Moviegoers today act like naked Kate Winslet in Titanic, coyly demanding Leonardo DiCaprio to draw her like a French girl. A preternatural relationship has been forged between audience and studio. A production falls all over itself to seduce a fandom, because that’s where the blindly loyal dollars are. If a popular intellectual property is even slightly altered for a motion picture adaptation, it’s headline news, even above mass murder and election-year chicanery.
The movie industry has become such an intellectual wasteland that the 80s era of numerical sequel-mania looks dignified by comparison. Honest promotion and word-of-mouth don’t work anymore; attention span is dead. The only way to really sell a remake is to get people steamed. Take the things viewers loved about an original film, and subvert them. Serves the suckers right anyway, for falling in love with a fictional universe. The names P.T. Barnum and J.J. Abrams aren’t similar for nothing.
The urge to learn and become wise about strange places exists in all of us, and when we can’t explore the real world on our own terms, we turn to fiction. We soothe our need for escape with books and movies. Then, inevitably, a company exploits that need, for money, by selling us their version of our story. It hurts in a way that feels shameful, and we quietly move on to something else. The earth is salted. This happens so often now it could be its own genre.
A few years ago, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes studio remade both A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, to universal shrugs. But the point of these releases wasn’t to advance the respective franchises; these were placeholders. Intellectual entities like these are difficult to secure as trademarks due to their loose nature. It wouldn’t be hard for any bunch of punks to make their own Jason or Freddy movie. Now that the concepts are re-established, there is legal ground to fight that sort of expression. Rob Zombie did his thing with Michael Myers and Halloween, producing the same result. This is the general reason remakes are greenlit; franchise establishment.
And thanks to the soulless, corporate profit motive of the industry, we get reboots that are dead right out of the gate.
LOST IN SPACE (1998)
BELOVED FOR: A neat-o robot, adorable Angela Cartwright and Billy Mumy, mincing creep Dr. Smith, the fun of 60s space travel fantasy
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Dr. Smith is an actual creep played by Gary Oldman, Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham have sculpted breast-cups on their spacesuits, the robot is awful, as is Joey from Friends. The “fun” of 90s space travel, plus the worst CGI creature in the history of film, and poor Lacey Chabert has to care about it. (Note: her character predicts vlogging well before it was an everyday thing. Credit where due.)
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $69,117,629 Domestic Total Gross ($80m budget), 27% RottenTomatoes
I saw this lump of crap in the theater, and I clearly remember the merchandise clogging up toy store aisles well into 2000. I don’t think anyone involved was aware of the television show, or why it was popular, and the entire film is a slog. Not even Mimi Rogers’ salad-bowl breasts can raise it above misery.
GODZILLA (1998, 2014)
BELOVED FOR: Godzilla, destruction of miniature cities, a colorful supporting cast of giant monsters and screaming people
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: (1998) The cast of The Simpsons in extraneous roles, a Godzilla so off-model it had to be renamed “Zilla”, cringe-inducing caricatures of Siskel & Ebert, thanks to bitter schlock director Roland (Independence Day) Emmerich
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: (2014) More screen time for Bryan (Breaking Bad) Cranston, fine-tuning to compete with Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, which were pale imitations of Godzilla in the first place
BOX OFFICE RESULT: (1998) $136,314,294 Domestic Total Gross ($130m budget), 16% RottenTomatoes, (2014) $200,676,069 Domestic Total Gross ($160m budget), 74% RottenTomatoes
The more recent Godzilla was apparently successful enough to warrant an upcoming sequel. Personally, I think it’s being set up so the studio can cement the “Godzilla-Kong universe”. Upcoming Godzilla movies will be more akin to Transformers entries. Mark my words. This franchise cannot be borne on the backs of puny humans, no matter how hot their cable series may be.
DUKES OF HAZZARD (2005)
BELOVED FOR: Confederate flags and hayseeds from before they were politically co-opted, Catherine Bach in denim cutoffs, Waylon Jennings as the Balladeer, Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg, Enos and Flash, UK-YUK-YOOK-YOOK HOT PURSUIT, YEE-HAW OH THEM DUKE BOYS, never meanin’ no harm.
