Why We Can Look Forward to Remakes of ’90s Blockbusters Like ‘Stargate’ and ‘Cliffhanger’

By  · Published on May 30th, 2014

Lions Gate Home Entertainment

We are getting thick into the era when Hollywood remakes a lot of ’90s movies. We already saw Total Recall and Dredd, and in the news lately are developments on the next versions of Point Break, Cliffhanger and now Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, the latest to be officially announced. In a way, Godzilla counts, though it’s a redo of a movie from the ’50s more than the previous American take on the monster (also directed by Emmerich). And I’d maybe also include Atom Egoyan’s The Devil’s Knot, which is basically a dramatic redo of the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills. That’s not a Hollywood movie, though, and the original wasn’t either.

One thing I realized recently is that I saw a lot fewer blockbusters in the ’90s versus the ’80s. I never saw the 1998 Godzilla. I never saw Cliffhanger. And I didn’t see Point Break in the theater or at a time close to when it came out. Mostly this can be attributed to the fact that I was getting older. For much of the decade I was busy with high school or broke in college (oh, the irony of being in film school and only being able to see one new movie in the theater my freshman year). Also, my dad moved away in 1990, and he’d been the parent who took us to the multiplex every weekend. But I don’t believe it’s necessarily these personal reasons that have me less concerned about remakes of ’90s movies than I’d been with ’80s titles. I think it’s more that especially blockbusters of the ’90s weren’t very good the first time around.

Of course, I can’t speak for some of these movies, as I already admitted that I didn’t see them all. Still, there is a good amount I just didn’t bother with because they looked awful. But one I did see is Stargate, and what a disappointing mess that turned out to be. The sci-fi flick promised something smart in its Egyptological inspiration and general interest in the idea that ancient civilizations worshipped aliens as gods, plus a lot of great action and special effects. It should have been a perfect blend of what its leads represented – James Spader as the brain and Kurt Russell as the brawn – and it was potentially the beginning of another huge franchise, a la Star Wars and Star Trek. It did spawn sequels and TV series, and those have a loyal fanbase, but the property wasn’t the big deal I expected, nor that I’m sure MGM was hoping for.

Surely some of you will disagree and defend the merits of the original Stargate. Maybe I should give it a second chance after 20 years? It’s not like I ought to be any more interested in the reboot, which will also be helmed by Emmerich, who isn’t any better a director now than he was in 1994. It also likely won’t be an actual redo of the plot of the first movie, as Emmerich states he “cannot wait to get going on imagining new adventures and situations for the trilogy.” There is certainly a lot of room for great ideas with the Stargate concept, though, and while I’d rather see what some fresh, young director would do with the brand if it’s going to be brought back, I can’t help but be curious about the reboot. As far as how I remember the original, I can’t see the new one being much worse.

Obviously I have less stake in ’90s movies because I didn’t experience them at an impressionable time in my life. People 10 years younger than I am probably have a nostalgic love for a lot of that decade’s big movies, but there’s no denying that the ’90s weren’t a time for blockbusters the way the ’80s were. The top action heroes were experiencing diminished box office returns, too many of the major tentpoles were sequels of ’80s hits, a lot of them driving their franchises into the ground. Meanwhile a slew of hits came in the form of the latest disaster movie trend, and that genre isn’t typically, for logic sake, franchise material – nor really original and distinct enough to be considered divine property. Only a few genuine classics came out of the blockbuster gate that decade, and some of those are being recycled in their own way with more installments of Jurassic Park and Independence Day (Emmerich again) in the works. Then there’s Titanic, which was sort of already a remake anyway.

Instead the ’90s were the time for the indie film explosion. Our fondness for movies of that decade is more concentrated on stuff like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and works by other new or increasingly relevant voices like the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus van Sant, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Whit Stillman and even Egoyan, among numerous others. Other lasting favorites were out of Hollywood but with that same auteurist sensibility. It’s no coincidence that the most popular ’80s movies in the IMDb top 50 are blockbusters (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future) while those from the ’90s are primarily non-blockbusters including The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction, with The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgment Day being exceptions.

Anything else considered sacred among the big ’90s movies is similarly going to have some authorial significance, particularly if the director came out of the indie or foreign film circuit like Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and Starship Troopers, which is on the remake block, and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, as well as the Wachowskis with The Matrix. Maybe also John Woo’s Face/Off or Michael Bay’s The Rock, neither of which would make sense being made by anyone else. An oddball might be Speed, which is a movie that has some classic-ness attributed to it, yet it’s also debatable whether anyone would care about it being redone. Otherwise, anything else by Jan De Bont should be fair game. Same goes for Emmerich, Renny Harlin (director of Cliffhanger), Stephen Sommers and Andrew Davis.

There aren’t a whole lot of ’90s blockbusters that could be remade that shouldn’t. It was the era of so many huge and often risky tentpole disappointments like Hudson Hawk, Waterworld, The Postman, Super Mario Bros., Spawn, Last Action Hero, Eraser, Congo, Dragonheart, Conspiracy Theory, Wild Wild West and bad installments of Batman, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Star Wars and Alien. If you’re lucky, you also skipped some of them back then and can look forward to their being done right in the future.

That’s how I feel about Cliffhanger and plenty of other blockbusters I didn’t see then or saw and disliked that will surely be redone later, unless they have too much of a bad stench associated with the brand that Hollywood wouldn’t even bother. Perhaps I’m just looking at the bright side because we’ve had a good ratio of favored remakes of ’90s movies so far, including Dredd and Godzilla and I’d count the Nolan Batman trilogy (and like everyone else I’ll go ahead and prematurely stamp the Star Wars sequels and spin-offs as being an improvement on The Phantom Menace), compared to the one that wound up worse – Total Recall. We’ll see if my mind is changed as that ratio changes with each remake’s release.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.