Seeing as we’re pretty deep into the golden age of remakes at this point, it should probably come as no surprise that we’ve got a handful of big movies that have already been big movies readying themselves for release in the near future. That Hollywood currently loves remakes is clear, but what’s also becoming clear is that the way we respond to them is a little bit complicated and a little bit hypocritical. Announce that a movie a lot of people love is getting remade and the response is almost always an outcry of outrage and disgust. Actually release the same movie in theaters and enough of those outraged, disgusted people still go to see it anyway, which keeps the remake train rolling.
A couple of trailers for high profile remakes that got released today shine a light on the fact that our response to all of these remakes has been a little bit more nuanced and a little bit more complicated than an initial abhorrence and then an eventual acceptance though. A new trailer for director José Padilha’s RoboCop has been released, which shows it to be a legit attempt to update the material from Paul Verhoeven’s original, yet it has been met online with almost universal contempt. On the other side of the coin, a new trailer for Spike Lee’s Oldboy has also been released, and even though it seems to be a pretty straight and unnecessary retelling of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, movie fans have welcomed it with a reaction that isn’t nearly as negative as the one they’ve given RoboCop, and one that probably could even be described as reserved anticipation.
First up, let’s take a look at the new RoboCop trailer, which starts off with Samuel L. Jackson giving a ridiculous speech that more than a little bit resembles fascist propaganda, and then goes on to showcase all of the expensive effects work that’s gone into creating the film’s large scale action scenarios.
Compare that with the trailer for the 1987 version of RoboCop below, and you can see that there are more than a few changes in focus and tone that have been made during the remaking process, making Padilha’s film a different animal than what has come before it. And as for the difference in effects—well, all RoboCop used to be able to do was use his metal arms to throw people through windows.
Now, as a means of comparison, check out the new green band trailer for Lee’s Oldboy, which focuses mainly on selling the movie on the merits of its intriguing story, which looks to be all but identical to the story told by the trailer for Park’s film that immediately follows.
Why is it that a remake that seems to be trying to freshen a story up like RoboCop has been met with so much fan resistance, but a remake that seems to be much more of a tread over familiar ground like Oldboy is being positively anticipated? Much of it definitely has to do with the fact that Lee is a director who has a lot of fans and who brings a certain pedigree to the table, while Padilha is a bit more of an unknown element, but there might be another part of it that has to do with what remakes are and what response in us they’re trying to create.
When you see a film that’s completely new to you, it’s much more of an intellectual pursuit than when you see a sequel, or especially a remake. You’re trying to fully digest the story, to comprehend all of its ins and outs, and then to assess the positives and negatives you see in it. Comparatively, going to see a movie where you’re already familiar with the characters and the situations is much more of an emotional experience that affects us on much more of an animal level. With a remake a filmmaker is exploiting our affections to create nostalgia, and even though there’s a bit of initial resentment that they’re playing around with something we love, all they really need to do is hit the broad strokes of what we responded to in the original work in order to give us that little rush of dopamine that we’re always seeking when we go to the movies.
What do we say it is that we like so much about Verhoeven’s take on RoboCop? Largely it’s the satirical elements of the film, and the way it was able to create a future world that was a dark reflection of the one we were living in at the time. Really, how much of RoboCop was a satire though? It shone a spotlight on the increasing power that corporations were being given in our society, it pretty broadly made a case that our increasing over-reliance on technology would eventually strip us of our humanity. These certainly aren’t observations that were unique to Robocop though, and the satire bringing them to light wasn’t anything that didn’t get better realized elsewhere. No, the real reason we love RoboCop is how gory it was.
The scene where the protagonist gets gunned down on his way to becoming RoboCop was brutal, and it was something that got seared into a whole generation of young people who probably shouldn’t have been watching its memories. Similarly, Park’s Oldboy took the graphic, splattery violence of a revenge film to a place that a lot of American audiences had never seen it go before, and a lot of us have very fond memories of how hard the third act of that film hit us as a result. When you watch the trailers for these new films, it’s very clear that Padilha’s big budget studio film isn’t going to come anywhere close to recreating the gritty violence of its predecessor, but Lee’s art film approach seems like it could definitely get close to recreating Park’s work, and that appeals to us in the animal parts of our brains that simply want to relive the emotions we experienced when we first watched something we ended up loving.
Padilha’s RoboCop seems to be putting a lot of its focus on satirizing drone warfare, and skewering the United States’ increasingly imperialist view of the rest of the world, but since it wasn’t really the satire of the original Robocop that we loved, updating the satire to better reflect our current society doesn’t appeal to us all that much. In fact, the very act of changing things up works in direct opposition to all of the guilty pleasure that comes from the familiarity that keeps us buying tickets to movies we’ve already seen.
This is a big reason why remakes of foreign films tend to get better reactions from audiences than remakes of Hollywood films that were big successes from the past. A remake of something like RoboCop takes something familiar and comforting to us and perverts it by introducing new faces that we’re not familiar with and changing up the beats of the action sequences to make them better reflect the current state of special effects. A remake of something like Oldboy does just the opposite. It takes ideas that we were initially intrigued by and it makes them even more easily digested by packaging them alongside the friendly faces of Hollywood actors who we are intimately familiar with and by setting them in locations that better reflect our day to day realities. Suddenly you can enjoy the subversiveness of something like Oldboy without having to learn any of those crazy foreign names and without being distracted by the fact that people in other cultures eat octopus. It’s the best of both worlds.
Of course, none of this is to say that the new RoboCop is going to be a better movie than the new Oldboy. Watching the two trailers in a vacuum where nothing else had come before them would probably lead to me being more excited to see the latter. But that same vacuum would also probably lead to RoboCop looking like a bunch of dumb fun that might surprise us and end up being awesome, and not a thing that threatens to confuse the warm and fuzzy feelings the original gives us that we want to cling to. Having negative feelings about too many old movies being remade is fine—it’s even a valid position to take—but it’s probably about time we start being more honest with ourselves about why we always end up going to see them anyway, and it’s probably about time we stop complaining so loudly whenever a new one gets advertised. Here we are vilifying the remake that seems to be doing something new and accepting the one that seems to be doing the same thing over. How much do we really crave originality?
That said, the best thing that could happen here is that both movies end up being different enough from their counterparts to be their own thing, and both end up being awesome in their own way. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope we get wowed.