This latest post will start a new category in my “Film Analysis” pieces that include things that every person in the world (including and especially bloggers) love, even if many of us won’t admit it: Top 10 Lists! Yep, that’s right, — deep down, every one of us, movie-lovers included, loves to debate, fight over, and make our own lists of greatest whatever-category we may be analyzing.
Occasionally this section of film analyses will include numbers bigger or smaller than ten if I think ten subjects are too much or too little for a particular cinematic category, or I if just don’t feel like writing about and considering ten pieces for a single post. However, all my “top-numbered” lists will cover either notable films, notable filmmakers, or people and projects that are considered more notable than they should be (overrated and underrated lists are going to be particularly fun 😀 ), as well as general filmmaking or pop culture trends that have caught my attention.
This opening Top 10 list for Express Elevator to Hell concerns a hot topic in contemporary Hollywood (and much of the filmmaking world), which are remakes of already made cinematic properties.
Now, everyone in the movie-loving world has opinions on film remakes, franchise reboots, or brand-name title “re-imaginings,” or however/whatever you define them. Remakes have become so prevalent in today’s saturated pop culture markets because film industries like Hollywood recognize the marketability, brand recognition, and overall financial security that an already established title has with the masses. Remakes of classic titles or reboots of popular franchises have become so common nowadays that even most general audiences (i.e. “non-cinephiles”) are starting to catch on and appreciate the sheer number of recycled ideas, characters, and premises that are going into and out of Hollywood every year.
People often lament that Hollywood “has no originality anymore” and that “everybody’s copying off of each other” and that big American movie studios keep “ripping off way better foreign films.” Well, all that is true to an extent, but those same complainers have to realize that filmmakers copying each other and drawing extremely similar ideas from one another is a trend as old as art itself. Forget film’s history —- filmmakers and studios ripping off ideas from their peers and rivals is something inherent and natural (and essential) to human competition and creativity, and without it, art of all forms would certainly die.
I understand that most people, particularly hard-nosed film buffs, feel that things have gone too far to one extreme and that studios, especially those in Hollywood, should stop trying to cash in on generally poor, lazily produced rehashes of childhood nostalgia, and again I agree with those sentiments to a certain degree. But the thing we have to understand is that corporate entities have been doing this since the beginning of time — capitalist enterprises are always looking for new revenue streams wherever they can find it, regardless of how lowbrow they have to stoop — and moreover, this trend is in no way unique to or even most extreme in Hollywood relative to other film cultures.
Hell, spend any time wading through Bollywood’s annual 1,000+ film production schedule and you’ll be simply bombarded with endless remakes and blatant movie ripoffs. Bollywood rips off its own older Hindi blockbuster titles, South Indian films, independent Hindi films, as well as tons and tons of Hollywood pictures. Hell, at least American movie studios bother to obtain legal copyright permission from the original filmmakers before reproducing the same title in the US, and they generally cite the original project in their credits. The majority of Bollywood movies are blatant copycats of previously made titles, with some sequences being copied literally shot-for-shot, dialogue translated word-for-word, music numbers being copied hook-for-hook (often from popular American songs), and all without official permission from the original film’s studios!
You think Hollywood is too much of a copycat industry? Look, you so-called “worldly,” “cosmopolitan” movie buffs need to open your eyes and live up to your anti-Western-mainstream boasting —- India’s blockbusters put us to shame in the remaking department. Hell, just go ask Christopher Nolan.
This post isn’t really meant to defend or condemn film remakes so much as it is to be a reality check for those who endlessly derail them. As such, I’m not going to meticulously discuss why certain remakes fail or succeed, or the specifics as to why certain films should be remade and others left alone (that’s a list for another time), but rather I want to list some of the notable success stories for which I am extremely thankful, and for which I think everyone else should be too.
Here are the movie remakes that I am glad happened. Not all of these films necessarily “improved upon” or even lived up to the status of the original title, but I feel that all these films were truly great projects that stood on their own and thus deserved to be produced, regardless of their comparison to or the objective quality of the original. In short, these are movies I would list on my two hands as evidence that remakes are not always a bad or even unnecessary things, and in fact can be truly invaluable cinematic Godsends. Don’t believe me? Read on….
