Are remakes going backwards?

By Joshua Price

Hollywood’s recent trend of churning out one remake after another is a big discussion within the industry right now. What does it mean for Hollywood to rely so heavily on existing brands in favour of any original content? It is a discussion that provokes high tempers and passions – no one wants to see their favourite film being ruthlessly commercialised.

One recent trend I have noticed within remakes is that they seem to be going backwards. I am not referring to innovation or technical abilities, CGI and bigger budgets mean that remakes will naturally be more advanced than their predecessors in this sense. What I am referring to is their social relevance.

I first noticed this with the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven (a remake of a remake – the 1960 version was a remake of the Japanese film The Seven Samurai). In terms of the plot, all three films are basically the same, a group of villagers hire seven cowboys/samurai to defend them against an army of bandits. But in its final moments, the 2016 version differs wildly on a thematic level. At the end of the first two films, the leader of the seven remarks that the warriors have paid a high price for their selflessness, having lost half of their numbers; despite winning the battle, the survivors must cope with being obsolete once the fight is over.

As Yul Brynner puts it in the 1960 version, before riding off into an unsure future, “We lost, we always lose”. The final moments are not about glorifying the western myth but deconstructing it, noting that their victory represents the end of an era. The 2016 version is almost the complete reversal, the leader states their sacrifice and bravery will make them legends. Not only does the movie refuse to acknowledge any notion that the cowboys are not the victors but it parades the myth of the west even more deeply. Despite the common impression that modern movies are more cynical than those of yesteryear, it is the original movie that takes a more pessimistic and complex view of a cultural icon – questioning the very fantasy it has drawn you into – while the latest remake celebrates the icon’s stereotype to its last breath. What does that say about us as an audience?

It goes beyond even that. This year saw Ben-Hur get the remake treatment and get almost universally panned by critics and audiences. The 2016 version lacked nuance, character development, atmosphere, appropriate pacing and homosexual undertones. Gore Vidal, the original screenwriter, added deliberate references to a homosexual relationship between two of the main characters.

Given the political climate of the time he could only allude to this but was still keen to include it as a key aspect of the film.

Surely, in the more accepting society of 2016, the remake could explicitly state this aspect? Sadly, no; the implications of homosexuality are removed. Maybe the studio considered the subject too controversial for the target audience? Should we be shocked that the 1958 film was more forward thinking in its progressive politics than the 2016 version?

While these are two specific and recent examples, they seem to represent a much larger issue with remakes and filmmaking in general – studios seem so hesitant to take a risk in any way, shape or form that they end up cutting quality. Paul Veerhoven was a director known for making genre films that held an undercurrent of dark social satire. Two of his films, Robocop and Total Recall, have already been remade and their ingenious social commentary replaced with generic plots and bland style. It’s unlikely the planned remake of Veerhoven’s other film, Starship Troopers, will be any different.

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The best remakes will always be those that attempt something different; from turning a classic noir film into a socially relevant gangster feature with Scarface, or turning a cheap science fiction B-picture into a masterclass of body horror with The Thing. A talented filmmaker should be able to take an existing story and improve upon it to make it relevant for the society that will be watching it. Right now Hollywood just seems interested in grabbing your attention (and your money) any way they can, even if the reaction is “They’re remaking that?” they have already succeeded.

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