Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Remakes (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Anyone over the age of 25 is going to experience some déjà vu when they head to their multiplex this weekend and see Footloose (Original Release Year: 1984) and The Thing (Original Release Year: 1982) emblazoned in big, bold letters on the marquee. No, they haven't accidentally entered a time warp back to the '80s (or even further back, since the '82 Thing was actually a remake of a 1951 picture) -- they're just part of the remake culture that seems to pervade contemporary Hollywood. In the current climate, no pre-existing movie is too good (or, in the case of, say, My Bloody Valentine, too bad) to be dusted off for another go-around. This weekend's double bill of dueling '80s remakes is just another example of what results when the past is routinely pillaged to create product for the present. It also inspired us to ruminate a little bit on some of the questions that the subject of remakes inspire, questions like...

1. What is a remake anyway?
This sounds like a simple question, but the definition of a remake has gotten more complicated in recent years with the rise of branching sub-genres like "reboots," "prequels" and "revivals." J.J. Abrams' recent Star Trek blockbuster, for example, took great pains to point out that it wasn't remaking the classic '60s series, instead shuttling all the familiar characters off to a pocket universe where they could live out their own adventures divorced from the existing continuity. Likewise, Christopher Nolan Batman films share almost nothing in common with the previous Dark Knight features, apart from the whole "guy dresses up as a bat to fight crime" thing. And then there are movies like the upcoming The Muppets, which appears to borrow the road movie structure of the original Muppet Movie, but otherwise isn't trying to recreate its predecessor so much as serve as a launching pad for a whole new series. Even this new Thing isn't technically a remake; the film actually takes place several days before the events of John Carpenter's beloved horror movie and will presumably end with a scene that segues into what comes next/came before. (Of course, since the core story of the 2011 Thing will once again involve a group of scientists encountering a shape shifting alien life form that kills them off one by one, in many ways it still is a remake.) Craig Brewer's Footloose, on the other hand, is a good example of a more traditional remake: a contemporary update of an older movie that tells the same story with the same characters, just with a different cast and, oftentimes, a few additional narrative and visual nips and tucks.

2. Why are remakes so popular?
Short answer: Money. Longer answer: Remakes generally carry built-in brand awareness that come in handy when selling the film to the general moviegoing public. For instance, many of the kids and teens that saw Footloose back in the day are now parents of their own kids and teens and can encourage them to check out the new version (and maybe even -- gasp! -- go to the movies with them) without having to make apologies for the dated fashions, hairstyles and music choices on display in the original. Also, from a production standpoint, it can be more cost-effective to repurpose older material than spend large sums on a new, untested idea. And finally, moviegoers do respond to remakes. For every bomb like Fright Night, there's a surprise hit like Friday the 13th or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which gives the studios incentive to keep throwing darts at the board, hoping one will stick.

3. Why would any filmmaker want to be involved in a remake?
Again, money. Also, it's a job on a studio film that could lead to another, more interesting job on a studio film. For a guy like Brewer, who made two indie features prior to Footloose, the bigger budget and guaranteed theatrical release probably takes some of the bite out of reworking older material rather than pursuing his own ideas. Remakes are also an established route for a first-time director to break into the business; The Thing remake, for instance, is the first feature by Dutch director Matthijs van Heijning Jr. Granted, not all of these first-timers go on to better things, but it is an opportunity to get that all-important first credit under your belt. And, also, there is that always- tempting opportunity for a director to put his or her own creative stamp on an established property, one that maybe even improves on the original. After all, it's not like the '84 Footloose is some kind of finely carved gem. There's plenty of room for Brewer to make changes that smooth out the original's rough edges. On the other hand, Carpenter's film is pretty terrific, so van Heijning is going to have to work extra hard if he hopes to replace it in our affections. Either way, pulling off a successful remake represents a significant creative challenge and that's why these guys are supposedly in this business in the first place. And if we may compare film to the stage for a moment, theater directors are always eager to offer up their own interpretations of classics texts, from Shakespeare to Chekov. So why would it be any less acceptable for a film director to express an interest in staging a new version of Footloose... other than the fact that the script clearly isn't Shakespeare, of course.

5. So can a remake ever actually be good?
Not just good -- some remakes are considered to rank among the all-time greats. Take the following two Best Picture winners: 1959's Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1925 silent film and Martin Scorsese's The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong flick Infernal Affairs (which is actually better than its Hollywood counterpart, but the Scorsese version is pretty great too). And then there are less heralded, but still successful titles like Matt Reeves' Let Me In, Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie (his Manchurian Candidate remake isn't half-bad either), Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and Michael Haneke's Funny Games. Even Gus Van Sant's much-lambasted shot-for-shot Psycho remake is an intriguing experiment that isn't entirely successful, but we're still glad it exists.

6. What are the signs of a good remake?
An understanding of what elements (be they narrative, thematic or visual) made the original click and finding ways to retain them while also bringing them up to date for the present day; having compelling, well-thought out reasons behind any alterations, not making changes just to make changes; casting actors that bring a different energy to familiar characters.

7. What are the signs of a bad remake?
Too many references and in-jokes to the original; creative choices that are clearly more influenced by commercial rather than artistic reasons; "improvements" that don't actually improve anything.

8. Will the remakes ever stop coming?
All film trends are cyclical -- just look at how torture porn has fallen away since dominating the horror landscape following the one-two punch of Saw and Hostel -- and so too will the current remake glut. In fact, it's already slackening somewhat. The once unstoppable wave of '80s horror remakes screeched to a stop following the underwhelming reception of The Nightmare on Elm Street re-do and most of the big movies set for release next year are either sequels or adaptations. Right now, the only notable remake on the 2012 release calendar is Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, a big-screen version of the old vampire soap opera and that sort of belongs to its own separate category of TV-show-to-movie translations. Of course, if that movie becomes a hit, look out -- we may be in store for remakes of other vampire-related features, from Love at First Bite to Vamp.

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