Cashing In On The Eighties

If I’d known the ’80s were so great, I’d have paid more attention while I was living through them.
But they must have been because, for the past couple of years, Hollywood has been remaking and “rebooting” movies from the decade (as if the studios were out of ideas or something).

Oh. Right. Something has to fill in the gaps between big-budget sequels and movies of television shows and, lately, it has been new versions of movies from the Reagan era.

Today brings a new “Footloose,” which is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original (although no Kevin Bacon in a cameo cuts off an avenue for the famous “six degrees of” game). It’s just the latest in a long list of ’80s remakes that include “Clash of the Titans,” “The Karate Kid,” “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “The Thing.” A remake of “Red Dawn” was pushed to 2012 but is supposedly back on track.

It’s enough to make you break out your skinny ties and Ray-Bans.

So what gives? Why make new versions of movies that, in many cases, weren’t that great to begin with?

The smart answer is always … money.

There’s more to it than that, but money is always the tail wagging the dog when it comes to “artistic” decisions. And it makes sense. We tend toward the familiar, especially as we get older. When audience members of a certain age hear a title like “Footloose,” they are transported, if temporarily, to high-school or college days, when what seemed so complicated seems so simple now. Good times, in other words (and hey, maybe this new one isn’t so bad, maybe it’s worth checking out).
Thus, “The Karate Kid,” starring Will Smith’s son makes more than $176 million at the box office in the U.S. and nearly $360million worldwide. Not because it’s such a great movie (it’s not) but because it’s a familiar one, or at least vestiges of it are. Audiences can remember enough about the original to pique their interest, and there’s enough new to keep you engaged a second time around.

Nostalgia is, after all, one of the most powerful tools in the pop-culture closet. The Rolling Stones could wheeze their way through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” till they’re 90, and some fans would lap it up, cheering as if they were hearing it for the first time.


Because it reminds them of the first time. In some ways, remakes are like covers of greatest hits. You know the tunes, but the people playing and singing them are different. It’s enough to pull you in, and if they’re done well, they will offer something new you didn’t get with the originals.

But remakes are easier with music than with movies.

The list of ’80s remakes that are better than the original is short. “Footloose” is probably at the head of the list, in large part because director Craig Brewer has such an obvious love for the original, wisely retaining some of the iconic moments while updating the story.

But does that matter? For people who saw and loved the 1984 original, is Kenny Wormald re-creating Bacon’s angry dance in a warehouse enough to make you remember what you liked about the first one? Or can you enjoy it on its own? When well done, the answer is both.

Any remake is tricky because, ideally, you are reaching two audiences: one that remembers the original film and one that is coming to it for the first time. Too far either way and you stand to lose half the battle.

The 1980s were an interesting decade, one often disparaged as producing more schlock than anything else. But difficult economic times and a general national unrest helped lead to such great films as “Raging Bull,” “Blue Velvet,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Blade Runner” and “Do the Right Thing.”

You’ll note that no one has remade any of those. They’re less disposable, more timeless — better. They speak to their time, yes, but in a deeper way than something like “The Breakfast Club.” They’re not redone because no sane person would dare.
It’s true that a remake shows a certain lack of imagination. The best stories are told over and over — perhaps you’ve read “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” But ’80s remakes tend toward the more superficial.

A better idea than a remake is a film such as “Hot Tub Time Machine,” in which John Cusack and friends travel back in time to the 1980s, sending up all the cinematic cliches of the era while they’re at it. It satisfies the best parts of a remake while remaining original.

But as long as audiences keep buying tickets for remakes — those based on 1980s movies and otherwise — studios will never stop making them. It’s just something we’ll have to live with, as we are reminded of what we lived through before.
Fine. But whatever you do, please leave “Sixteen Candles” alone.

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