Why Do So Many Film Remakes Fail Anyway?

robocopPhoto: Courtesy Orion Pictures.
No, seriously, we're asking. And, we're not talking about reboots, reinterpretations, English versions of foreign films, or fresh adaptations of existing source material here. Casino Royale, Batman Begins, Eddie Murphy's Doctor Dolittle, His Girl Friday, The Departed, the Coen brothers' True Grit, The Birdcage, and the like aren't, strictly speaking, remakes. Love Affair, Jackson's King Kong, Psycho (1998), and, yes, this week's new, shiny RoboCop, those are remakes. That is to say, these films are inspired not so much by fresh ideas, but updated cinematic techniques and, of course, money — which is fine, nothing wrong with that. But, as we ask again, could any of them ever be, you know, good?
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The short answer is, yeah, pretty much. Scorsese's Cape Fear, Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead, and, even Lindsay Lohan's The Parent Trap are all faithful to their originals and, in some ways, surpass them. McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair, Herzog's Nosferatu, Cronenberg's The Fly, and, hell, even the new Ocean's 11 all acquit themselves to one extent or another, some becoming classics themselves.
The question is how do you separate, say, Gus Van Sant's unengaging Psycho from Scorsese's Cape Fear? What makes a good remake good and a bad remake bad? Well, we've got the answers right on the next page!
robocop_2015-wallpaper-800x600Photo: Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Columbia Pictures.
A lot of planets have to align to make a remake good. A lot of planets. First of all, the target film can't be something with an appeal that's more a function of its time than a result of filmmaking. Take the new version of RoboCop. The original was a sly, bloody take on Regan-era heroism and its inherent cynical nature. Americans were being asked, by the prevailing political winds, to be golden-era heroes in a time when the President was cutting the support system out from under the entire country. Moreover, the conversation had shifted from the nobility of the little guy to a celebration of the corporation. In this, RoboCop was a hero of his time — essentially a villain of business in a post-moral society where the division between the good and the evil was simply money and the little guy. Officer Murphy had been cut up, canned, removed of spirit, and sold off for parts. The fact that the movie itself was amoral made it very much a document of the late 80s.
The modern version, as good as it is, is somewhat more conflicted and human — and suffers for it. RoboCop is, again, a puppet of an amoral corporation, but he's self-aware from the start and the movie itself has a moral core. In this, it is a comment on our times, not a document of them, and, in such, fails to do what the original did.
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The Straw Dogs remake, too, fails in this way. What was once a story about the slow death of ruralism and a comment on how the past haunts the present became, well, just another horror film.
There must be a reason for the remake. Take Warren Beatty's Love Affair versus the classic An Affair To Remember. Perhaps if this were a sci-fi flick, there would have been a reason to employ modern technology to recreate it. Perhaps if the Beatty film introduced a new dynamic between the male and female characters, it would have updated the touching plotline for a new generation. Neither happened, and it became basically a vanity project for Beatty and his partner Annette Benning — their attempt to write themselves into existing Hollywood history. It was awful.
Finally, there must be a great love affair between the maker of the new film and the spirit (but not the actuality) of his or her source material. Scorsese has long talked about Hitchcock, and his Cape Fear is really a meeting of the minds. The younger director paid respect to the older by finding what was terrifying about the original and recasting it through his own lens. Gus Van Sant clearly had the same thing in mind when he remade Psycho. His take, however, was to remake the movie shot for shot and assume that the terror would simply arrive through adherence to the structure of the original. What we got was an exercise in filmmaking rather than a film, boring and forgettable.
So, the answer is simple — to execute a good remake, discover what touched you about the original, whether it was its quality or its schlockiness, and then let that feeling run wild through your mind. Let it lead you rather than leading it to a, "fresh, new take." Trust the original filmmaker and, more importantly, yourself, and you'll be golden.
This being the case, you don't need to go to the movies this weekend to see the best remake of RoboCop. There's another one that's free online right below. Our RoboCop Remake, a DIY crowdsourced project, is as wild and amoral as the original and says more about the prevailing self-referential hollowness of modern life than anything could. Just be warned: It may also be the most filthy, disturbing thing you ever see.
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