Written by author, James Willetts
Film fans, and horror movie fans in particular, are well aware of how often remakes occur. From Psycho to Halloween the unnecessary retread and rehash is rife.
The sequel, reboot and remake has affected horror movies more than any other genre. Just last year ‘The Wolfman’, ‘The Crazies’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Survival of the Dead’, ‘Predators’, ‘Piranha 3D’, ‘Let Me In’, ‘Saw 3D’, ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’, ‘Paranormal Activity 2’ and ‘Mother’s Day’ all lurched onto screen. That’s 5 sequels and 5 remakes or reboots.
Why reboot these? In some cases it may just be that there’s a need for a fall back, a proven success that can be recycled and churned out again and again. This happens with anything; successful films become franchises, whether that makes sense or not. For some, the extraneous sequel can sometimes stand on its own. ‘Aliens’ is as good a movie as ‘Alien’, ‘Batman Returns’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ both improve on the previous instalments. But these are not remakes, they are sequels, and it’s much harder to think of remakes that have worked as successfully.
I guess the question I really want to ask is, is there any need for remakes, especially of classic monster movies? As far as I know, no one is clamouring for remakes of most B-Movies.
And when, for that matter does a reboot become something other than just a remake? What qualifies it to be more than just a sequel.
Let us start by trying to discern what’s what. A remake, as far as I can see, is a film that literally does what it says on the tin; an attempt to reproduce the same storyline in a new way. Adaptations are remakes, because they take an existing storyline and duplicate it in a new format.
A reboot meanwhile is more complicated. It’s an attempt to take a character and make a new story about it. Whilst it may contain similar themes or ideas to previous works it is different enough to not be a remake.
We can try and illustrate it with two examples, ‘King Kong’ (1933) and ‘Godzilla’ (1954). Two titanic monsters of cinema, both were great movies in their own right, both are now well regarded as cult classics, and both were followed by almost immediate sequels. ‘Son of Kong’ was made and released in 1933, the same year as ‘King Kong’, whilst ‘Godzilla Raids Again’ was released a year later than the original, in 1955.
These were just the first of a string of sequels and crossovers that saw Kong and Godzilla meet in battle against each other and a string of other creatures until finally both were rebooted and released onto a generation who ignored and mocked them.
Eventually they would culminate in two films that tried to reboot and remake the franchises.
Was there any need to do that though, surely they could just have made another film instead?
Do you brave the comparisons and try and make a different film, worthy enough on its own merits to survive. Or do you simply try to remake the classic. If you’re aware that you’ll be judged against it anyway, why not make the same film with updated effects and use the audience’s knowledge of the original in your favour?
In most cases there is no need. There are very few classic monsters in the vein of Kong. Or rather, there are tonnes, but few individually recognisable ones. Kong is simply a giant creature, of the kind popularised by ‘50s Cold War films. Giant Ants, Spiders, Sharks, Bats and Crocodiles are perennial favourites to menace small town America. In many of these cases their appeal is their lack of individuality, but it also serves to make them faceless and forgettable. A giant ant, a monster that looks the same as any other giant ant, is harder to tell apart than Hannibal Lector and Freddy Kruger.
It’s easier to make a film about giant ants than it is to make a film about a monster that looks identical to Freddy Krueger. Giant ants can look the same without immediately making you think of another film. Few creature-features have a single version that they are all compared to.
But there are exceptions. Every giant shark movie will be judged by the standard of ‘Jaws’. Every giant gorilla movie is judged against by ‘King Kong’.
It’s hardly surprising that the second option happens so often. It’s much easier. No need to think up a new story, or characters or imagery. Just steal wholesale from what went before. Remake it.
Sometime this is justifiable in that there has been a long enough period of time that you are bringing the film to a new audience, or updating it to make it relevant (or improve the dated special effects).
At some point though maybe it isn’t a case of just being able to tell the same story in a new way, maybe you need a new story. There’s only so much that technological advances can do.
In 2010 Hollywood remade the 2008 ‘Let The Right One In’ as ‘Let Me In’. Those two years didn’t herald a vast improvement in technology.
In fact, there was really only one reason to remake ‘Let The Right One In’, and that was the fact that it was originally a non-American film, in a foreign language that despite the buzz it got from horror fans was going to be overlooked by the vast majority of people simply because it had no recognisable names and required the “effort” of reading subtitles.
That and the fact that teen vampires stories are hot right now.
I actually have no problem with this. In fact, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to try and remake a film for a domestic audience that may be unaware of the original. If the majority of people have never seen, and would not want to see, a film because they are put off by it being from Europe, then remake it.
Note though that this relies on people not having seen it. Rebooting a franchise, or remaking a film, that is already popular for an audience that is already familiar with the original does not work.
Just ask Peter Jackson.
So, yes, I do think that sometimes films can benefit from a remake. King Kong would be a case in point. The 1933 original is brilliant. On every level it works, but is it possible to make a better version? Could an updated King Kong work? Is there room for new technology to tell it in a fresh way? Well, yes.
Don’t get me wrong, the model work on King Kong is wonderful. I love that film to death. One of my first dates was to a screening of it. That’s the kind of film that works for any audience.
But a reboot could work.
So why have the two reboots, the 1976 and 2005 attempts, failed so badly?
