THE FIGHT FOR ORIGINALITY
The rise in the number of movie sequels, remakes and adaptations makes us question if there is any ingenuity left in Hollywood. Here’s why they’re being done and what we think determines a good remake.
Hollywood has received flak for the recent overabundance of remakes, but just what do
they do for today’s viewers, anyway?
Last year was a surprisingly unoriginal one for Hollywood and the film industry. A deluge of remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations came our way, a phenomenon that owed its existence in good part to streaming giants Netflix, Hulu and the rest of their counterparts. Entertainment titan Disney played no small part in this as well, spitting out a steady stream of remakes that looks to continue well into the next few years unchecked, especially with the release of Mulan this month.
It’s a well-known sentiment by now. Like overeager proctologists, Hollywood studios seem to have had their hands deep into nostalgia’s rear in the past few years. Originality seems to be a critically endangered resource these days. Marvel and Lucasfilms’ purchase by Disney, an entertainment giant whose focus seems set on intellectual property expansion instead of original films, marks its seemingly relentless quest to remake all its classic animated films. Mulan is the latest remake, following The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and many others.
Besides Disney’s apparent quest to remake every classic movie it’s ever made, the sequels and adaptations coming from every other corner do nothing to dispel appearances of unoriginality. Sonic The Hedgehog, released recently, tapped into wells of nostalgia in millennials who played the video games starring the blue erinaceidae from Japanese company Sega in the nineties and noughties.
Mortal Kombat, slated for next year, is another upcoming flick similarly based on a long-lasting fighting video game series whose appeal lies solely in creative ways to graphically dismember and disembowel one’s enemies. Never mind that two Mortal Kombat movies were already made in the 90s, both laughably bad and campy overtures that were flayed by franchise fans and critics. Time has proven that film studios will never give up on trying to yank desperately hopeful nerds by their heartstrings. And their dangling entrails as well, in this case
FULL STREAM AHEAD
The rise of the television/streaming tide is arguably also to blame for the decreasing demand for original films. Stories that previously could only be told in one or two costly film ventures, or three at most, are now being expanded into television serials. The format is inherently suited to adaptations and expansions, making even less room for originality as studios scramble to adapt every IP they can.
Netflix and company are, to put it mildly, killing it. While many of its productions of movies and serials are embarrassments to the phrase “killing it” (Adam Sandler’s many excuses for big-budgeted hangouts with his friends come to mind), just as many are of a terrific quality previously only seen in cinemas. The December release of Netflix’s The Witcher, an adaptation of the famous Witcher Saga novels by Andrzej Sapkowski released in the 90s, was extremely well-received. Its viewers topped Disney’s Star Wars series The Mandalorian, which was released on streaming platform Disney+ only weeks before The Witcher.
Expanding on established intellectual property has become an extremely moneyed business. Star Wars, for example, is one of the most profitable intellectual properties in recent history, spinning off several movies expanding on the core saga, such as Solo and Rogue One. These standalone films, flanked by accompanying works in other media, are part of Disney’s new vision for a continuing series of stories set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
However, Star Wars’ success is possibly dwarfed by that of Marvel Studios’ superhero franchise. Its last major blockbuster, Endgame, which bookended a decade-spanning series of interlocking movies, became the highest-grossing film in all history. The studio releases a new movie every year, making even less space for new original movies.
All this only goes to show that studios are thinking less about making original movies for cinema as they are for television, lending credence to the argument that originality is a dying resource.
Cinema is ruled today by Disney and its cohorts who release new Marvel or Disney movies year after year, the bulk of which are sequels and adaptations. Original films do not rake in the dollars these movies do, and so are given less focus. These days, it seems that a movie with a wholly original script will need to be made by Jordan Peele, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and so on, to even remotely have a chance at rocking the boat.
Sequels and adaptations aside, remakes have been in the spotlight more lately, taking their fair share of criticism. A commonly heard refrain is that they are a new blight on the film industry. They are neither of the two things: new, or a blight – in the latter case, arguably not until lately.
The past few years have seen more remakes than at any other point in history, in a trend that even average moviegoers have started to notice. Mining for nostalgia, the film industry has seen the number of remakes, sequels and adaptations steadily increase by an incredible 700% in the past 25 years. 2018 alone saw 16 remakes. Novelist Stephen King is no stranger to this trend: last year’s Pet Sematary, a remake of the 1989 adaptation of his book, marks a renewed attempt to tap into King’s special brand of 80s horror, along with the It movies, the Carrie movies, and most famously, The Shining and its sequel, Doctor Sleep.
However, as new as the trend is, remakes are certainly not new.
Movie remakes have been around since 1914. Cecil B. DeMille, one of the greats of American cinema, remade his first film, The Squaw Man (1914), twice in 1918 and 1931. DeMille frequently remade his own films; the Academy Award-sweeping biblical epic, The Ten Commandments (1956), which famously starred Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, was a remake of his similarly-titled 1923 silent film.