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Professional assholes Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott as the abrasive Dukes, Charmless blow-up doll Jessica Simpson inserted as “Daisy Duke” (with Foghorn Leghorn accent), Willie Nelson admittedly well-cast as Uncle Jessie, Burt Reynolds cashes a check as Boss Hogg
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $80,270,227 Domestic Total Gross ($50m budget), 13% RottenTomatoes
This ort was directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, of the Broken Lizard comedy team. He was the driver for the “Terror Taxi” prank in Jackass 2 (one of the best ever lensed), and he directed Beerfest, which I consider Broken Lizard’s finest. I guarantee that the creative freedom enjoyed by the makers of Jackass and Super Troopers came at a price, in the form of studio contracts for doggerel that wouldn’t get made otherwise. The Ringer, Grand Theft Parsons, Dukes of Hazzard. You can see ten years ago as the point where the wave broke, and everyone started to wise up.
Heard from Jessica Simpson lately? See what happens when a company sells a person like a product?
BELOVED FOR: A perfect cast, a relatable script courtesy of John Hughes (when he gave a shit), the anarchic imprimatur of the once-venerable National Lampoon masthead, immortal cameos from John Candy, Imogene Coca and Eddie Bracken
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: No humor based on racial or social differences, a great cast wasted, an obligatory Chris Hemsworth appearance for women and gays, jokes based in “homosexual panic” and gratuitous bodily fluids, weird episodes of profanity that can be cleanly edited out for television, no “National Lampoon” heading (meaning no overall focus to the humor, other than following in the original’s footsteps)
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $58,884,188 Domestic Total Gross ($31m budget), 27% RottenTomatoes
You can’t make a movie about a vacationing family and poke fun at different types of Americans anymore. All you can do is put a generic group of people through a gauntlet of unrealistically zany characters. Vacation is another recent movie where Charlie Day shows up as a one-dimensional version of his role in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The humor is rooted in staged embarrassment, which rarely works; it can’t compete with YouTube “vines”. Everything audiences loved about the original Vacation is considered “triggering” now, and studios don’t want to be responsible when some mousy millennial faints in the theater. That’s why even with this terrific cast, they couldn’t make a funny Vacation.
TRON: LEGACY (2010)
BELOVED FOR: An aesthetically splendid depiction of life inside computers, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time (Wendy Carlos), production design that still intrigues and engrosses 30+ years later, the iconic “lightcycles”, discs and “Recognizers”, the 80s dream team of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan and David Warner (Barnard Hughes too)
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: A lifeless, plodding score from Daft Punk (to match their obligatory cameo), Hi-Def where there should be diffusion, lightcycles that go in all directions, a cast duller than Boxleitner was as a program, a convoluted and needless backstory, no memorable innovation or dramatic tension, simulation over imagination, programs with heads of flowing hair
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $172,062,763 Domestic Total Gross ($170m budget), 51% RottenTomatoes
In 1982, you could sell a movie where the cast wears glowing helmets for most of the running time. Why would microscopic electrical impulses inside a computer have hair, anyway? In 2010, your lead actor’s agent sends you an angry text reading DON’T COVER THE HAIR. And you capitulate, because it’s not worth sinking the entire project over the demands of a snotty kid who’ll be a nobody in five years. Maybe this non-creative person has a point, after all; won’t everyone look the same with helmets on? Better to err on the side of caution, than deal with a stack of confused comment cards from test audiences.
Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to TRON is too gorgeous for words. I’ve held on to a vinyl copy of it for thirty years, even though I haven’t had a turntable to play it on in twenty. Carlos utilizes Moog synthesizers and the London Philharmonic Orchestra to create music that elevates a silly sci-fi trifle to high art. The sound effects are of equal caliber, melding successfully with the visuals to create an alien atmosphere. This was once the unspoken goal of science-fiction movies; to build a unbelievable place so well, the viewers believe it. TRON pulled this off, shaky acting and all.
I think the Daft Punk guys cut the TRON: Legacy soundtrack in a weekend on ProTools.
JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS (2015)
BELOVED FOR: Pastel colors and truly outrageous fashion, competing girl bands and innocent romance, special earrings and secret intrigue (plus holograms)
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Removal of everything that made the original distinctive (including its charm), a director that embodies the Fanboy-With-Harmful-Good-Intentions (he optimistically announced a Jem movie crossover with G.I. Joe and Transformers)
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $2,184,640 Domestic Total Gross ($5m budget), 19% RottenTomatoes
I felt the Jem fans’ pain on this one. It would be one thing if they made a faithful movie and failed. But when you get it so wrong, you can’t expect anyone to come to your defense.
BELOVED FOR: Over-the-top ultraviolence, memorable villains like Kurtwood Smith and Ray Wise, a nuanced portrayal of a reluctant cyborg from Peter Weller, a satirical and humorous script, I’D BUY THAT FOR A DOLLAR, blood and gore by the bucketful
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Blood is digitally rendered/deleted for a PG-13 rating, Joel Kinnaman doing a smashing job in an awesome suit when no one seems to care, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson in a scenery-gnashing contest for most of the runtime
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $58,607,007 Domestic Total Gross ($100m budget), 49% RottenTomatoes
Kinnaman’s RoboCop is a symbol of the Rebort. The heart of the franchise, crippled by malevolent forces, and made into a puppet to be shoved aside for the expensive actors. More disappointing than the film itself, was witnessing the amount of effort Kinnaman expended in and for it. His RoboCop deserved a better movie.
FANTASTIC FOUR (2005, 2o15)
BELOVED FOR: Early power fantasies with familial overtones and conflicts, a symbol of sportsmanlike teamwork, innocent comic-book melodrama
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Familiar characters are arbitrarily changed by race, blond blue-eyed Sue Storm is always played by non-blonds with brown eyes, relationships are randomly changed, and the core dynamic of the group is an afterthought (see also Spiderman, variously parsed and on its way to its third reboot)
BOX OFFICE RESULT: (2005) $154,696,080 Domestic Total Gross ($100m budget), 27% RottenTomatoes (2015) $56,117,548 Domestic Total Gross ($120m budget), 9% RottenTomatoes
The 2015 Fantastic Four reboot was so toxic it destroyed Josh Trank’s career. After the actually-fantastic Chronicle, he seemed like a sure bet; he was on track to direct an upcoming Star Wars whateverthefuck. All it took was a crack at Fantastic Four, the subject of three unsuccessful adaptations in as many decades. It can’t be done. Society has reversed polarity from 1963. Teamwork doesn’t sell a concept anymore. This is why a Voltron reboot never got off the ground.
BELOVED FOR: The indomitable comedy foursome of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranes. Plus Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Annie Potts, who is permanently cute as a button. An Elmer Bernstein score behind the ubiquitous Ray Parker Jr. single, that spectrally evokes supernatural spookiness. Marshmallow fluff madness. NICE SHOOTIN’, TEX!
ADJUSTMENTS MADE: Our old friends, the ones still working or alive, have been relegated to cameo roles to make way for four women you won’t recognize. Okay, maybe you’ll recognize Kristen Wiig, but I doubt it, based on the blank stares I get when I bring her appearances in Extract and The Joe Schmo Show up in conversation. Hopefully, for the sake of the project, she was given time to build chemistry with her co-stars that equals the 1984 original (and its 1989 sequel). Otherwise this upcoming marketing tentpole will be stillborn in the womb.
BOX OFFICE RESULT: $65.10 million ($154 million budget), “75%” RottenTomatoes (Sony has a history of pressuring/influencing reviewers, see 2014’s debacle centered around the now-forgotten The Interview), 5.1 IMDb score (out of 10)
The only thing that makes the 1980s Ghostbusters films defensible from an adult perspective is that the cast treats it like a bunch of silly shit, for the most part. They were New Yorkers; they disbelieve something until it injures them, or their property. You can’t really make fun of a movie that successfully does so itself.
The new Ghostbusters has women in the lead roles, because they make an easier scapegoat for failure than a bad script or a shopworn concept. You can charge sexism with no evidence, creating an imaginary effigy to blame your losses upon. It’s not that the cast has no chemistry together, or that the idea was all wrong; it’s because Ghostbusters fans are sexist. Always blame something nebulous and unaccountable. “Roll with the punches”? That’s for boxers. Boxing’s still a sport, right? For men?
God forbid anything is, huh?