I think most disappointing is how poorly executed Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ was. In 2005 Peter Jackson was the hottest director in the world, with the funds, influence and technology to execute a film on his terms. Most importantly he had a love of King Kong, the film he credits as what got him into movies, which meant he wanted to stay true to the source material.
And yet what came out was a movie that ran nearly an hour too long, that dropped the ball on characters, motives and plot at every turn and which seemed more an exercise in wish fulfilment than a meaningful attempt at making King Kong relevant.
People have said a lot about the film, and I’m not going to try and add to that other than to say that King Kong was a film that genuinely could do with a decent reboot.
Is it possible that the real problem is that you can’t remake King Kong anymore, that it’s too iconic? After all, everyone already knows the plot and the ending. It must be tough to make that fresh without turning it into a film that isn’t King Kong.
The first rule of remakes is not to give an audience the same film they’ve seen before.
This means not remaking films for an audience that know the original very well. One of the big reasons Horror remakes fail so often is because your core audience (horror fans) have ALL seen the original. Horror films have such a niche audience anyway that remakes are trying to sell an audience that already knows the original. It’s always going to fail. The audience will either hate it for being different, see ‘Halloween’ (2007), ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ (2010), ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (2006), or hate it for being too similar see ‘Psycho’ (1998).
Where ‘King Kong’ fails is that for all the technical invention, all the added scenes and new and improved sequences there isn’t enough new and worthwhile in remaking it. It ultimately doesn’t do enough differently to justify its own existence.
American Godzilla does a lot differently.
Unfortunately, it’s terrible.
It’s a nice idea. Take a cult 50’s film that was big in Japan and remake it for a modern American audience. It’s got enough brand recognition that people will go see a reboot, without people having seen anything like it so recently that it’ll be something they’ve seen before.
The thing about ‘Gojira’ is that it’s SO Japanese. In the same way that ‘Akira’ makes almost no sense to a Western audience, so Godzilla is all about the Japanese psyche at the time.
In 1954 Japan was still recovering from World War Two. Their way of life, their very society had been rewritten by outside forces. They had fallen from the position of regional power to abject defeat, all symbolised in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So you have a combined sense of the terror of what the future holds, fear of the outside world and its power over Japan and horror at the effects of the nuclear age.
All of which were combined into an unstoppable atomic monster bent on destroying Tokyo.
None of which made it into the rebooted ‘Godzilla’ (1998).
In 1998 America isn’t afraid of nuclear power, or outside forces, or anything. So the remake ditches the subtext in favour of more action. We go from a monster movie about how Japan sees itself to a monster movie about … well, about a monster. There’s not much subtext there at all. It’s just 90 minutes of a monster rampaging around modern day America*.
Which is fine, it just isn’t a fitting remake. It’s been seen before. In fact, it had been seen in 1997 which is where Godzilla smacks into its greatest problem: it doesn’t want to be a remake of Godzilla. It wants to be a remake of the last 20 minutes of ‘Jurassic Park: The Lost World’.
The impact and influence of ‘Jurassic Park’ runs throughout Godzilla. From the T-Rex inspired redesign of Godzilla*, to the Velociraptor-lite baby ‘zillas.
It’s as though the people behind Godzilla couldn’t push past the success of the JP films. Rather than remake the original Godzilla, they decided to remake something simpler and more accessible. Everyone loves dinosaurs. So instead of making a monster movie, make a movie about a fire breathing dinosaur! Genius.
Or not, because what you end up with is just a mess. All those changes detract from a movie that never really discovers its own identity. It’s too keen on aping other (better) movies to decide what it wants to be.
Overall, we end up with a movie which doesn’t work as a remake (it doesn’t stick to the essential ingredients of plot or characterisation) or a reboot (it doesn’t take an existing character and do anything interesting with it).
It’s easy to forget but in 1998 expectation for Godzilla was running high (Armageddon, the blockbuster success of the year, even pre-emptively hit out at it’s perceived rival with the scene of the dog attacking a Godzilla toy in New York).
Somehow though it managed to pull a Batman Forever and kill the franchise for the next decade.
I think maybe the problem is simple. Remakes and reboots can work and should be attempted, but too often they are done for the wrong reasons for the wrong people. The Star Trek, Bond and Batman reboots worked because they took familiar characters and created a new, relevant situation for them. But crucially they were all franchise reboots. None were an attempt to tell the same story again.
King Kong and Godzilla failed because they took characters that, in the end, were never intended to be franchise starters. They were characters in self contained stories. You can’t tell a different story with King Kong. When they tried it with Godzilla, it failed.
Still, maybe the next one will be better…
*Something which ‘Cloverfield’ managed a lot better, in part because by 2008 America has something to fear. ‘Cloverfield’ is a film about ordinary people in New York being attacked by a monstrous version of Terrorism and Biological Warfare.
**Something that brings great sadness to me is how the astonishingly iconic design of the upright T-Rex has been replaced by the sleeker modern interpretation made fashionable by Jurassic Park. Watch any film with a Tyrannosaurus in from before 1995 and you will see its tail on the ground and a straight back. When JP went with the more modern interpretation it moved away from depictions in King Kong (1933), ‘Valley of Gwangi’, ‘The Land Before Time’ and every other film starring a T-Rex. With it went the design of Godzilla, as producers turned the atom powered ‘gorilla whale’ into a spiny dinosaur.