Friday, February 12, 2010

When to Reboot

And when not to

Sometimes Hollywood comes off as really skittish and lazy. Instead of investing in revolutionary, groundbreaking new films, they all too often fall back on making movies out of popular (but ancient) TV shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s. And, recently, the “remake” or “reboot” of existing films has become very common. They’re potentially safe investments – if the original was a hit, there’s a decent chance that the new one will be, also. And you don’t have to invent a whole new story, you can simply re-use what’s been done before. And that’s why the studios like them – they feel like safe investments in an industry that has had its biggest successes come from trying things that weren’t safe, but turned out to be really terrific. And it doesn’t always work. The remake of Planet of the Apes, for instance, was a huge flop (and a big personal disappointment for me). But for all of the flops, they just keep coming.

And you may wonder, do we NEED a remake of Robocop? I mean, come on – Paul Verhoeven’s cyborg masterpiece was a brilliant work of over-the-top violence, dark comedy, social and political commentary and the evaluation of what makes us human. In my opinion, it was pretty damn near perfect to begin with. The performances by Peter Weller (as the good father and cop turned into a piece of corporate property), Kurtwood Smith (as the murderous villain), and Miguel Ferrer (as the amoral corporate ladder-climber) were spot-on. There were no bad performances, no crummy special effects, nothing to say to the viewer, “If only that part had been better, this movie would be great.” The commentary on Detroit metropolitan development and politics is still relevant today. The messages about consumerism and the apathy of the masses (as represented by the iconic TV spot that plays throughout the film, where, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”) still apply. And, if anything, the critique of self-serving corporate malfeasance and greed is even more relevant today than it was in the 80s. Without even knowing too many details of the new Robocop, I’m calling it an unnecessary reboot. I hope it’s a great and entertaining movie, but I’d rather the time, energy and money were spent making something new.

So by now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not necessarily a big fan of remakes. It’s annoying when you say, “I love [movie x]” and the response is always, “Which version?” But they’re not entirely without merit. In fact, when I started thinking about the idea of remakes and reboots, I discovered that there’s actually a good case to be made for them, even if these aren’t the primary reasons that the studios like them. For instance, sometimes a series of films has gone as far as it can with the old storyline. There are more stories to tell, but you need to wipe the slate clean and tell them with fresh actors and even a new origin story. This was the case in recent years with both Batman and Star Trek. Both had been the subject of multiple films in the 80s and 90s, and both had hit a point where each successive film was worse than the last. The old movies were dragging down the brand. This is a pretty good example of a time for a reboot. Start us off fresh, but continue to tell the stories about these characters that people want to see. And it worked brilliantly for both of them. The Chris Nolan Batman movies starring Christian Bale have done a lot to redeem a series that was pretty well destroyed by a succession of truly unwatchable movies back in the 90s. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have been critical and box-office successes, and pave the way for more films in the same rebooted storyline.

Likewise, JJ Abrams’s fresh take on Star Trek was a giant hit and helped to rejuvenate a series that had literally and figuratively run into the ground. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in Insurrection where they crash the Enterprise-D into a planet. To this day I have not seen and refuse to see Star Trek: Nemesis. And while the Next Generation crew was fun, for many nothing beats the original team of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. Now, for the first time since 1994, we get to see those characters back in action. That’s a great use of a reboot. Plus the 1994 Star Trek: Generations film sucked, so even the last time we saw the old crew was lame.

And there’s another reason that we ought to be more accepting of remakes, I think. If you look at the great plays, from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare up through modern times, they’re constantly being performed in new and fresh ways. They may change the setting and costumes to put Julius Ceasar in WWII Europe, or to put A Streetcar Named Desire in the 21st century. And each troop of actors bring their own fresh take to the role. Is their Hamlet to be energetic and action-oriented (in his indecisiveness), or sad and weepy? So it’s commonplace. It’s expected. It’s a key difference between live theatre and film. But while films will never capture the intimacy and immediacy of the theatre, there’s technically no reason why each different director and cast shouldn’t get to put their own stamp on a classic. Some will work, some won’t, but the screams of “aaah, they’re raping my childhood” whenever an older title is resurrected aren’t really fair. So bring on the new Superman. Bring on the new Black Hole. Let’s see what these new folks can do with the classics. And if we don’t like them, the original will be right there waiting for us on DVD to re-watch at our leisure.

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