Total Recall: can remakes be better?

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Why are so many remakes made in Hollywood?

Lack of creativity is often blamed but perhaps a bigger factor is the name recognition advantage a remade TV or film automatically has. Nick Love has, after all, made several crime dramas. But do the names The Business or Outlaw resonate as much as The Sweeney? And why bother promoting a brand new supernatural comedy when most people already know Ghostbusters?

Remakes come in different shapes and sizes:

Remakes that attempt to follow the original exactly: This sounds like a flawless strategy. But as Gus Van Sant’s pointless 1999 remake of Psycho demonstrated, the results are at worst bad (Vince Vaughn going through his “serious” phase as Norman Bates??) at best, pointless. See also: Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

Remakes that are nothing like the original: The Italian Job (2003) really isn’t a bad film at all. But aside from minis, crime and Italy, it bears no resemblance to the original whatsoever. No comedy clifhangers, self preservation society, no bloody doors blown off. Nothing. But if the film hadn’t technically been a remake, I wouldn’t be discussing it now.

Remakes of non-English language films:  A bit silly, of course, as most people can read subtitles. However, with the exception of The Vanishing, the record here isn’t too bad. Let Me In (a remake of the recent Swedish vampire classic Let The Right One In) and David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were all very close to being as good as the original, if not as good. Even The Birdcage (La Cage aux Folles) was pretty decent. But people do get snobby about this sort of thing.

Remakes/sequels which attempt to improve upon a flawed original: Perhaps the best argument for remaking anything. Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was close to being a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk but with a different cast. The recent Dredd was also an improvement on the terrible Judge Dredd (1995) starring Sylvester Stallone. But none of these remakes were great either. And why the remake of The Amazing Spider Man (2012) so soon after Spider Man (2002)? Was the new film good? Yes. Did the new cast work well? Yes. Was there anything wrong with the original? No. this was a remake when a sequel would have worked just as well. Did we really need to see how Peter Parker became Spiderman again? I can see the argument for remaking the flaccid Superman Returns (2006)as Man of Steel though. Most people have forgotten it already.

Remakes that are so terrible they shame the memory of the original: Get Carter. Alfie. Fame. Shaft.  The Fog. The Stepford Wives. Poseidon. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween. Rollerball. The Ladykillers.  Straw Dogs. The Time Machine. Sadly this is by far the biggest category. Even when a good director attempts to put a new spin on a classic as with Neil La Bute’s The Wicker Man or Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the result is still often appalling.

Remakes which surpass the original: Yes, this does sometimes happen! True Grit, Ocean’s Eleven or Total Recall. The trick seems to be to try to remake something that wasn’t great in the first place. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) or John Carpenter’s The Thing are also solid examples.

Did Arnie really seem convincing as an ordinary construction worker at the start of Total Recall? No. Colin Farrell is less good with the catchy pay offs but much more convincing as a real man. And thank God there was no more of that “suffocating in the Martian atmosphere” bollocks. But yes, the original score was better.

Here are some films that are ripe for the remake treatment:

  1. Network (1976): A news network exploits one of its anchorman after he goes bonkers on air. By no means a bad film but flawed by an unnecessary voiceover. Could be redone well provided it doesn’t veer to close to comedy. Anchorman II is already being made after all. (Also: Broadcast News).
  2. Time After Time (1979): HG Wells travels in his own time machine to the present. No. it wasn’t very good in reality but the idea is a good one.
  3. Sleeper (1973): A man (Woody Allen) wakes up in the 22rd century after a spell in suspended animation. The original’s a hoot but who watches it now? It also introduced the Orgasmatron to the world.
  4. Barbarella (1968) Fairly pervy space opera with Jane Fonda. It could work. Jessica Alba? Kate Beckinsale? Anyone you fancy.
  5. Dune (1984). A truly great science fiction novel. Neither the David Lynch film or the TV series did it justice.
  6. Slaughterhouse Five (1972) Brilliant time travel novel. The film has not been watched by anyone since an old man watched it in 1995. He died shortly afterwards. So it goes.
  7. Duel (1971) Spielberg’s lorry themed debut.
  8. The Day of the Triffids: Neither TV or film have served John Wyndham’s classic plant takeover sci-fi well.
  9. Westworld (1973) Robots go berserk in a theme park. As parodied on The Simpsons.
  10. Village of the Damned (1960). Alien children take over a village. This John Wyndham classic (yes, I like him!) The Midwich Cuckoos has already been remade by John Carpenter. Badly. As revenge, Carpenter has since seen two terrible remakes of his own early works (Halloween, The Fog).
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