Is Hollywood's mania for remakes spinning out of control?
“Everything old is new again,” the expression goes, but in pop culture these days, it seems more fitting to say everything new is old again. This weekend is an apt example: Paramount Pictures opened “Footloose,” a remake of the cheesy 1984 dance movie, and it’s battling for the box-office crown against “The Thing,” a new version of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film from Universal Studios.
I guess it was inevitable that we’d have a weekend where both of the big new releases were remakes. (Next week brings another: “The Three Musketeers.”) Whether you’re writing about Hollywood, pop music, TV or theater, the prefix “re” gets a serious workout on your keypad, since every other new project seems to be a remake, reboot, revival, reissue, relaunch, reunion, restaging, reimagining or reenactment.
In the past couple of years on the movie side, we’ve had all sorts of remakes and retellings, including “Straw Dogs,” “The Karate Kid,” “True Grit,” “The A-Team,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Arthur,” “Robin Hood” and “Tangled.” Oh, and let’s not forget the forgettable “Tron: Legacy.” TV is loaded with much of the same, including new versions of “Hawaii Five-0,” “The Prisoner” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Pop music is crammed with cover songs and remixes — after all, nearly everything you hear on “American Idol” is a cover of an old hit. In the past couple of weeks, it’s been hard to avoid ads for the 20th-anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
So when I sat down the other day with Matthijs Van Heijningen, the 43-year-old director of “The Thing,” I spent most of our lunch bugging him about remakes. Born and raised in Holland, where he has been a successful commercial director for the past 15 years, Van Heijningen spent his teen years gorging himself on Kafka novels and groundbreaking American movies, notably “The Godfather” series, “Blade Runner,” “The Exorcist” and “Jaws.” At 17, he said, he sneaked into Carpenter's “The Thing” (itself a remake) and was impressed, being a Kafka fan, by what he calls “its nihilism and sense of doom.”
The movie resonated with him so much that when Van Heijningen was looking to make his feature debut here, he found himself eager to revisit the film. The whole mania for remakes tends to revolve around commercial motives — it’s usually easier to sell something that is familiar to audiences — so it’s hardly a surprise to discover that there was an element of careerism in Van Heijningen’s decision to pursue the film.
“It is slightly strategical to do something that’s familiar,” he told me. “But I thought I could give the movie some of my own flavor as a filmmaker. It’s a lot like making a commercial. There’s already a story, created to sell a product. So as a director, you just have to find a way to express your own ideas inside of that framework.”
Van Heijningen suspects that today’s remake mania is rooted in the concentration of power on the corporate side of the studio system. “In the ’70s, no one was really told what to do. Artists were free, whether it was Polanski making ‘Chinatown’ or David Bowie going into a studio and coming out with ‘Ziggy Stardust’ a month later. If art is controlled too much by commerce, like it is now, it’s going to always go the safe way, which is to redo what has been done before.”
Van Heijningen has a shrewd grasp of showbiz history. In the 1970s, with the studio system in a state of collapse, a generation of New Hollywood filmmakers seized power, inspiring a decade of auteur-driven artistry. But by the 1990s, Hollywood was once again firmly in the grasp of media behemoths. Intent on bringing order and sustainability to their often-chaotic studio subsidiaries, they began systematically developing the kind of film franchises and remakes that were easily marketable and offered predictable profit potential.
But remakes are not by definition pure philistinism, even though it would be hard to convince someone of that after they’d just walked out of “Arthur.” After all, the Coen brothers breathed a bounty of magical new life into “True Grit.”
If anyone is tempting fate with a nervy remake, it’s Mandate Pictures chief Nathan Kahane, who has hired Spike Lee to direct a remake of “Oldboy,” a cult favorite South Korean thriller. “If we were simply using the title as a marketing hook, it might earn us about $17 at the box office,” he says. “You have to look at the karmic origins of a project to see if there’s a real reason for reinterpretation or if the movie is just inspired by commercial intent.” He adds with a laugh: “There’s definitely no brand value in ‘Oldboy,’ since most of the true fans are furious with us for doing a remake anyway.”
Still, it’s especially unsettling how quickly pop culture is regurgitated. Sony is rebooting “Spider-Man” just five years after the last sequel to the last version of the series was made.
Why are we so culturally backward-looking today, especially when our technology — our iPhones, iPads and computer graphics — leaps forward at such a dizzying pace? If anyone has a good theory about this deceleration of pop culture, it’s Simon Reynolds, whose recent book, “Retromania,” is about how pop music has gone from being an exploratory art to a form of cultural archaeology.
He argues that retro has become a structural feature of pop culture, acting as an inevitable down phase to an earlier manic burst of creativity. Though he’s speaking in terms of music, many critics might apply that logic to film or TV as well. “Like a boom-time economy, the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it sets itself up for the musical-cultural equivalent of recession: retro,” Reynolds writes. “The sheer creativity of its surge years (the sixties, seventies and parts of the eighties) inevitably made it increasingly irresistible to be re-creative.”
But today’s retromania is also tied to the way young consumers experience pop culture. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with my parents’ music or movies. I needed to carve out my own cultural identity. Today’s kids, thanks to the easy access to Netflix and YouTube, make far less of a distinction between what is old and what is new. With a century of culture just a click away on any computer, young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.
The real innovators today are techo-visionaries like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, which is why when you see hundreds of fans spending the night standing in line somewhere, it’s more likely that they’re waiting for a new Apple product than Arcade Fire tickets.
Will the pendulum swing back? “All great art has come out of darkness — look at the Renaissance,” says Van Heijningen. “So maybe we must go through something really horrific before we’ll have the impulse to create something really bold and new.” Maybe he’s right. But for now, most filmmakers are wary of demanding too much of audiences that seem far more comfortable reliving the past than peering into the future.
Photo: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "The Thing." Credit: Kerry Hayes/Universal Pictures