A Savant Article:
Remaking Remakes of Remakes
The Legacy of 1950s Science Fiction Movies
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A teaser trailer for Fox's upcoming remake of the Robert Wise classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) hit theater screens about a month ago, re-igniting arguments over Hollywood's current practice of abandoning new stories in favor of revisiting past hits. Opinions on Stood Still range from, "How could they do this?" to "If it's nothing like the original story, why re-use the title?" Rumors are also circulating about a remake of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis.
An industry expert isn't needed to explain why remakes happen -- movies based upon properties already established in the public consciousness have an advantage. The worldwide news of a rediscovered complete version of Metropolis has made it a better remake candidate: more people now know about Lang's classic. That's why studios prefer to develop ongoing franchises over cinematic one-shots, and option books instead of commissioning screenplays. Original works require the gambling spirit, a quality that departed with the moguls. Studio committees favor a property with some kind of quantifiable track record, if only to cover their corporate tails.
New versions, Yes. New Ideas ... Maybe
Another movie about Batman is money in the bank, but not a thriller about a new, generic superhero character. RoboCop (1987) was a rogue hit, but not a blockbuster; Robo wasn't already canonized in DC or Marvel comics. MGM's recently announced intention to remake Paul Verhoeven's action satire will certainly get serious consideration, if only because everybody and his dog now knows exactly what RoboCop is.
Until Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Don Siegel's original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, most of the core classics of the 1950s hadn't been touched, at least not by name. Remakes were for prestigious properties, not pictures about monsters from space. Besides, the core ideas of most of the classics had been recycled in subsequent movies. Unlike westerns or musicals, where the same few plot ideas never seem to change, Science Fiction movies are often inseparable from their core concepts. Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951) spawned scores of cheapies in which creatures from space were represented by men in monster masks. Kurt Neumann's copycat Rocketship X-M actually beat George Pal's Destination Moon (both 1950) into the theaters.
The official remakes of classics have been a mixed bag. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) returned to the original source story for ideas unused in Howard Hawks' version, and stands apart from the general crowd. By the early 1980s William Cameron Menzies' 1953 Invaders from Mars had become a rare item, so it was all too unfortunate that Tobe Hooper's confused 1986 remake only rehashed the original's ideas, adding little of interest. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont's 1988 The Blob was an even less creative retread, adding a tired government conspiracy to Irvin S. Yeaworth's "American Primitive" 1958 original.
Raiders of the Creative Concepts
It's possible that some remakes didn't hit big because their core ideas had been over-mined. Michael Radford's 1984 version of 1984 is reasonably faithful to the Orwell book, but audiences had already weathered thirty years' worth of movies about totalitarian societies. Surveillance via Big Brother-like technology is a given in the spy movies of the 1960s. Perhaps the most successful quasi-remake of 1984 is Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985). Gilliam added mordant humor, baroque designs and whimsical flights of fancy to the basic concept.
On the other hand, the ideas behind Invasion of the Body Snatchers seem to become more popular with repetition, with official remakes in 1978 (the aforementioned Kaufman remake), 1993's Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrrara) and 2007's Invasion (the Nicole Kidman attempt).
But the unofficial remakes came much earlier, in Gene Fowler Jr.'s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and Roger Corman's 1956 It Conquered the World, which also borrows its radio-control-in-the-neck idea from Invaders from Mars. And if we really want to be honest, Invaders' idea of a subversive alien takeover probably originates with the alien mind control parasites of Robert Heinlein's 1951 novel The Puppet Masters. Bruno VeSota's 1958 The Brain Eaters is almost identical to Heinlein's concept. By the time that an official The Puppet Masters was made in 1994, any novelty in the scary idea of aliens plugged into the backs of our necks was long gone.
The generalized concept inbreeding also affects George Pal's 1951 When Worlds Collide, a story that has persisted in one form another since Jules Verne's novel Off on a Comet. The 1933 novel was surely influenced by Abel Gance's 1930 French epic La Fin du Monde (The End of the World). Nobody's done an in-name Collide remake as yet, but astral bodies have been on a collision course with Terra Firma on a regular schedule, in (what, another list?) The Day the Sky Exploded (Italy, 1958), Gorath (Japan, 1962), and Meteor (1979). Two high-profile quasi-remakes came in 1998, Mimi Leder's Deep Impact and Michael Bay's Armageddon. Both were successful. In 2005 Steven Spielberg was reported as talking about an official When Worlds Collide remake.
