Original concept? Sorry, we'll pass
As multiplexes fill with an avalanche of remakes and sequels, attendance is headed to its lowest level since 1996.
By Patrick Goldstein, Times Staff Writer
Imagine a 23rd century historian, lounging in a cozy oxygenated yurt on the third moon of Jupiter, puzzling over one of the great enigmas of the early 21st century: Why in a time of so much dazzling technological innovation, from the iPod to the cellphone camera, were so many gifted filmmakers retreating into the past, devoting their time to remaking flimsy old TV shows and movies?
If you wanted to see something "new and original" this past weekend — and I can't stress the use of those quotes enough — here's what the studios had to offer. You could see "Herbie: Fully Loaded," a Disney remake of the 1969 comedy "The Love Bug." You could see "Bewitched," the Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman-starring remake of the popular 1960s TV show. Or you could see "George Romero's Land of the Dead," the fourth installment in Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" series.
And, boy, is there more to come. Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" arrives this week. On July 15 comes Tim Burton's reworking of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," followed closely by a remake of "The Bad News Bears" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."
It's impossible to pick up Variety without discovering a new remake heading for the runway. Since early May, the following remakes have been announced: "All of Me," "The Heartbreak Kid," "Adventures in Babysitting," "Day of the Dead," "Porky's" and "Swiss Family Robinson," plus two TV shows, "Underdog" and "The Persuaders."
Is it any wonder this avalanche of retreads has come at a time when theater attendance is headed toward its lowest level since 1996? Young moviegoers, who make up the bulk of film audiences, crave surprise, sensation and authenticity. So if the multiplexes are full of homogenized pop baubles, why wouldn't more people than ever be happy to stay home and fire up a DVD on their new plasma-screen TV?
The problem with remakes is that, for the most part, they are made by committee, ensuring that daring or subversive material rarely makes it onto the screen. When Scott Frank was hired to write the remake of 20th Century Fox's "Flight of the Phoenix," he took the story in a dark, character-driven direction. But the studio balked. "They said that kind of film wasn't salable," he explains. "They saw it as an action film about guys being attacked by Bedouins." Of course, the more "salable" version flopped anyway. If a movie ends up with a squishy-soft center, which seems to be the dominant aesthetic of Hollywood remakes — don't offend anyone, guys! We're making disposable entertainment here! — then why would anyone feel a pressing need to rush out and brave the crowds on opening weekend?
"You'd think it would be a given that you'd want to go to a theater and be surprised," says Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern. "But the studios are frightened by newness. And, more scarily, audiences seem to feel the same way. Most of the remakes are so ponderous and overblown that the foundations of the original film can't carry the weight. You don't walk out singing the theme song, you hear the studio's notes — make it louder, make it faster, let us hear the woofer's woof."
It's unfair to simply blame the studios for this impasse. Many of today's movie revivals are being directed by gifted filmmakers who presumably have the clout to avoid being dragooned into refurbishing a musty movie gathering dust in the studio vaults. Peter Jackson has a new remake of "King Kong" coming this Christmas. Michael Mann is remaking "Miami Vice," his old TV series. Before "Chocolate Factory," Burton remade "Planet of the Apes." Steven Soderbergh did "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequel, "Ocean's Twelve." Bryan Singer, after doing a sequel to "X-Men," is now directing "Superman Returns." Jonathan Demme did "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Truth About Charlie," a reworking of "Charade."
Trust me, I could go on — and on. It's the curse of our time. Civilization has miraculously survived into the 21st century only to expend most of its creative energy reliving the past. Hollywood is hardly the only corner of our culture infected with the remake virus. Broadway has been living off of revivals of old shows for years. Every time I turn on the TV there's another installment of "CSI" or "Law & Order." Pop music is overrun by "American Idol"-style covers of old hits while Alanis Morissette is remaking "Jagged Little Pill." Even the Gap is running ads with Joss Stone wailing "The Right Time," a hit nearly 30 years before she was born.
Have we really run out of fresh ideas? Or do we simply live in an era of cultural re-entrenchment, in which audiences prefer to be soothed rather than stimulated, tickled with feathers of familiarity instead of being challenged with unsettling visions? After all, the reason studios are scared stiff about making serious dramas today is because audiences have refused to go see them. To hear the studio chiefs tell it, remakes are a way to actually make films about subjects they care about.
"We're not doing this cynically," says Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Amy Pascal, who's made "Bewitched" and "Charlie's Angels," with a remake of "Fun With Dick and Jane" due this fall. "Remakes are the best kind of genre film. They allow you to say something without people feeling they're being hit over the head with a message. The core idea within 'Bewitched' is that love and magic are the same thing. It's a great way to tell a love story in a sly, witty way."
Disney production chief Nina Jacobson heartily embraces the studio's remakes of "The Parent Trap," "Freaky Friday" and "Herbie." When I asked why she made the films, she quipped: "It's a very scientific process. They're all the movies I loved as a child." It scarcely matters that the originals were hardly cinematic classics. "I'd be hard-pressed to even tell you who the original filmmakers were," she says. "But the films each have a great idea that could be approached in a contemporary way."
Jacobson believes that critics — and people like me — are being unfairly snooty about remakes. "There's a certain snobbery about what's an appropriate source for a movie idea," she says. "It's fine if it's a book, but not if it's a movie. It's fine if it's a comic book, but not if it's a theme park ride. Everyone scoffed when we made 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' yet it turned out great. The crime is in making a bad movie — that's where you go to jail. There's nothing criminal in searching for the seeds of a good idea wherever you can find it."
Fair enough. If I were compiling my 100 favorite films, there would be plenty of remakes, from Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" to Don Siegel's "The Killers" to Brian De Palma's "Scarface." Alfred Hitchcock and Hawks remade their own movies all the time — in fact, Hawks remade "Rio Bravo" twice. But Hitchcock and Hawks' remakes came after decades of exploring original material. Today, too many gifted young filmmakers are recycling material right from the start.
Robert Rodriguez, for example, made "Desperado," his first sequel to "El Mariachi," when he was 27. Since then, he's made a third installment in that series as well as three entries in his "Spy Kids" series. His latest film, "Sin City," was such a numbingly faithful re-creation of Frank Miller's graphic novel series that it felt like a remake, not an original film.
Too often, today's remakes are a convenient means to plug a brand name into the studio's movie calendar, the entire process working backward from a coveted summer release date. Right now, Warner Bros. is cobbling together "The Poseidon Adventure," which is considered such a valuable remake asset that it already has a release date — May 5, 2006 — even though it hasn't started filming. So far the studio has thrown at least seven writers into the breach, ranging from big-shots like Akiva Goldsman and Paul Attanasio to hot newcomers like D.B. Weiss and Mark Protosevich. To make its release schedule, the studio plans to have director Wolfgang Petersen filming practically 24 hours a day in Mexico, with a second-unit crew shooting at night while the main production unit handles the daytime hours.
Hey, are they making a movie or building a Blue Line tunnel to LAX? Not every movie can be an artistic triumph, but moviegoers deserve better. They're already beginning to demand it. CNN did an online poll Friday, asking what movie people were most likely to see over the weekend. The new films "Herbie," "Bewitched" and "Land of the Dead" received 27% of the vote. The landslide winner, with 73%, was "None, I'd rather rent a DVD of something good."
Isn't it wonderful when a business has so many satisfied customers?