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Should studios continue bringing back the '80s?

June 14, 2010 |  7:00 am

Dr

If this movie-going summer was to yield nothing else, it was at least bring us this: clarity about Hollywood's investment in reviving the 1980s.

And no weekend would throw more light on that question than this one, with its unlikely coincidence of two major '80s properties hitting the screen at the same time. All we needed to feel more like we were back in Reaganville were Billy Joel and Madonna solving a Rubik's Cube while "Knight Rider" and "The Cosby Show" played in the background.

And yet as the weekend wound down, we were left with little clarity at all. The verdict was as split as opinions on "Twin Peaks" -- one movie, "The Karate Kid," overachieved at the box office, and the other, "The A-Team," sputtered behind it ($30 million behind it).

That would seem to give no indication of anything, except for maybe Hollywood's go-to trope: The movie has to deliver, regardless of its era of origin. Conceived under the hand of could-his-stock-drop-any-faster Joe Carnahan, "The A-Team" was a fusillade of nonsensical noise, and audiences saw right through it. On the other hand, "The Karate Kid," while hardly representing a breakthrough in cinematic accomplishment (or a narrative or emotional triumph over the original), did what Hollywood arguably does best: produce a competent entertainment that offers few surprises but succeeds completely as a crowd-pleaser.

That all would seem to suggest little about what we can expect from future remakes, or yield any guidance about how much Hollywood should continue down its '80's path (with a new "Beverly Hills Cop,"  "Wall Street," etc.) But there is a lesson nestled beneath the split decision.

By chance, we happened to catch on cable this weekend two truly great pop classics from the '80s, "Field of Dreams" and "Back to the Future." (It's almost as if cable programmers, aware of how the '80s were being tortured on the big screen, decided to slip in a little reminder of how it's really done).

Obviously the Me Decade had more than its share of stinkers and mass-marketed schlock too. But what struck us from watching these two films, which existed not in the art house ghetto but as broad hits at the multiplex, is how different they feel from the current crop in one key respect: their fundamental grasp of storytelling, which in both films came off as effortless and intuitive in a way that few movies do these days. (We didn't watch the original "Karate Kid" again, but we saw that a few weeks ago too, and you can certainly add that to the list.)

Maybe in this sense the forces behind the new "Karate Kid" understood more than they appeared to. It's hard, they reasoned, to come up with a movie that contains true storytelling chops, let alone to get that movie green-lighted. So the least we could do, they said, is imitate a movie that had them. At least subconsciously, the remake craze may be partly about good narrative, not just easy marketing. 

Of course, the better approach would be not to copy great storytelling but to come up with some new ones. (Right now, "Inception" director Chris Nolan seem to be the only filmmaker with the vision and clout to realize this.) But then, in a storytelling climate that's so barren, a few drops of rain are welcome, even if it's the rain of 25 years ago.

-- Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Ray Liotta and Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams." Credit: Universal Pictures



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