The Paradoxical Message Hollywood Sends When It Remakes a Movie

By  · Published on August 19th, 2015

We’ve come to view film remakes as cash grabs, occasions for studios to utilize properties already in their grasp and exploit nostalgic memory to ease the challenge of advertising new ideas. The most recent results haven’t done much to dissuade us of that context – this year we’ve seen a new Poltergeist, you can judge for yourself whether you view Vacation and Fantastic Four as remakes or reboots, and the Point Break trailer is hilarious bro-surdity. Who knows. Maybe it’ll turn out to be amazing, but the bar isn’t very high. In spite of a handful of winners, remakes generally live up to low expectations. The same goes for forthcoming attempts at IT, The Craft, Jumanji and any number of titles that producers are struggling to bring back to life.

Studios didn’t make that many remakes for 2015 – especially in comparison to the rich, vast history of Hollywood copying itself – so it’s curious why they’ve chosen to make what they’re making. What propels something like Poltergeist out of development and into reality while other projects remain in purgatory? Why did we get RoboCop in 2014? If nostalgia’s power is genuinely fueling the movement, what about getting a new version of The Gambler last year? Why are we getting an American remake of Martyrs, the niche, French horror film with (awesome) content that has zero chance of appealing to a general audience?

Nostalgia is just a door-opener. Not to toe the old line about “waiting for the right story/script,” but nostalgia is the grease, not the wheels. It’s the most obvious attractive element on a person who doesn’t necessarily have a personality. Not as if that keeps it from going home with someone at the end of the night.

The paradox at the heart of initiating a project based on earlier popularity is that it requires a studio to try to build on old momentum while dismissing all the elements that caused it in the first place. That’s why you end up with a rehash of Vacation during an era when Americans are taking fewer vacation days. When the concept of a family road trip is less like a personal reality and more like a throwback fiction for other people. When it might be sad and funny that someone sees Vacation instead of going on one.

The message that studios send when they make that kind of film is that it doesn’t matter why a movie was popular, only that it was. It seeks to utilize the product of zeitgeist while dismissing the zeitgeist itself. Trying to push a dodecahedral peg into a tetrahedral hole.

The typical response is to modernize or Americanize a story that’s being remade, but the track record also suggests that this concept is as nebulous as it sounds. If the core fear being explored and amplified in Poltergeist stems from white flight and the expansion of “safe” suburbs, what has to happen in order to modernize it? Nothing less than removing the foundation from why the horror greatly worked in the early 1980s. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of remaking the story at all? The very thing that made the original work becomes set dressing in the remake. On the flip side, you also have a set of modern fears that go unaddressed in the art.

The trickier part is that, even if you can tap into something that resonates with a modern audience by using old wineskins, you still have to make a good movie that doesn’t feel so repetitive that it renders itself a meaningless copy.

The counter-argument to all of this is that a movie doesn’t necessarily need to tap into some underlying cultural feeling in order to be a success. It’s also arguable that studios care less and less about tapping into something specific when trying to earn large numbers in a global market, comprised of a billion different perspectives.

It’s probably unlikely that Vacation failed to impress more people because fewer Americans are going on family road trip vacations anymore, and you can’t seriously claim they didn’t modernize it by stuffing it into the Hangover Comedy Mold, so maybe it’s okay for studios to dismiss the very nostalgia they rely on because success and failure can’t necessarily hinge on it. But it feels like it should. If you’re offering us something familiar specifically because it’s familiar, you should discover a way to make it relevant to our current mindset.

Maybe remakes are inherently doomed to a natural dimming that occurs when you xerox an idea, but some of the best remakes have achieved greatness because they were able to tap into something that runs deep. Scarface and The Thing are probably the most famous examples, and while it would be reductive to think of their cultural resonance as the sole reason for their success, it was certainly a factor in their endurance. They were excellent films, but also excellent explorations of coke-fueled greed and a Cold War fear of your neighbor that were at home in their own time. Subtext can make a good film great, and its absence can shine a powerful spotlight on a decent film’s inadequacies. It’s an element too often forgotten in modern remakes.

I think its importance is reflected by our first reaction to hearing about a new remake in development: why this film, why now? Or maybe that’s the second, after the groans.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.