WHAT GOOD ARE REMAKES, REALLY?
From a purely business perspective, remakes have been integral to the film industry for the past century, propping up and in some cases, revitalising the film industry whenever filmmakers’ originality flagged. From a purely creative perspective, though, the outlook is a good deal more iffy.
Take King Kong, for example. Considered one of the greatest films in history – deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the United States’ Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry – the 1933 monster movie has been remade three times.
The first remake in 1976 by John Guillermin was no bomb. The seventh-highest grossing film of that year, it won the Academy Award for best visual effects and was praised by various prominent critics and newspapers, notably The New York Times as a “dazzling display of what special-effects people can do when commissioned to construct a 40-foot-tall ape who can walk, make fondling gestures, and smiles a lot”.
Critics were less generous, however, with the direction and acting. “The original Kong took itself seriously; and so, even now, 43 years later, do we?” wrote Gene Siskel in his Chicago Tribune review. “But the kidding around in the new film, though frequently amusing, knocks down the myth its special effects staff has so earnestly tried to build.” Film historian Leonard Maltin was harsher in his take, saying the “addle-brained” film “dispels all the mythic and larger-thanlife qualities of the original with idiotic characters and campy approach”.
The general consensus, in other words, was that the movie really only served to retell the story with the most stunning special effects the technology of the time had to offer. It is a sentiment movie enthusiasts today should be very familiar with, considering how extensively computer-generated special effects are used in film today.
THE SPECTACLE OF SPECIAL EFFECTS
Action film director Michael Bay and his “Bayhem” brand of filmmaking is probably the best example of spectacle over substance. Described perfectly by Urban Dictionary as the “cinematic conceit of blowing sh*t up on a large scale, in slow motion and usually at sunset”, Bayhem took advantage of the past decade’s advances in CGI, seen most famously in the 2007 movie Transformers, an amazing (and soon after, oft-imitated) conglomeration of computer-generated transforming giant robots. The first movie was critically acclaimed as a milestone in film – and its sequels (and eventual remake) critically panned as frenetic,
robot brawl-laden affairs that placed explosions over substance, or even, indeed, the ability to be comprehended by thinking audiences.
Remakes, sequels and adaptations
have steadily increased by an incredible 700% in the past 25 years.
Spectacle over substance remains problematic. Director Peter Jackson was lambasted heavily for his 2012-2014 trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Despite a star-studded cast and Jackson’s achievements with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movie was lampooned for its overreliance on CGI and “video game-like” monsters. A far cry from his work with the preceding The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which paired spectacular practical effects with terrific acting and storytelling.
It’s also a far cry from his 2005 remake of King Kong, a CGI-heavy spectacle that introduced an extremely lifelike Kong to modern audiences. It was well-received, winning three Academy Awards that year, and was praised for its special effects, performances, sense of spectacle and comparison to the 1933 original.
And therein lies a question central to the debate: are remakes merely opportunistic cash-grabs by greedy film studios, or are they useful in reintroducing classic stories to young viewers today, making originality a necessary sacrifice?
On one hand, you have good remakes that add to and retell good stories. On the other, you have movies like the 2016 Ghostbusters remake; the movie replaced the cast with an all-female one that, though well-cast, was generally considered by critics to be a waste of talent on an unevenly-told and uninspired script. The reboot did so badly that Columbia Pictures abandoned plans for a sequel and decided to continue the original two movies with a third, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, to be released in July this year.
The 2015 Fantastic Four reboot of the first two movies, which were not entirely well-received themselves, was panned across the board, even winning awards for Worst Director, Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off or Sequel and Worst Picture at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
Remakes will always be necessary to cinema. They’ve been around since the beginning, and contrary to popular opinion, are constructive in reworking and retelling good stories for new audiences. The many remakes of classic stories such as Scrooge (seven remakes based on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol) and Seven Samurai (three, based on the 1954 epic by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa) prove you can skin a cat in enough ways to keep audiences’ curiosity satisfied.
We can’t deny that remakes have oversaturated the market in the past few years, what with Disney and its chokehold on the film industry. But then again, we’re equally to blame for how things are. On one hand, we moan about unoriginality and Emperor Mickey’s liberal application of the Galactic Empire’s playbook in his conquest of cinema. On the other hand, we throw our money at cinemas every time they announce yet another remake.
Maybe it’s time for us to just stop buying tickets to remakes, and force studios to have a good hard look at what audiences really want. Or maybe our new hope for originality lies with indie filmmakers and streaming companies. Maybe they can loosen Disney’s hold on the industry, and continue a now-increasing trend of original digital movies. And when we have exhausted our current reserves of creativity, remakes can return. It’s a pattern much like breathing. Perhaps it’s time to exhale.