Roger Ebert once said that the only reason to ever remake a movie is if it is a film that relies heavily on technology, and since the original, the technology has improved significantly enough to also improve the movie. Based on that, it seemed like a no-brainer to remake both the 1976 and 2005 versions of King Kong. Sure, neither the ’76 man in a monkey suit or the ’05 CGI was half as good as the original stop-motion hairy ape doll, but it still made sense that someone would attempt the remake. But based on the technology improvement theory, I still can’t understand how Disney managed to screw up Tron: Legacy. They should have just stuck with re-doing the original story instead of trying to extend the original into the future.
Without any gain from technological breakthroughs, any other remake is likely the result of Hollywood running out of ideas and will seem no better than your cousin Eddie, the one stuck in the 80’s, screeching out yet another Bon Jovi song on karaoke night in the pub at which you will no longer show your face.
There is one other reason for remakes. Occasionally, certain Hollywood types become bigger than they imagined and want to recapture and even improve the movies of their childhood, so they buy the rights to films they loved back in the day and believe they can do a better job. Ask 20th Century Fox if they were happier with the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, which grossed five times its budget, or the 2005 Tim Burton mess that had one the worst endings to any sci fi film ever. If you ask Adam Sandler if he thinks we’d rather watch him or Burt Reynolds in each’s version of The Longest Yard, I hope he’s smart enough to point at Burt.
Some remakes can improve a film that was almost good. Then the studio only has to change the title so we hopefully won’t realize we’re watching a remake. Have you ever seen The Gauntlet (1977) with Clint Eastwood? I know, I know. That ending didn’t make sense. A hundred cops shooting at a bus, trying to kill the driver and his passenger. But when the bus crashes and they walk out, they all stop shooting. Really? Yes. At least in 16 Blocks (2006), the Richard Donner/Bruce Willis remake with a different name, they fixed that part. However, I’d much rather watch, or look at, Sondra Locke instead of Mos Def because there apparently was a reason to switch the role’s gender.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been on a golf course when someone missed a putt, rolled the ball back to its original position, and then sunk the same putt. As an old friend used to say, “Any idiot can do it the second time.” Unfortunately, that’s not true in film. Here, in no particular order, are my top 6 films that never should have been remade because they did not get it right the second time.
With two Oscars, two more nominations, and four Golden Globes, Arthur was clearly the greatest moment of writer/director Steve Gordon after a very successful career writing televisions episodes ranging from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Barney Miller. Sadly, at the young age of 44, he died only a year after Arthur’s release. There’s no telling what else he might have gone on to write or direct, but at least he (as far as we know) didn’t have to suffer through an awful remake.
Although Dudley Moore plays about the most lovable drunk ever, he was still a drunk, and it was strange to praise a character that seemed to appear perpetually intoxicated. Though I don’t recall any drunk driving in the film, it was released at a time when there was not as much public awareness about DUI as there is now. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded while the film was in production, and there’s no way to know if the film would have been different or even made at all had it been conceived at a different time.
Sir John Geilgud won a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Arthur’s personal servant and precise straight man. His needlepoint sarcasm fabulously balanced the slurring, smiling, and spoiled brat of a millionaire. All Liza Minelli had to do to successfully play Susan, Arthur’s love interest, was to basically stay out of the way. Her timing was good, but she did seem to slow things down a little when she hit the screen.
At #53 on the American Film Institute (AFI) list of all-time comedies, Arthur is a Peter Pan story about goofy, carefree rich guy who finds love with a kleptomaniac. Go figure. The remake, with Russell Brand and Helen Mirren instead of Dudley and Sir John, was the beginning of the end of the British badboy. It seemed as if director Jason Winer and writer Peter Baynham might have hoped that Brand would be able to improvise enough funniness to carry the film that only earned about 75% of its budget from Warner Bros. It was a lot like how studios treated Robin Williams early in his career, when there would be script pages that literally said, “Robin does something funny here.”