Here are my picks:
10.) 3:10 to Yuma (2007) —- [Remake of 3:10 to Yuma (1957)]; This 2007 update of the 1957 adaptation of the original short story by Elmore Leonard is one in a long, long line of western remakes that have stretched across decades, industries, and national boundaries. Given that the western has been one of the longest running and most critically acclaimed film genres, it seems only natural that artists would re-imagine similar to borderline identical cinematic tales differing only in cultural and geographic context, from the United States (e.g. The Stagecoach ) to Japan (e.g. Seven Samurai ) to Italy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ) to India (e.g. Sholay ) to the United States again (e.g Unforgiven ). Despite being pretty financially toxic nowadays after a good 40-year run of mainstream cultural relevancy, occasional great modern westerns still creep up from time to time.
James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is one of those great films. It breaks down, criticizes, and also heartily empathizes with the western’s inherent search for and championing of classic, rugged masculinity and all the historical baggage that comes with it. Christian Bale plays arguably his most sympathetic role to date against Russell Crowe’s deceptively deep and manipulative antagonist. Mangold also directs some of the greatest western shootouts of all time. Not bad for a remake that was a box office bust that hardly anyone saw
9.) The Fly (1986) —- [Remake of The Fly (1958)]; I’ll be honest with this one — I haven’t seen the original Fly by Kurt Neumann, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t think it necessary to confirm that David Cronenberg’s 1986 update is a fantastic film. Besides featuring Jeff Goldblum’s best performance and some seriously awesome (as in hot) sexual innuendo, the film boasts some incredible ’80’s practical effects like The Thing before it and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) released that same year, as well as Cronenberg’s characteristically wacky body-horror tone. Cronenberg’s a master, and he doesn’t get much better than this.
8.) Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1978) —- [Remake of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1956)]; Widely considered one of the greatest remakes of all time by both critics and science-fiction aficionados alike, this first remake (out of three total to date) of the original Communism/McCarthyism-paranoia classic is a true sci-fi cinema for the thinking movie-goer. It’s focus on narrative-driven action and complicated sociopolitical themes intermixed with pulpy speculative science make it a relative rarity in today’s science-fantasy/Star Wars-ripoff obsessed culture. Most moviegoers don’t get to see films like this nowadays besides mainstream oddities like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t rely on action scenes, excessive exposition, or cliched caricatures to convey its story or themes, but rather good old-fashioned cinematic tone and suspenseful pacing — e.i. creative screenwriting.
7.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) —- [Remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)] —- While I was initially put off by the film’s nearly 2 hour and 40 minute runtime and serious lack of editing in its final 45 minutes (how on earth did this film win the Oscar for Best Editing and nothing else?), this film repaired a lot of broken machinery and disappointed feelings I had in my head from watching the original Swedish version from 2009. What a bunch of F&*%$#@T that was.
Moreover, this film has grown on me from the already positive initial reaction I had to it when I first saw it in theatres, featuring David Fincher’s sure-handed direction, a fine sympathetic (not to mention ironic) turn by Daniel Craig, a career-standout performance by Rooney Mara, and an outstanding soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This movie did justice to its ominous, foreboding, sexually charged source material, and proved that yes, Hollywood big budgets, name-brand stars, and grand cinematic scale and production values can not only match modestly produced foreign titles, but they can put them to shame as well.
6.) Scarface (1983) —- [Remake of Scarface (1932)]; This ’80’s gangster classic about an ex-Cubano cartel enforcer has become so iconic that most people born after 1940 don’t even know it’s a remake of a far older (as well as vastly inferior) original by Howard Hawkes. While the original 1932 title about an Italian mobster played by Paul Muni had its moments, the patient pacing, updated graphic violence, and dedicated titular performance by Al Pacino simply exceeded its inspiration in every single way. Thematically, Brian De Palma’s 1983 Miami-set film explores the concept of the American dream better than almost any other Hollywood film ever made, and its climactic ending defines its central character better than most any film in cinema. You can’t take him — he’s Tony Montana!
5.) Star Trek (2009) —- [Reboot of the Star Trek television series franchise (1966-1969), Reboot of TOS feature films (last in theatres in 1991), last Star Trek: The Next Generation film in 2002)]: To put it quite frankly, the Star Trek franchise as a whole had been on life-support ever since the end of Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), and all four Next Generation films (1994, 1996, 1998, 2002) were lackluster and underwhelming at best. Star Trek on both the small screen and the big had become sooooooo boring. Where was the intelligent thematic analyses, the smart character-building, the space exploration, the nerdy phaser-fights and photon torpedoes?
