The Curse of the Remake

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas changed big budget cinema forever in the 1970s, it was in the proceeding decade that the blockbuster was successfully packaged and replicated by others.

And, even though Hollywood’s output in the 1980s was patchy, it overall gave film fans, young and old, a taste for high concept family entertainment. However, after some notable successes in the 1990s, such as Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997), studios seemed to lose their nerve when it came to delivering big budget bonanzas.

Subsequently, fans have been fed a constant regurgitation of films from those glory days, in the form of prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots. If none of those words mean anything to you, then you evidently haven’t been going to the cinema for the last 10-years.

This lack of imagination on the part of the studios is exemplified by the career of John Carpenter.

After single handedly re-inventing the horror genre with minimalist slasher classic Halloween (1978), and effortlessly adapting high concept b-movie material to the screen, Carpenter was eventually cast aside when studio fortitude dried up.

But, now with budgets reaching unthinkable proportions – the average blockbuster now costs between $150-250-million – studios are unashamedly plundering Carpenter’s back catalogue. Indeed, because of the director’s love of horror and fantasy, his resume now seems like a veritable gold mine for studios stricken with short-termism.

The latest Carpenter remake in development is Escape From New York (1981) which is being produced by blockbuster kingpin Joel Silver, in partnership with Studio Canal. Deadline have reported that the film will follow the same franchise format as Rise Of The Planet of the Apes, starting with an origins story.

This re-imagining of a Carpenter film follows remakes of Halloween and The Fog, and also a prequel to The Thing. And, while these films of course lack the bite that made the originals great, their very existence only serves to remind us just how good the glory days were.

Although, Carpenter has to take some credit for his own demise. As his success grew rapidly, so to did the budgets and the concepts of his movies, meaning by the mid-1980s he had climbed out of the safety of art-house cinema, and into the increasingly ruthless world of mainstream Hollywood.

Interestingly, Carpenter had previously ignored studio overtures to develop sequels to his raft of horror hits. However, in 1986 he released Big Trouble In Little China, with which he intended to create a franchise around Kurt Russell’s character Jack Burton. Unfortunately, with a budget of $25-million, his biggest at that time, the film was crushed by the box-office juggernaut that was James Cameron’s Aliens.

That failure was the beginning of the end of John Carpenter’s big time career. After retreating back into cult films in the latter half of the 1980s, Carpenter has awarded a sizeable $40-million by Warner Bros. to adapt Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992). The film was a critical and commercial disaster.

Carpenter later claimed that he was not allowed full artistic control and that “(the studio) is in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies.”

This statement perfectly illustrates why the landscape of mainstream cinema has changed so much. With budgets rising year on year, so to are the stakes. Quite simply true auteurs are finding it harder and harder to operate within the studio system.

Even fantastic filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan are forced to create blockbusters around unoriginal subject matter, such as Batman, which will probably be remade and rebooted long after he is retired. Nolan’s excellent Inception (2010) is undoubtedly a very rare exception to the rule.

Although, the Dark Knight franchise does prove that truly great blockbusters can be created within the groundhog day style cycle that Hollywood now finds itself trapped.

Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, who is playing the title role in the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s classic Robocop (1988), offered up some wisdom on the subject while talking to Collider last year.

He said: “If we weren’t doing remakes, nobody would know who Shakespeare was. I’m not saying that RoboCop is Shakespeare, but that’s what we do as human beings. We retell our favourite stories. That’s what we’ve done since we were sitting around campfires. It’s a part of the human spirit. It doesn’t have to be negative to creativity.

“That’s how you can break new ground, by rethinking something that’s already been done.”

While this form of acceptance is understandable, smart even, the fact is big budget cinema was not always like this. The truth is most artists are not clever operators like Spielberg or James Cameron, and for that reason they cannot be trusted handling 21st Century mega budgets.

As a result, in the last 20-years, mainstream cinema has moved away from the filmmaker and into the hands of money orientated, toy manufacturing studios.