If that is not what happened with Brand in the Arthur remake, then he should at least claim that was the case so that he might still be viewed as an actor instead of a bad comedian. As respectable as Helen Mirren is as an actress, she did very little publicity for the film, likely because she knew it was going nowhere fast. Oddly enough, when I look at the movie stills, she bears an unfriendly resemblance to Geilgud, as if the old man was wearing a wig. My apologies to both of them. And to anyone who had to suffer through the remake instead of the original.
Rear Window (1954)/ Disturbia (2007)
I’m not saying that Disturbia was a bad movie, but I am saying it was not necessary. Dreamworks knew two things – Shia Lebouf was a very likable guy for teen audiences. Teen audiences haven’t seen Rear Window. What Dreamworks did not know was that you shouldn’t attempt to improve on Hitchcock unless you’re positive you can do it. The Dreamworks team of Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen believed they could do it. They were wrong and nearly sued for stealing the story.
In the original, Jimmy Stewart is Jimmy Stewart, and Grace Kelly is Grace Kelly. For anyone to put Lebouf and a very unknown Sarah Roemer against both Hollywood royalty and literal royalty, you’ve got to be a fool. Stewart is kept in his home because of a leg cast. Lebouf is kept by house arrest. Both get bored and spy on neighbors, and both believe to have witnessed enough to cry “murder.” The remake is okay, but it spends too much time trying to have fun with teenagers instead of turning up the suspense that reached #14 on AFI’s list of all-time thrillers. The only reason that the original had four empty Oscar nominations was because it unfortunately was released in the same year as On the Waterfront. Dangit.
The In-laws (1979/2003)
We all know Albert Brooks is a great comedian, but we also know that Michael Douglas is not. You can’t expect that team to do as well as two classic comedians who are Hall of Fame material.
Peter Falk and Alan Arkin play sort of an “odd couple” in the ’79 original, directed by Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Arthur Hiller. Their children are engaged to be married in only a few days, but Falk, who claims to work for the FBI, takes Arkin, a New York City dentist, on an international chase after counterfeiters that never quite seems for certain is really part of the FBI. At one point, another FBI agent tells Arkin that Falk is just plain nuts.
That’s part of the beauty of the original – you never know for sure until almost the very end if Falk really works for the FBI or is just plain nuts. Arkin, an excellent straight main, has only one goal throughout the chase – to not die. He gets shot at more than most dentists, faces a Central American firing squad, and has to listen to Falk tell wild stories about African flies that carry away children in their beaks.
In the Brooks and Douglas remake, we know right from the start that Douglas really is working for the FBI, and that takes away some of the fun from the original. Brooks does a well enough job in the straight man role, but he never seems quite as “out of place” as Arkin did when dodging bullets near a city hotdog wagon.
The remake is not a bad film, but there was no need to remake it. If you ever need something from Netflix, look up the original The In-Laws. To say it’s a laugh a minute is an understatement.
Night of the Living Dead (1967/1990)
If you were born anywhere after 1979, there’s no way you’re going to be able to appreciate the value of the original Night of the Living Dead. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. It’s just impossible for horror films and horror film audiences to roll back the clock to a time when zombies didn’t outnumber landlines. Up until ’67, horror films involved monsters that were so unrealistic they were funny. A flat-headed monster with bolts in his neck, a hairy but nimble man with fangs, or some kind of dinosaur-lizard hybrid were available to frighten you, but they were less realistic than The Great Gazoo. Look it up. I’ll wait.
But in ’67, George A. Romero, the father of all films zombie, literally made audiences cry in fear, cower behind seats, and run screaming from theaters because his monsters could have been anyone, and that was never seen before. In the two generations that have followed, zombies now just look like idiots with peeling and bloody faces. It probably wouldn’t actually surprise anyone who might really see a zombie on a street somewhere. It would be like, “Yeah yeah yeah, zombie. I know. Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?”
