Remakes: We hate them, until we don’t.
“Why can’t Hollywood do something new?” is a moviegoer refrain as familiar as “Why did the trailer spoil the best parts?” I’ve repeated it myself. And even if filmmakers insist, as actor Armie Hammer did of Netflix’s flaccid “Rebecca” last week, that their projects are not remakes, it doesn’t take a cinephile to know a “new” movie that repurposes an old one with the same title, characters, setting and source material is, indeed, a remake. Or that it probably won’t match the original.
There are some exceptions, though — unicorns that are exciting because they’re so rare.
“Dawn of the Dead” in 2004 springs to mind. You hope every movie is going to be good, but as I walked into the Mall of America theaters for a preview, I’m sure I was thinking, “Why would gifted Sarah Polley act in a retread? Who is this Zack Snyder, who has never made a film? Why Xerox a George Romero horror classic that’s only 26 years old?”
All whines were erased in “Dawn” 2.0, which upends our skepticism with a spectacular opening. A surprising benefit of remaking a good movie is that low expectations are built in. We are prepared to be disappointed, so when we’re not, the movie seems even better.
It can go the other way, too. Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” was an intriguing exercise that should be studied in film classes and not seen by anyone else, ever, because it added nothing to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
The results are mixed when directors revisit their own work. Hitchcock did it with his 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which has bigger stars, a snappier pace and the same climax as his 1934 version. Michael Haneke’s 2007 “Funny Games” is almost identical to his 1997 Austrian film about a family beset by psychos, but he had better actors the second time, including Naomi Watts, and he used his experience to craft a sharper movie.
Neither version of Ole Bornedal’s “Nightwatch” is well known, but the English-language remake with Ewan McGregor as a morgue guard whose occupational hazards include the undead is almost as good as the 1994 Danish original. Hans Petter Moland was less successful, turning his witty, violent “In Order of Disappearance” into a particular-set-of-skills Liam Neeson movie with the generic title “Cold Pursuit.”
The main thing a remake can bring to a movie is time. Like a cliché that becomes fresh when it’s turned on its head, a new spin on an old idea feels original. This year’s tense “The Invisible Man” spotlighted a new form of invisibility with its protagonist, a victim of spousal abuse (Elisabeth Moss). “The Thing” amped it up with state-of-the-art special effects no one dreamed of when the source, “The Thing From Another World,” was released in 1955.
When Philip Kaufman remade “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” after Watergate, he connected that era’s paranoia to the Cold War suspicion that spawned the 1956 one. It may be the sturdiest movie property of all time — the 1994 and 2007 versions are also good, each addressing new aspects of the primal story of what happens when we’re not sure the people we love are the people we love.
A solid story is key to a good remake, as is a storyteller with a point of view. Actually, those things are important in any movie, and if it’s true that there are really only a handful of stories to tell, then maybe every movie is a remake? And maybe the key to a good remake is just to be a good movie, period.
The story of zombie-attack survivors (including Polley and Ving Rhames) who hole up in a shopping mall is faithful to the Romero original, but from the first mauling to the heart-stopping final credits, it is riveting.
Simultaneously elegant and gross, this “Invasion” is terrifying (“It gets you while you sleep” we’re told of the creature who assumes human form). The next year’s “Alien” was informed by this gem, which has a top-notch cast: Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy.
Reading Charles Portis’ hilarious novel gave me even more affection for Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation, which captures the peculiar tone and language of the book in a way the 1969 version didn’t attempt. John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the original was great, but the remake (a term the Coens also rejected) is superior.
There’s really no comparison between this sleek, effervescent caper and the impenetrable Rat Pack crap on which it’s based. Director Steven Soderbergh chose an unbeatable cast and then let us in on the fun George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Elliot Gould and others had.
Its predecessor, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” was good, but Warren Beatty’s warm romcom improves it. Beatty nails the wistfulness of a quarterback who dies, only to discover an incompetent angel took him 47 years before his time. The tender relationship between real-life former loves Beatty and Julie Christie is a thing of beauty, and supporting players Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston and Buck Henry are sidesplitting.
The 1967 original’s enormous cast and five directors goofed around and we didn’t get to have any fun, except listening to Herb Alpert’s banger of a theme song. But the snappy remake smoothly introduced Daniel Craig as a new James Bond, sped it up and dialed back the leering tone by slipping Bond into swim trunks that made him as much of a sex object as his Bond “girls.” (And the late Chris Cornell’s theme is another banger.)
Like “Cold Pursuit,” this one is based on a Scandinavian thriller that starred Stellan Skarsgård. Al Pacino leads Christopher Nolan’s atmospheric thriller, which captures the dislocation of Alaska’s endless daylight in the tale of a groggy detective, investigating a murder, who may be a villain as well as the hero.