On Movie Remakes

With the new version of Robocop hitting the big screen this weekend, there will no doubt be (in addition to comparisons to the original) arguments over whether or not it is acceptable to remake a movie. Some movie buffs will be dead set against remaking any movie for any reason at all. Others will argue that it shouldn’t matter, especially if they haven’t seen the original (the subset of movie watchers who categorically refuse to consider watching a movie more than five or ten years old is a matter for another essay entirely).

While it is true that there’s no reason at all to remake a movie that is still good even in spite of the passage of time, there are indeed situations where a remake is actually warranted.

Case 1:

Quick question: What do The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959) have in common? Aside from their being wildly successful great movies, that is. Quick answer: They were all remakes of silent, black and white versions. And I’ll bet you that at the time, no one dared suggest that the originals were better.

Technology advances all the time, in movie making as in everything else. Many times the limitations of technology prevent a movie from being as great as it could be. I’m certain that no one, even the staunchest of the No Remakes crowd, would begrudge a filmmaker from having another go at a movie where the technology available for the original simply wasn’t up to the task of telling the story effectively. Case in point: The Thing From Another World (1951). While there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, thanks to well-written characters and tight, tense plotting, the effects needed to really show the shape-shifting alien simply weren’t there. By 1982, when John Carpenter remade it, makeup, modeling, and camera tricks all advanced to the point where the monster could be shown in all of its scary glory.

Case 2:

Movies do get dated. Not that they have a “Best Before” date, but often times the story relies heavily on cultural referents specific to its time and place. If a producer can retell the same story, but change the referents to something more contemporary, then more power to them. Unfortunately, this requires more talent from the writers and director than is usually there.

For example, take Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The original is acknowledged as one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. You can see it as an allegory of Communist infiltration, or the soul-crushing conformity of suburbia. It was remade in 1978, but that time the setting was changed from a typical suburb to a major city. The theme changed as well, to represent the fear of alienation and anonymity in an urban environment (what do you really know about the other people in your apartment building?). Same basic story, different emphasis; both are excellent movies. The movie was remade again in 1993 and 2007. The former was given a middling reception; the latter panned. In neither of those two cases were the moviemakers able to successfully bring anything new (or better) to the table.

Case 3:

Back in 1932, Paul Muni starred in a movie called Scarface. It came under a lot of fire for its “glorification” of the gangster lifestyle, and was pulled from distribution regardless of any quality concerns. It languished in obscurity, known only to a few fans and scholars. One of them was Martin Scorsese. He kept pushing for the film, and in 1983 Brian De Palma released a remake (the original having become too dated by then). The remake was a great success (“Say ‘hello’ to my little friend!”).

Remaking an unfairly obscure movie is another valid reason for a remake. This also applies to remaking a foreign movie for domestic release. Sometimes, the remake in this case can actually help the original. Most reviewers say (with good reason) that the version of Godzilla (1956) for the United States cannot hold a candle to the original Gojira (1954). But the success of the US version* convinced Toho Studios that they had a real hot property on their hands. And so, in 2002, baseball player Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui got to have a cameo appearance in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla

While some movies, like Robocop, certainly don’t need to be remade, there’s no reason to claim it shouldn’t be done.
* No, they couldn’t have just released a dubbed or subtitled version; that would have vanished without a trace in the arthouse cinemas.

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