On Wednesday of last week we were greeted with the news that Neil Blomkamp’s next film would be another addition to the Alien franchise. This film will likely be a remake or reboot of the original film based on the confusion of Prometheus that will hopefully be explained by the end of Prometheus 2 (a sequel after Alien: Resurrection 20 years later just doesn’t make sense to me). Fans everywhere were excited for the announcement. Even if you don’t particularly like movies with Xenomorphs in them, the news wasn’t really that surprising. A trend has been developing in Hollywood lately where any film of the last 100 years with a decent size fan base is a candidate for a remake. This latest news was simply the most recent case of a film studio continuing to propagate this cultural phenomenon.
To start with, I guess I should tell you that I am a huge fan of the Alien franchise, especially the main quadrilogy and especially the first film. Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors simply because Alien is so magnificent (oh, and also that Blade Runner movie he did). Therefore, when I said that I was excited about the prospect of this new film, you can believe me that I am telling the truth. Here is an opportunity for one of my all time favorite films to be new and exciting again. Here is an opportunity for one of the modern gurus of sci-fi to add to the legacy of films that I cherish. Yet, as much as I am excited about the idea of this new film, I am also sad, and here’s a rant about why I feel this way.
Remakes and reboots are the new sequels in today’s movie world, and I am already tired of them. You should be too. Whereas previously money-hungry studios simply recycled characters and plots by slapping a “2” on the end of their film titles, reboots are just recycling characters and remakes are doing even less original thinking. A remake/reboot is an excuse for a filmmaker with enough clout to take an interesting film of the past and explain to audiences how they think it should have been done. Sure, they’ll claim that they are paying homage to the creativity of the original, but ultimately they and the studios financing them are just trying to make money. Yes, I am aware that most movies are trying to make money, including those original films on which remakes/reboots are based, but adding your own opinion to an existing property isn’t really doing anyone any favors. In fact, remakes and reboots are doing more harm than good.
First, consider all of the remakes that have come out in the last 20 years. Are any of them really that good? Are they better than the original film? Perhaps in production values, sure, but are they as influential or important in popular culture? Ocean’s 11 comes to mind. The Departed, True Grit, and maybe Batman Begins if you think of it more as a retelling than a reboot. Nothing else really jumps out at you. Plus, what do all these films have in common? They’re directed by Oscar-nominated directors. They’ve proven that they know HOW to make good movies before they attempted a remake. Furthermore, all of these directors have attempted to make other remakes and failed at doing so, proof that even the most talented minds can’t always make remakes worth the effort. Soderberg attempted to remake Solaris, Scorsese did Cape Fear, the Coen brothers did The Ladykillers, and Nolan did Insomnia.
Reboots may have a better track record than remakes, but the story is largely the same. Star Trek, Casino Royale, and Dredd come to mind as far as being better beginnings for their characters than the original films, but they are among the minority. Reboots tend to happen when a franchise gets too long in the tooth. There’s usually a sequel so foul that no production studio would risk adding another brick to the teetering Jenga tower. With Dredd, the original film was just downright terrible, but since comic books are all the rage, there was enough potential fan support to give it a second go. Look at the Academy Award best picture winners, there’s only two remake/reboots (Departed and My Fair Lady). It’s also worth noting that Academy Award best picture winners have been remade 5 times, and so far no Oscar wins for those remakes (including All Quiet on the Western Front, Hamlet, Around the World in 80 Days, and also including the Ben Hur remake that is in production as well as the Rocky quasi reboot coming soon). My point is that a reboot or a remake almost never ends well, so why even make the effort?
Remakes/reboots are nothing new. In fact in the 20’s and the 30’s there were lots of remakes. However, the film business was very different back then compared to today. Most of these remakes were updates to song and dance numbers, which were extremely popular, or else they were adaptations of popular plays and stories (like Shakespeare) that audiences would pay money to see over and over. It was more a tradition to remake these types of films as they were bankable properties in a time when film was still evolving to incorporate sound and then color. Later decades saw a decline in the number of remakes and reboots, but there are still good (rare) examples of successes such as The Thing, and The Fly. However, today it is a different story. Today, remakes/reboots are a popular trend, not just an artistic decision by a few individuals.
Over the last two decades, remakes/reboots have become more frequent. It’s as if we have collectively decided that previous properties are no longer good enough to be entertaining on their own merits. It feels like filmmakers have decided that we need to update past films so that they appeal to a new generation. Perhaps they believe that there is a unique importance in these older films that new generations just won’t be able to consume in their older format. In some regards, this may be true, but I believe by changing the packaging to make an idea or concept more appealing to newer eyes, that original importance is lost. What makes a film special is not always just its premise or characters. The entire production means something. The way the film is constructed, including its successes and its flaws ultimately makes it what it is. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a reboot or remake to take this into account, and replicate exactly what made the original film so special.
Perhaps your argument is that the point of a remake isn’t to make a better film than the original. I’ll agree with that argument. The point of a remake is not to make a better film than the original, but the point of a remake is not to make a terrible film, which most of them end up being. Inherently, a remake or reboot has a lot to live up to if the original film was well loved. Therefore, even before starting the production of making a remake/reboot, the odds are not exactly stacked in its favor. The audience already has their own preconceptions of what the film should be, based on their own interpretation of the original film. You might ask, well isn’t the point of a remake or reboot to appeal to a new generation? The answer is a “yes but”. Yes, but a production studio is also counting on the fan base of the original film to show up and watch the new one. Ultimately the goal is a profit. Hence, not only to reboots and remakes have a lot going against them from the get-go, but a significant part of their audience is going to be more critical than your typical film.
The counter to this point is that even if devoted fans of the original film may not like the new one, they are still likely to pay to see it. Plus, when it is released on blu-ray/digital download they may also feel more compelled to buy it than a casual fan. After all, there’s a difference between the perceived quality of a film and its success. From a business perspective, a reboot/remake makes financial sense. Look at the Transformers franchise, for example. Those films are atrocities committed against the art of filmmaking, yet they are extremely profitable. They appeal to a fan base that doesn’t quite appreciate what film can be, and what impact it can have. This may also be the case with reboots/remakes trying to appeal to a younger/new audience. Old fans will pay to see it, and new fans have a slightly higher chance of liking the new film if they haven’t seen the original or didn’t appreciate the original. But at the same time, most of us are not getting paid by a movie studio. We don’t much care how much money a movie makes.
Ultimately we want to get our money’s worth, and for the most part, reboots and remakes don’t allow this. We want to share the glory of the past with newer generations, not just entertain them mindlessly. There is more to a great film or a memorable film than just entertainment, and that is something that is easily forgotten. When the credits roll, we want to be able to sit back and think, “Wow! That was worth my time.” We want movies that will stick with us when we walk out of the theater. We want movies that we will have something to talk about with our friends. We want movies that influence future generations, not just keep them occupied for the moment. Good films of the past have improved the future, not watered down ideas to the lowest common denominator for mass consumption.
By making a remake you are lessening the legacy of the original film. What happened to original ideas? What happened to mainstream films inspiring their audiences? What happened to movies exploring new ideas and new territories that we ourselves have never even considered? That’s what a good film should do. The movie industry is full of talented people whose job it is to do just that. Every time a reboot or a remake comes out, I feel like they aren’t living up to their potential. For big film studios, there’s little incentive to do something else. For talented filmmakers working for these studios, there is little opportunity for them to try something else. With ticket purchases, audiences are maintaining this trend. We’ve gotten ourselves stuck in a self-destructive pattern, and if no one breaks us out of it, the true potential of film as both an art form and an entertainment media may be lost for good.