film. The point might be a little tougher to argue when the movies in question are About Last Night (even if it is based on a play by David Mamet), Endless Love, Point Break and Robocop, but the notion that the filmmakers are simply replicating a tried and trusted formula by updating them for a new generation ignores the fact that there is some canny marketing going on here too.

All three of those movies did decent US box office when first released — Endless Love grossed $31m, About Last Night $38m and Robocop $53m — although those kind of returns aren’t exactly the stuff of legend. Adjusted for inflation, for example, Dirty Dancing’s $63m would have seen it sneak into 2013’s Top 20. But they are all movies that have penetrated the culture to the extent that even people who’ve never seen them know what they’re about.

Which is to say, those movies will be arriving with the kind of pre-release publicity and goodwill already in the bank that makers of original movies can only dream of. Whether that goodwill and brand recognition will be transformed into actual dollars in the bank is another matter entirely.

If the number of remakes being planned or already in pre-production is any guide, Hollywood is certainly banking on its back catalogue. Will Smith wants to remake The Wild Bunch (1969). Megan Fox will star in a remake of Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles (1990). Sam Raimi is lined up to direct a remake of Poltergeist (1982), while Luke Evans is currently slated to star in a remake of The Crow (1994). And then there’s the sequel Triplets, which follows on from Twins (1988) and reunites Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as the separated-at-birth siblings who discover they have a brother — Eddie Murphy.

Welcome to the future. As Total Recall (1990, remake 2012) suggested, we can remember it for you wholesale.


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