Happy 2015, everyone! It’s the start of a whole new year, that moment when the coming months are filled with nothing but the promise and unbridled possibilities of a brand new slate of films. What creativity is about to be unleashed on all of us? What brilliant, innovative, original, completely unheard of ideas are we going to – bahahaha, oh man, I almost got through that without cracking up. Let’s be honest: the real question is how many remakes, rehashes, reboots, and reheatings of creatively bankrupt franchises are we going to have to endure just to make it to the next December? You thought the Michael Bay-ification of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was bad? Just wait until you see what this year is going to put us all through.
Well, hang on. Before we spend too much time complaining about the new Mad Max movie (which shouldn’t be happening) or lamenting the fact that we don’t have nearly enough new original properties being developed (which we definitely don’t), let’s take just a second to try to keep things in perspective. After all, as much as many of us would like to forget it, many of our favorite films are remakes of older movies. John Carpenter’s The Thing? The Judy Garland A Star is Born? The movie that finally won Scorsese an Oscar, The Departed? The sleek, sexy take on Ocean’s 11? None of these would exist if someone hadn’t glanced at the rearview mirror and found a property ripe for remaking.
What separates those films from the dreck that too often ends up filling our multiplexes is a difference in the idea of what a remake should be. These great films weren’t born out of someone looking at a near perfect and/or widely beloved work of art saying, “How can I get that lightning to strike twice?” Instead, they arose from someone going back to an earlier, flawed work, the kind that makes you go, “Iiiinteresting,” rather than, “Wow!” and asking, “How can I bring this to its full potential?”
So, seen through that lens, let’s ask the dirty question: what are some movies that would really benefit from being remade? What are the films that started off with an interesting idea but then went in the wrong direction? Or the ones that were so far ahead of their time as to only kinda work when they were first made? Or even just the ones that have some great ideas that are begging to be separated from the less stellar siblings they were saddled with?
Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
Hear me out. And put the pitchforks down, please. Yes, I am suggesting that it’s a good idea to remake one of the Master of Suspense’s classic films. It’s even one of his most famous ones. Rope, set in the apartment of two murderers throwing a dinner party literally over the corpse of their victim, is less famous for its story than it is for its daring cinematic conceit. The entire film was shot to look like it’s a single, continuous take from beginning to end, following the cast of characters through the real time dinner party with (almost) no noticeable cuts.
A daring and original experiment, absolutely, but when’s the last time that you actually saw Rope? (And no, watching Birdman doesn’t count.) There’s a reason that almost no one discusses the film beyond its technical prowess – the suspense story is rather dull, especially by Hitchcock’s standards. A big part of this comes down to the film’s odd casting. John Dall is enjoyably dastardly as one half of the murderous duo, but Farley Granger is insufferable as his partner, and Jimmy Stewart, playing the pair’s philosophizing intellectual of a former headmaster, seems ill at ease with everything the role demands of him. Rope is a virtuoso technical feat – to be a great movie, it also needs a more unnerving script and actors that feel more at home in the roles they’re playing.
The Dream Team Remake: First of all, a remake of Rope would be a great chance to actualize what Hitchcock wanted to do with the first film. A movie that looks like it’s a single take? Forget that, let’s actually make it all in one take! Second, we’d need a director that is equally at home in the filmic and the theatrical spheres, as he’d have to direct his actors like they’re in a play and his camera like it’s in, well, in a Hitchcock film. Sam Mendes has proven himself up to a surprisingly vast array of challenges, from the Donmar Warehouse Theater to Skyfall, so why not let him tackle this project? Arm him with Michael Fassbender and Tom Hiddleston for the villainous pair, Sir Ian McKellen as their intellectual rival, get Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, The Tree of Life, etc.) to operate the camera and then you’d have a version of Rope for the ages.
Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Network is a great film, but one that’s so far ahead of its time that it almost feels like it’s wasting some of its potential. This pitch black satire mercilessly slams such treasured American institutions as the press, capitalism, fame, and celebrity. The story follows television news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who, after being informed of his imminent firing, proclaims that he is going to take his own life on the air. When the public at large’s reaction is not one of horror but of morbid fascination, the network decides to exploit the rapidly unraveling anchor’s mad ravings for its own profit. From there it’s an escalating competition of shamelessness and journalistic amorality with hilarious and chilling results.
So why would anyone want to remake that? Because in more ways than one, Network feels like it’s a 21st Century movie trapped in the workings of the seventies. Its satirical jabs feel like an exaggeration of the trends American journalism was undergoing at the time, but they are remarkably prophetic of what we would see in the age of viral news distribution, social media, and round-the-clock conspicuous consumption. Imagine Network unleashed into that landscape, a version of the story that is confronting the traditional models of journalism and television reporting not with generic viewer apathy but with the crushing sense that they are being rapidly left behind by the evolution of their medium. Where all the scandal and outrageousness of the main character’s breakdown is treated like a last ditch effort to beat viral Twittering at its own game. The original film already did fascinating things, but it’s fun to wonder how far the story model could go in an environment that feels infinitely more unstable and chaotic than the one that spawned it.
The Dream Team Remake: This seems like a job for a filmmaking team that can balance Network’s coldly cynical tone with the speed and unrelenting pace of modern day telecommunications. David Fincher has already proven himself to be a master in both of those realms. Let’s combine his powers with the screenwriting aptitudes of British satirist Charlie Brooker, whose own savage media satire series Black Mirror feels like a solid start for what a 21st Century Network could look like. Anchor the entire thing with, say, Bill Murray in the role of the rapidly crumbling beloved public figure and just step back and watch the magic happen.
Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich)
Oh don’t give me that look. Independence Day has some great ideas. The concept of contemporary society going into open war with an invading alien force is actually not as common as you might think. (Or at least not in what might be called “competent movies.”) The idea of organizing the film around a small number of central characters who can act as audience guides rather than around hundreds of anonymous troops is a good thought. Even the bombastic approach of destroying major American icons and landmarks to kick off the war is a great way to grab your viewers’ attention.
So what’s wrong? Pretty much everything after that. Independence Day is one of the most terribly executed films of the nineties, playing out like a collection of bad ideas and shoddy screenwriting choices. It’s actually a bit hard to determine what is the worst offender in the film. Is it the stereotypically caricatured stock characters? (Looking at you, Harvey Fierstein.) Or the childish tone that a lot of the action set pieces take? (Why yes, when aliens are invading on a global scale what we really want to focus on is a single dog’s well being.) The cheesy speechifying? The shoddy character development? The brittleness of its so-called emotional scenes? The lackluster staging of its aerial battles? It’s so hard to pick just one…
The Dream Team Remake: Ronald D. Moore spent five years combining grand scale sci-fi warfare with engrossing personal drama on Battlestar Galactica, so let’s start by handing off scripting duties to him. Then, let’s put District 9’s Neill Blomkamp in the driver’s seat, and see what he can do with those aerial battles. Finally, let’s fill in the Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman roles with… how about John Boyega, Eddie Redmayne, and Julianne Moore? Then we might get an Independence Day that’s emotionally engaging and fun rather than one consigned to a few bursts of visual flair amidst a sea of annoyance.
What Women Want (2000, Nancy Meyers)
What Women Want is such a brilliant sitcom idea that it’s frankly flabbergasting that nothing can be said about the finished film beyond, “Ehh… it’s all right.” An up-and-coming ad executive who thinks he’s God’s gift to women (Mel Gibson) suddenly gains the magical ability to hear the thoughts of every woman around him. Hilarity ensues. Or at least it should. Instead, What Women Want is an oddly meandering ride, full of stops and starts between its oddly disjointed sections. The basic concept is so good that the jokes write themselves (and indeed there are some good laughs to be had) but the road is riddled with unfunny subplots and focus-pulling scenes. The central conceit of the film deserves a more focused script and a more fearless approach to its battle-of-the-sexes tension.
The Dream Team Remake: Joseph Gordon Levitt’s writerly and directorial debut Don Jon was one of the most cinematically funny films we’ve had in recent memory, and much more incisive in matters of the battling sexes than What Women Want ever dared to be, so I say give him a crack at this material. As for who should step into the Mel Gibson role, let’s go with Jon Hamm. Thanks to Don Draper, Hamm’s star persona is very much in line with the macho old world Casanova that What Women Want satirizes. Throw in the fact that Hamm, unlike Gibson, does have a great sense of comedy and timing and then you have the makings of a really funny film on your hands.
Reign of Fire (2002, Rob Bowman)
Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in London. Just let that thought run through your mind one more time. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in London. How is this not good?!? But alas, Reign of Fire is not only not good – it’s a bona fide train wreck. Everything beyond the film’s early conceptual peak is a messy disaster. The CGI is bad (even by 2002 standards), the film’s landscapes are drab, the fights are uninspired, and each encounter with the deadly prehistoric monsters is less exciting than the one before it. The general idea of British and American survivalists comparing notes on how to kill dragons (holy cats, how is this not good?!?) is a corker, but nothing in the film is remotely as inspired as the mental image that phrase conjures up.
The Dream Team Remake: Where’s Rian Johnson when you need him? Or Edgar Wright, for that matter? Either way, this film needs someone who can turn the cinematic frame into a playground, who will have fun with the concept instead of turning it into a shockingly grim and humorless affair the way the original one did. The, key, however is this: the Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey roles should be played by… Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. Accept no substitutes.
Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)
We are now getting into the territory of very recent films, so this will be our last suggestion. Fittingly, it might also be the most disappointing and most in need of a cinematic makeover. Sunshine is a space travel film the likes of which are exceedingly rare. It focuses on the crew of a small spaceship that has been sent on an extremely difficult mission to the sun. The cast is an ethnically diverse gallery of heavy hitters: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, pre-Marvel Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Mark Strong, among others. The tone is eerily restrained, with the giant emptiness of space enveloping everything the crew does. Even the plot is surprisingly tense, with an intense focus on the difficulties of flying the delicate spacecraft and the knowledge that the slightest error could have disastrous consequences. In a show of outstanding filmmaking intelligence, the film’s director and writer understood that this would be enough to provide an absorbing, suspenseful journey for the audience, and don’t feel the need to introduce something like, oh, a deranged serial killer that smuggles his way on board the ship and starts to murder everyone for no apparent reason. Because that would just be silly, right?
Okay, fine, that’s totally what happens. I won’t bore you with the details of how the script puts a psychotic killer on board the spaceship, but it totally does. And at that point, everything that made Sunshine an absorbing science fiction film immediately goes out the window. (Well, except for its outstanding cast, I guess. They gradually go out the window.) I want someone to take another swing at this material so that I can see the second half that this film’s opening deserves.
The Dream Team Remake: Flamboyant science fiction all set within a single vehicle and starring an international cast of diverse acting powerhouses? And with Chris Evans on board? Okay, so it’s very close to director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but honestly I would love to see someone with his sensibilities handle this material. His work has a way of focusing directly on the characters’ choices and personal growth, the kind of thing that Sunshine’s first half is so good at and its second half utterly fails at. Alternatively, if he’s bored by the whole idea, it might be interesting to see an accomplished master who has never played in this arena tackle this material. The intense character focus, slower rhythms, and occasional bursts of bizarre oddity that the original exhibited before it went off the rails seem like a shoe-in for someone like Jim Jarmusch.
Then again, Martin Scorsese still hasn’t made a science fiction film. What’s he up to thee days?