Film remakes: Stop me if you've seen it all
Hollywood has a long history of cannibalising itself. But, James Mottram wonders, have recent remakes tended to be even more pointless than before?
Friday 31 July 2009
Much in the way a mosquito likes to feed on our blood, Hollywood thrives on remakes. From this week's The Taking of Pelham 123 to the forthcoming Fame in September and the in-production Clash of the Titans that is due next Spring, studios are shameless when it comes to sucking the life out of cinema's beloved classics.
Some, like John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair, manage to breath new life into an otherwise dated film. Most, like McTiernan's Rollerball, simply ignore what was good about the film you fell in love with and churn out a travesty.
There is a particular category of remake, however, that really rankles: the pointless "oh why did they bother?" sort. The first that springs to mind must be Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot retread of Alfred Hitchcock's classic chiller Psycho. In lurid Technicolor, lest we forget. Yes, it had the wonderful William H Macy as the detective – but rarely has a film so embodied the word "pointless". Van Sant may well be known for his experimental works, such as Elephant and Gerry, but this was an exercise in futility.
While it's tempting to wonder what Hitch would have made of this, one has to remember that even he wasn't above remakes – at least of his own work. Two decades after shooting 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, he needlessly returned to it, casting James Stewart and Doris Day as the couple who become embroiled in an international assassination scam. While he later claimed that he considered the original the work of a talented amateur, and felt the 1956 version the work of a professional, he was in a small minority.
If Hitchcock's second effort didn't improve the original, the "pointless" factor is nothing compared to when the Austrian auteur Michael Haneke remade his own harrowing home invasion tale Funny Games in the US. With the dialogue now in English, aside from giving multiplex audiences the chance to watch Tim Roth and Naomi Watts brutalised in the name of entertainment, the film was another shot-for-shot effort that served absolutely no purpose. Those who'd seen the 1997 original doubtless had no desire to revisit Haneke's bleak vision, while those who hadn't would hardly benefit from watching this glossy retread.
Still far more putrid than Haneke's efforts was Tim Burton's so-called "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes. The original 1968 film, starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut who crash-lands in a future world ruled by Simians, had already spawned several sequels – but Burton's 2001 film took the biscuit. If we move swiftly over the wooden acting of Mark Wahlberg in the Heston role, or the plain silliness of Helena Bonham Carter in ape make-up, we come to the "twist" ending. It's here that Hollywood is often most guilty – tinkering with a gilt-edged denouement purely for the sake of it.
Just as Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 123 has the temerity to trifle with that film's clever pay-off, so Burton's film provided a finale that he later admitted he didn't understand. The original, of course, sees Heston realise that he's still on Earth when he sees the half-sunken Statue of Liberty. In Burton-land, Wahlberg is catapulted back in time to a Washington DC run by apes, with an Abraham Lincoln-like monument erected to his ape-nemesis from the future, General Thade. Answers on a postcard if you can explain the logic behind that.
Like sci-fi, horror is also ripe for remaking. The Last House on the Left (1972), The Omen (1976), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978) Halloween (1978), The Amityville Horror (1979) and Friday the 13th (1980) have been repackaged for today's teen market. But the film responsible for kicking off this slew of retreads was the most pointless of all – the 2003 take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Based on Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic about a family of killers, the film dumped the terrifying documentary-style aesthetic in favour of high-gloss horror, thus missing the key point of the original.
Not content with plundering their own back-catalogues, studio executives also turn their attention to foreign film. Asian cinema is seen as fair game, not least because most subtitle-phobic American audiences will not have seen the originals. The odd success aside – such as Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed, a riff on Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs – the bulk of these get lost in translation.
Still, none was more pointless than Roland Emmerich's 1998 effort, Godzilla. If the monster seen in 1954's Gojira was a reaction to Japan's terror at living through the atomic age, this lame attempt at transposing the action to modern-day New York was about as scary as finding a spider in the bath.
Hollywood is not above raping British classics either – especially those which starred Michael Caine. The Italian Job (1969), Sleuth (1972), Alfie (1966), Get Carter (1971): pretty much every Caine classic has been given a worthless spit-and-polish. (One waits with baited breath for a reworking of Jaws IV: The Revenge). Of course, it helps if you have the blessing of the original star and Caine is not above appearing in remakes of his own film. Lured by a juicy paycheck, he turned up in the 2000 version of Get Carter, presumably to watch in horror while Sylvester Stallone massacred the role of vengeful gangster Jack Carter. In the case of the 2007 Sleuth remake, it was to take the role originally played by Laurence Olivier. The film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, paired him with Jude Law, who paid tribute to Caine (if butchering a classic role can be called thus) when he replayed his playboy in 2004's Alfie. If that wasn't painful enough, Harold Pinter was drafted in to tack on a new act to Anthony Shaffer's original screenplay.
Like all of the below, it proved just one thing: that the very worst remakes always ignore the old maxim, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Strewth, more like. This is Jude Law's second attempt to reprise a Michael Caine role. Five years ago, he starred in a pathetic remake of Alfie; now he's doing a variation on a character Caine played in Sleuth. He is unwatchable.
Did the Devil make them do it? It's hard to know why else anyone bothered to remake this schlocky 1976 horror. Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles take over from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the surrogate parents to Satan's son
"I was dreading Funny Games. I watched Michael Haneke's German-language film when it came out, and it took about 10 years to get over it. Haneke remade the film, shot for shot, in English, and shifted the setting to the US."
Jude Law has spoken of his misgivings about taking on a part so closely identified with Michael Caine. He was right to feel nervous. The way each delivers the line 'Know what I mean?' illustrates a gulf in class, in both senses
Planet of the Apes
The most widely publicised story surrounding this remake's production concerned the cast going to "ape school" to learn simian behaviour. But the question nags: Did they send the screenwriters to ape school, too?
So was Gus Van Sant's (almost) shot-for-shot colour remake of Hitchcock's 'Psycho' really the bold experiment the director claimed at the time, or just a cynical bid by Universal to score a much-needed hit?
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