While many still lament the “devolution” of Star Trek into what was essentially more generic, space-adventure/action schlock, it’s hard to argue with the final results. Obnoxious lens flares notwithstanding, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot exploded from the gates with a shockingly refreshing and invigorating burst of energy and youthful spirit. It and its 2013 sequel certainly aren’t your childhood Star Trek and most definitely not your hippie-parents’ Star Trek, not to mention it throws 50+ years of canon out the window, but who cares? Star Trek is awesome again! Sometimes, a full franchise rehash-reboot with younger characters and a convoluted retold origin story is just what the doctor ordered 😀
4.) The Thing (1982) —- [Remake of The Thing from Another World (1951)]; John Carpenter’s initially misunderstood practical effects-classic frequently tops many people’s “best of remakes” lists. The only reason it’s not at the number one spot here just says how highly I think of the following three films. With that in mind, Carpenter’s sci-fi classic is one of the few well known film remakes to actually be more faithful to its’ non-cinematic source material (Who Goes There?  by John W. Campbell, Jr.) than the original film, and in most people’s minds it vastly improves upon the original and is the definitive film version of Campbell’s original shape-shifting villain. The film is one of the few science-fiction films to boast a healthy mix of complex thematic sci-fi and action (e.i. both science-fiction and science-fantasy), and it features some of the best practical creature effects ever made courtesy of special effects master Rob Bottin.
3.) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — [Re-imagining of the original Mad Max franchise (1979, 1981, 1985)]: While the original Mad Max was a chump-budget, high-octane blast from Down Under, which lit a fire in the action genre’s ass by the 1980’s, and then The Road Warrior upped the ante even further, Beyond Thunderdome was a disappointing bust. The franchise went dormant for nearly thirty years as writer-director George Miller moved on to other projects and the genre itself stagnated during the 2000’s.
Then, in May of 2015, the franchise came roaring back with its best entry yet, and what is already considered one of the greatest action films of all time. Aside from boasting memorable characters and a “surprisingly” heartfelt, complex story with admirable themes, Fury Road returned the big-budget action blockbuster to a reliance on practical effects, unforgettable on-location cinematography, and R-rated stunts. Arguably the greatest accomplishment of Miller’s magnum opus was how it told such multi-layered, effective story through action —- which is really what the entire point of the action genre is supposed to be.
2.) Rise of/Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014) —- [Reboot of the original Planet of the Apes series (1968, 1970-73), re-imagining of Tim Burton’s first Planet of the Apes (2001) reboot]; Now we’re getting to the most recent stuff. It makes sense that, given the rampant increase in Hollywood remakes over the past decade, more crappy remakes have come out in recent years, but so too have great ones.
Enter the one-two-three punch of Ruper Wyatt’s and Matt Reeve’s Rise and Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes (respectively), which not only reinvigorated and legitimized a cartoony property that was hokey and poorly aged to begin with, but also updated a franchise that had been rebooted before in 2001 by Tim Burton. This new millennium Planet of the Apes series not only represents the best work by motion-capture whiz Andy Serkis, but also showcases some of the finest digital FX this side of Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and argues that new technology can still be used to enhance rather than neuter the magic of movie spectacle.
- King Kong (2005) — [Remake of the original 1933 film of the same name]: Peter Jackson’s passion project expanded and glorified everything from the original classic, from the special effects to the character development to the running time (over three hours!). This modernization succeeds, however, thanks to strong characters, a great score, and bravado performances by Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis as the title character.
- Dawn of the Dead (2004) — [Re-imagining of the original 1978 film of the same name]: Zack Snyder’s directorial debut included the tall task of remaking one of the most beloved horror films of all time, and arguably the most successful movie to ever feature brain-eating zombies. Though not as versatile or unforgettable as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), Snyder’s riff on George A. Romero’s magnum opus is a quality update on its source material and remains intense, violent, and entertaining throughout.
1.) The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, and not so much 2012) —- [Reboot and re-imagining of DC’s Batman character, last in theatres with Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997)]: In all fairness, this is the only argument I need. If we had all agreed (Hollywood studio executives included) that remakes are always 100% a bad thing, or that remakes are always doomed to be lesser than the earlier or original titles, or even at best they could only hope to equal the original’s artistry, then we would have never gotten The Dark Knight (2008). We would have never gotten Christopher Nolan’s image of Batman or Gotham City, no disturbingly realistic and believable Batman origin story, Michael Caine would never have been Alfred Pennyworth, and Heath Ledger would have never had the chance to play a little role called The Joker. Our last cinematic image of Batman, arguably America’s greatest comic book superhero and an American cultural icon, would have been Batman and Robin.
Let that sink in a bit.
*Drops mic, walks away