If nothing else, this weekend's dueling '80s remakes offer some instructive lessons in how to -- and how not to -- update a pair of widely liked films that still loom large in the pop culture imagination... at least for those folks old enough to remember the difference between a Goonie and a Gremlin. Craig Brewer's Footloose is a strikingly faithful adaptation of Herbert Ross's 1984 "rebel with a cause (and a groovy beat)" teen musical that rocketed Kevin Bacon to stardom. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s The Thing is technically a prequel to, but really a loose remake of, John Carpenter's 1982 monster movie, which bombed in theaters at the time but has since become a genre touchstone. As is often the case with remakes, neither movie is likely to supplant the original in moviegoers' hearts. But only one truly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its predecessor. The other is destined to remain in obscurity, living out the rest of his post-theatrical days in the discount DVD bin at big box stores and the 2 AM timeslot on a random cable movie network.
Let's start with the remake that (mostly) works: the toe-tapping, booty-shaking revival of Footloose. To a certain extent, Brewer and the rest of his dance crew behind the new version had an easier assignment than the team in charge of remaking The Thing, since the '84 film, it must be said, isn't exactly the Citizen Kane of '80s teen movies. At the same time though, they did have to contend with moviegoers' fond memories of the original Footloose; after all, nothing clouds a person's mind like nostalgia. So Brewer made the canny decision to play his remake down the middle, retaining almost all of the original's main story points, many of the same songs and even a few key montages in order to appeal to the generation that grew up on Footloose. But he's also tweaked certain elements to more accurately reflect the reality of today's teen audience. That's perhaps most apparent in the demography of the small Southern town of Bomont, which once again serves as the central setting. In the '84 Footloose, the burg's complexion was lily white and the music of choice was largely peppy pop-rock stuff. In 2011, the teens in Bomont come in all sizes, shapes and colors (although, sadly, the main characters remain Caucasian) and their musical tastes are just as diverse -- the soundtrack spans such musical genres as hip-hop, rap, metal, country and straight-up pop.
Another key difference between the two Footlooses concerns the backgrounds of the young stars. Ross made the choice to cast actors instead of dancers and used doubles whenever the moves got too complex. Brewer has gone the other way, tapping a pair of professional dancers -- Kenny Wormald as fish-out-of-water Ren and Julianne Hough as rebellious preacher's daughter Ariel -- who have a modicum of acting experience. On the one hand, this approach instantly improves the movie's dance sequences as Brewer is able to shoot longer takes that actually show off his lead actors' fancy footwork, instead of constantly cutting around them to either hide their limited skills or the fact that they're being doubled. Take that (in)famous sequence where our hero blows off steam by dancing around an abandoned warehouse. In the original, we rarely get a good look at Bacon in motion because that's not actually him doing most of the dancing. Here Brewer doesn't have to keep his star constantly cloaked in the shadows as Wormald really is performing all of his own moves. Wormald and Hough's various pas de deux are also significantly better (and ten times hotter) than Bacon's flat-footed routines with Lori Singer. As in any musical, the conceit of the movie is that these two are supposed to express their emotions -- anger, sadness, love, lust -- first and foremost through dance and that comes across much more strongly in the contemporary Footloose.
Of course, the downside of anchoring your movie around two leads with limited acting experience is that any time the music stops, they have a tendency to freeze up. Hough is less susceptible to this phenomenon than her co-star, primarily because it's more fun to be the bad girl than the good guy. In fact, it's interesting to note how Ren's rebel streak has been toned down from the '84 version; Bacon drank, smoked and often acted like a total twerp. Wormald's Ren studiously avoids any substance abuse (he's a former gymnast, dontcha know) and has a sensitive soul underneath his leather jacket-clad exterior. Maybe that explains why he comes across as vaguely dull instead of dangerously charismatic, a Frankie Avalon instead of a James Dean. On the other hand, the town preacher Reverend Moore (played here by Dennis Quaid, stepping in for John Lithgow) has been made into a more overt villain, at least in the first half of the movie when he actively tries to keep Ariel and Ren apart. (A subplot in which he gets his own moment to shine by preventing a town-wide book burning has been dropped this time around.) Otherwise, the rest of the supporting characters are essentially unchanged: Miles Tellar mimics Chris Penn's gawky awkwardness as Willard; Andie MacDowell adopts Dianne Wiest's quietly disapproving glare as the preacher's wife; and Patrick John Fluerger, like Jim Youngs before him, is all redneck sleaze as Ariel's temperamental boyfriend, Chuck.
While it's true that Brewer could have taken more creative risks with his interpretation of Footloose, there's something oddly comforting in the way the film effectively recreates the modest pleasures of the original (like that terrific "Let's Hear It For the Boy" montage, which is preserved almost shot-for-shot here) while omitting its more dated elements. Let's face it: even back in the day, this material was never strong enough to produce anything more than a reasonably diverting teenybopper programmer. If Footloose had to be remade, this is probably the best version we were likely to get.
It's hard to make the same case for The Thing remake, largely because Carpenter's version (itself a remake of a 1951 Howard Hawks picture, based on a 1938 novella) feels so definitive (and, unlike Footloose, it doesn't seem to have aged a day since 1982). Really, the filmmaking team behind this new Thing had no obvious way of improving on the earlier film, but it's still depressing that they apparently didn't even bother to try. As with Footloose, this remake is little more than a glorified repeat of its predecessor, but it completely lacks the conviction and sense of fun that Brewer brings to his film.
It's worth noting that the 2011 Thing was commissioned by Morgan Creek, the same production company behind the equally unnecessary Exorcist prequel/remake that came out a few years back (that film was famously taken away from its original director, Paul Schrader, and re-assigned to Renny Harlin, who tailored it to the company's specifications). The chief flaw in both movies is that they devote themselves to filling in backstory that simply doesn't need to be filled in and, in the process, lose the aura of mystery that made the respective originals so compelling. In this case, the story begins a few days before the events depicted in Carpenter's movie (eagle-eyed viewers will notice plenty of references to the '82 film, some clever, most not), with an American paleontologist (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) traveling to Antarctica to rendezvous with a Norwegian science team that has stumbled upon a big discovery. Too bad for them that the "thing" they've discovered turns out to be a shape shifting alien with murder on its mind.
One of the great strengths of Carpenter's Thing is that it drops viewers into the middle of the action and allows us to experience events through the characters' eyes instead of keeping us one step ahead of them. Indeed, the titular creature doesn't even make its appearance until a good half-hour into the movie and more time passes before we discover the full extent of its abilities. Contrast that with the remake, which reveals the alien within the first ten minutes and blatantly spells out its shape shifting powers not long after that. With no mystery driving the narrative, the movie simply becomes a series monster attacks punctuated by an occasional quiet moment where the ever dwindling members of the human cast glumly stand around staring at each other. (It's hard not to feel sorry for Winstead and her co-stars Joel Edgerton and Oz's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje -- all talented performers given absolutely nothing of interest to do.) Some of these attacks are well-staged, but because we're not at all invested in the characters' survival, there's little tension or sense of danger to keep us on the edge of our seats. The practical creature effects from the original are also missed, replaced by more technically advanced, but somehow less convincing, digital sweetening. The only good thing I can think to say about the 2011 Thing is that it is ultimately so inconsequential, so instantly forgettable that after it shuffles in and out of theaters, we can all go back to talking exclusively about the Carpenter version and pretend like this one never existed.
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