The original, shot in black and white, was about a low budget as you could get. It featured some great low camera angles that, combined with underlighting, made zombies more scary than anything seen on film before. The remake, not only in color but almost scene by scene the same movie, appears to be a complete waste of time, unless you enjoy a good debate about color versus black and white film. That and the nearest McDonald’s will get you a double cheeseburger.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974/2009)
In the original Pelham, domestic terrorists hijack a subway train and are going to kill one person a minute unless are given $1 million. Robert Shaw, the leader of that group, is the unstoppable force. Walter Matthau, a transit police lieutenant who communicates and attempts to negotiate with Shaw, is the immovable object. He knows that even if the ransom is paid, the terrorists still have to find a way out of the subway, which only adds to the tension.
In the remake, John Travolta is the unstoppable force, but there is no immovable object. Too many things crash into other things. Too many expendable people fall by the wayside. There’s no real sense that Denzel Washington in the Matthau role, really cares. Travolta just seems to care about destruction, which he has no trouble accomplishing. Matthau was a cop you could trust, who you wanted to take the reins. In the remake, Washington has been demoted because of possible involvement in a bribery scheme. We don’t know if he’s guilty or not. However, we do know we can’t trust him 100%. He doesn’t have as much at stake because his reputation is already gone. It doesn’t seem to matter as much to him as it did to Matthau that innocent people are saved.
In the original, Shaw was made of iron. He had a methodical plan and assumed he would have his million if everyone stuck to the plan. Whoever did not was expendable, and he was usually doing the expending. Travolta as the leader seems more interested in blowing things up and crashing cars than getting the money.
Earlier, I mentioned how technology should/could play a part in remakes. In the original, some of the trains were scale models, and there were a few car crashes. The remake used CGI trains, and they looked every bit as fake as models. The cars didn’t just crash. They flipped and flew in ways that cars just don’t fly. When cars crash, they crumple together. The cars literally took flight as if hitting ramps, which you don’t usually find on city streets. Are audiences that dumb, or do producer think audiences are that dumb that we don’t really know what happens when cars collide? Maybe it’s a little of both?
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)/ Mr. Deeds (2002)
Apparently Adam Sandler didn’t notice that the original won an Oscar for best director (Frank Capra) and had five other nominations. Gary Cooper, a two-time best actor winner, was nominated for his portrayal of the title character. Anyone with any intelligence would stay away from attempting to remake this film. Oh, wait. Adam Sandler. That explains it. What doesn’t need explaining is the apple-pie charm of the original, in which a simple a New England musician comes upon a fortune, but unfortunately through the death of a wealthy relative. His naiveté becomes the target of a reporter who wants to work her way into his wealthy life by pretending to be an equally simple damsel in distress to prey upon his small-town niceness. Instead, he proves to be a little smarter than she and others think and is able to pretty much outwit those who think he’s a country nitwit.
In too many films now, Sandler plays Sandler – a smug underachiever who believes he knows more than everyone else and spits out wisecracks through what seem like marbles in his mouth. Of course I can’t argue with his film success, but that could be the result of audiences who seem to want artists to produce the same things over and over. It’s like when I ask someone about a new Springsteen album, and they say, “Eh, I just like the old stuff.” If you just want the old stuff, listen to Aerosmith because their new stuff sounds just like the old stuff. All equally fabulous, but the songs are interchangeable from album to album. I like artists to do new things, take new chances, and grow. I loved Sandler in Big Daddy, but then you could take Sandler from Big Daddy, put him in Mr. Deeds, and put that one in Happy Gilmore, and put that one in Grown Ups, and put that one in 50 First Dates, and, well, you get the idea.
Sandler will never reach the level of Hollywood respect that Cooper earned, no matter how many of millions he rakes in. But when it comes to critical acclaim, Sandler should focus on presenting the best of Sandler instead of trying to redo the best of Hollywood legends like Cooper and Capra.
Instead of trying to come up with a witty conclusion to this, I’ll just end it by saying that today I watched a trailer for Ben Stiller in a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Not holding my breath. Just saying.
Up next: Six remakes that needed to be remade.