Thursday, June 4, 2009

Remakes, Remakes, Remakes-and Nevermakes?

According to io9, the 1986 film Short Circuit may be getting the remake treatment, just one of a long list of genre films, classic and not-so-classic, slated for such handling, ranging from Forbidden Planet to Dune, from Barbarella to Total Recall, from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to Plan 9 From Outer Space.

I toyed for a while with the idea of providing a full list here, but the task quickly came to seem too staggering and depressing to be worth the time. Many of these films were just fine the first time, and even many of the ones that weren't hardly justify a do-over. And still others just couldn't be done in today's Hollywood (as with 1968's Barbarella, though I have to admit Robert Rodriguez is as promising a choice as exists among Hollywood's Big Names for this project-which is more than I can say for the choice of Peter Berg to direct the Dune remake).

Still, in case you're interested, here is a link to the list you get when you put the word "remake" in the search box at the io9 site-an act which turns up no fewer than 450 hits.


One might wonder why Hollywood keeps at it when much of the audience responds to the first word about most remakes, reboots, spin-offs and all the rest with groans that prove only too justified after the films hit theaters (after which the executives often groan when they see the lousy receipts).

It's no mystery, and off the top of my head I can think of three reasons.

First and foremost, one successful attempt "inspires" massive imitation until the disappointments pile so high as to block that path-as now seems to have happened with the epic fantasy genre that derived so much steam from J.K. Rowling and Peter Jackson at the start of the decade. (By disappointment I of course mean commercial disappointment, and the truth is that budgets have got so out of contol in the unbelievably wasteful assembly lines of Hollywood that a film can still be judged such after pulling in three, four or five hundred million dollars globally.)

Right now the success of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot threw a lot of fuel on that fire, which will likely help keep it burning through the many flops that surely lie ahead.

The second is that remakes, reboots and the rest are inherently "high concept," high concept meaning, essentially, that the marketing is simple, that an audience can be excited with a very, very brief explanation.

Transformers-the Movie is a perfect example, not because I am picking on it (I'm not), but because those three words are enough to give you the gist of it, and clearly were enough (along with the great-looking effects and action in the commercial) to get a large number of people to buy tickets.

The third is control. As the late Thomas Disch pointed out in his brutally honest take on science fiction’s past and prospects, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of:
Writers tend to consider distinction and originality as virtues, but they are anathema to publishers, who value those writers most who can be depended on to turn out . . . product that will move through the channels of circulation at a dependable, steady rate.
Disch was talking about publishing, not film, but what he said about it carries over to that part of the media business as well (which is all one anyway these days, thanks to the wonders of semi-monopolization and synergy).

When the game's turned around so that companies already own all the ideas they need (assignable to some established, or at least well-connected, scribe), as opposed to having brand new ideas brought in by aspiring filmmakers, they get more control over the process. Besides, when they already own all the ideas they can use, they don't have to deal with all the people trying to break in, usually regarded as anathema by such types.

I expect things will get worse rather than better in this regard for the foreseeable future, across the media spectrum, but those who'd like to wonder a bit at what might be rather than what is, here's a list of "7 'unfilmable' sci-fi books—and the filmmakers who could adapt them" from Sci-Fi Wire.

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