Right now the most successful Sci-Fi remakes are 2007's I Am Legend, a third go at a 1964 Vincent Price picture The Last Man on Earth. Not far behind is Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005), an updating of the classic 1953 version. The 1998 remake of 1954's Godzilla earned a lot of money but not enough to offset a Godzillian budget: compare plotlines and you'll realize that the Roland Emmerich film is actually much closer to Eugene Lourie's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms than Toho's radioactive water dragon.
1958's scary favorite The Fly spawned two inexpensive sequels, but David Cronenberg's 1986 revision is still the most creative Sci-Fi remake ever. One would think that the original concept had been completely exhausted by TV's Star Trek, which turned the idea of a matter transmitter into an everyday mode of transportation. Cronenberg reinvented The Fly from the DNA up, adapting it to his personal theme of disastrous biological mutation.
Keanu Barada Nikto
This brings us back to the moody teaser for the The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, which evokes TV's The X Files more than Michael Rennie's 1951 vacation in the nation's capitol. The half-second subliminal blip given of Gort is very, very odd. At this point resistance to the sequel is strong, but one never can tell. Who knows, perhaps the Keanu Reeves version will be an intelligent surprise. To quote Gamera, "Turtles Might Fly."
With The Day the Earth Stood Still, most every core classic of the fifties has either been remade or recycled ad infinitum. 1955's This Island Earth and 1956's Forbidden Planet haven't been officially remade, but franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars have effectively cornered the market for space operas. 1
Hollywood's Incredible Shrinking Imagination
I've always thought it a shame that an almost perfect movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers should be remade time and again, when there are many imaginative but underachieving Sci-Fi shows that might really benefit from remakes. Here's a handful that you may not know, but are well worth checking out:
4D Man (1959). A scientist can walk through walls, but at a terrible price.
Day of the Triffids (1963). John Wyndham classic of walking plants in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, awkwardly mounted. (actually revisited for UK television)
Terror from the Year 5000 (1958). A time machine makes contact with a future civilization nearly destroyed by a nuclear war. Cheap movie, great concept.
The H-Man (1958). Victims of nuclear test become deadly phantoms that can liquefy people with a touch. Frightening visuals.
Master of the World (1961). Grand Jules Verne tale of a giant skyship. Epic concept given inadequate visualization.
The Crawling Eye (1958). Aliens hiding on an Alpine mountaintop use telepathy to attract their victims. Wonderful atmosphere, needs better special effects.
Kronos (1957). A colossal, unstoppable robot arrives to accumulate and steal the Earth's energy. An idea whose time has come.
Crack in the World (1965). A search for a geological energy source shatters the Earth's crust, putting the entire world in jeopardy. Global Warming gives way to Global Crumbling.
In the race for the elusive $100 million first weekend, it now seems as if every major summertime release is either a comic book franchise or a big-budget remake, a situation that has inspired a great deal of criticism: has Hollywood simply run out of stories to tell? Sometimes it seems that every CGI-bloated screen epic is another variation on Attack of the Pixel People. Do audiences really want the same crimefighter fantasy repeated again and again, like a favorite bedtime story?
The outlook is less fatalistic for us Science Fiction fans that love our 50s and 60s classics: "No matter what happens, Ilsa, we'll always have Metropolis." (Low budget Alternate: "Forget it Jake. It's It! The Terror from Beyond Space.") Remakes haven't really damaged the reputation of Cinema's greats. If anything, the irreplaceable 1933 King Kong has been re-popularized by two big-budget re-dos. Sci-Fi authority Bill Warren has said that remakes don't harm the originals any more than a movie version harms its book source, and I'm in general agreement. Mention The Blob, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine or Village of the Damned, and people are apt to remember the superior originals.
August 3 , 2008
Republished by agreement with film.com.
1. Actually, The Day the Earth Stood Still has been unofficially remade as a feature twice: In 1954's Stranger from Venus and 1959's The Cosmic Man.
And in terms of precedents, if not influences, here's the Variety review (June 9, 1971) description of Le Martien de Noel (The Christmas Martian), a Canadian movie from 1971: "A delightful film for young children about a friendly Martian who lands in Quebec's northern woods at Christmas time. He is discovered, lost and cold, by two children who take care of him, and after a snowmobile chase by the villagers, send him on his way again in his twinkling red space craft." The review doesn't say if the Christmas Martian ever takes a break to Phone Home.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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