Remaking the Classics

The Day the Earth Stood StillIt started out as conversation about how Edge of Tomorrow is the best big screen SF movie to come along in a good long while. That led to a ranking of recent SF movies with very high marks going to Elysium and Ender’s Game. It also touched on that Tom Cruise has made four — no, five! — SF films, at least two of which are very good.

Of course that led to talk of actors and how Jodie Foster and Matt Damon seem (unlike, for example, poor Sandra Bullock) to have excellent taste in what scripts they accept. If either of those two — let alone both — is in a movie, it’s probably pretty decent. Talk of actors in SF films naturally lead to Keanu Reeves whose ancestry and acting style make him such a perfect choice in certain roles.

And that lead to what a damn shame it is they tried to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Klaatu Reeves

Klaatu Reeves

The thing is, seen just as a standalone SF film, the remake isn’t that bad (although I’m not sure I’d call it good). But as a remake of one of the greatest SF films ever — a genuine and enduring classic — the film is a serious fail. There’s just no way it can rise to that bar.

That’s the problem with unique classics. Any remake is necessarily a pale imitation playing second fiddle. Sequels of any kind rarely equal the original or first one and even more rarely exceed it. There are some exceptions. Many consider the second Alien movie (Aliens) the best of the lot.

There is a difference between unique classics — which I say should stand alone forever — and classics that come with multiple incarnations. Hamlet, as an easy example, has been done and done with no claim to a supreme original, and therefore untouchable, version.

There are clearly superior versions (the Olivier and Branagh ones, for e.g.) and obviously inferior ones (the Mel Gibson one springs to mind).

Branagh Hamlet

“I knew him, Horatio.”

[The Kenneth Branagh version is my favorite. I think it’s even better than the Laurence Olivier version, my previous “best of breed.” (As an aside, both actors directed themselves in their respective films. Given their training and skill, that was an excellent choice.)

The Branagh version has the distinction of being the first (and only?) film version to do the entire play word for word. It’s truly magnificent.]

No one would think to suggest that Hamlet should never be done again. The idea that an even better version could come along some day is not out of the question. One might even expect that to happen some day.

There is something interesting going on here. You really can’t remake the Mona Lisa (or any other painting or statue), but you can remake songs. Sometimes new versions of songs are vastly superior to the original (either of the Grateful Dead’s or  Janis Joplin’s “remakes” of Me and Bobby McGee blow the original recordings out of the water).

Mona Lisa Starry Night

Clever! But not a remake.

But poems — which are kind of like songs — don’t lend themselves to remakes any more than paintings or sculptures do. Perhaps it is the literal nature of a painting, sculpture, or poem, that turns any “remake” into a copy (or a parody, imitation, satire, or pastiche).

On the other hand, songs have music, and music has a vast space of possible variations that can remain, in some way, “true” to the original. Movies also have a vast “language” (of cinema) that allows variation within the context of the original.

As an example: One of the classes I took as a film student was a film editing class. The final project for that class was to re-cut a scene from an old Gunsmoke episode. Each student was given the raw footage to cut as they chose. No two were ever quite alike — there are many, many ways to edit a scene. (One student, disliking violence, cut it down to the single final punch that lays the villain out cold.)

Add elements of camera placement, character blocking, lighting, casting, costume, set design, music, and an awful lot more, and there are nearly an infinite number of ways to shoot a scene — let alone an entire film.

Bored of the Rings

Funny! But not a remake.

Books, despite their length and narrative, are more like poems in being a literal work that doesn’t admit to variations that remain true to the original. One can write books in a genre, but they aren’t remakes, as such.

So the idea of a film that cannot (or should not) be remade is actually out of the norm. Consider the idea of a song that cannot (or should not) be remade. Strange, yes? Perhaps, with music, impossible.

Yet some films seem to stand out in such as way as to make it a kind of sin to remake them. There aren’t many; we could only name a few.

Two we came up with are Forbidden Planet and Gone With the Wind. Surely any attempt to remake those is doomed to certain failure, if only in comparison. There is some necessary combination of greatness and untouchability required that elevates a work as one-of-a-kind.

There is, embedded here, the idea of catching lightning in a bottle — the elusive eternal goal of working artists. Works such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet involve an almost accidental perfection achieved in their making. No remake can hope to capture those elements deliberately. Indeed most attempts at deliberate art fail to be even good.

Spenser Tracy

Klaatu barada nikto?

Consider that Spenser Tracy was originally considered for the role of Klaatu and ask yourself whether the film would be remembered had he been the visiting alien rather than Michael Rennie (a British actor). Part of the reason they went with an actor largely unknown to American audiences at the time was to make the role more alien in tone.

Which brings us back to Keanu Reeves, whose vaguely alien character lent a specific and useful quality to his roles in, for example, The Matrix, Constantine, and Johnny Mnemonic. And in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

He’s been in some stinkers — he’s been awarded the Golden Raspberry for his acting a number of times — but when I consider his entire filmography, I find him in a number of films I really liked.

Speed put him on the map. (That’s possibly a modern “classic” that shouldn’t be remade. The sequel, Speed 2, was pretty dreadful except for the very last scene.) I’m one of 27 people on the planet who really liked Johnny Mnemonic (come on, it’s a William Gibson story — I do not get why everyone hates the film).

A Scanner Darkly

Linklater’s Waking Life is also quite interesting — certainly in a cinematic sense if not a philosophical one.

I thought Chain Reaction was fun, and A Scanner Darkly (a Philip K. Dick story directed by Richard Linklater!) was quite good. (On the other hand, he should have paid attention to Sandra Bullock’s poor taste in scripts and avoided The Lake House. He was smart enough to stay away from Speed 2.)

I’ll close with another actor who has won me over: the aforementioned Tom Cruise. Early Cruise is quite good. I’m especially fond of A Few Good Men, The Firm, and Magnolia (which made us go, “Holy shit, that guy can actually act!).

Then he got kind of weird, got into Scientology (a joke religion made up by a science fiction author), and jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch. Okay, then.

But then there’s Vanilla Sky (quite good), Minority Report (excellent even if it is a Steven Spielberg film — I guess even he couldn’t screw up a Philip K. Dick story), War of the Worlds (meh — a remake, plus directed by Spielberg), Oblivion (it was okay), and now Edge of Tomorrow (very excellent).

So Tom, welcome back to the table. (Mel Gibson, on the other hand, not so much. No soup for you!)

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Remaking the Classics

  • rung2diotimasladder

    It is interesting how music lends itself to remakes in a way that other art forms don’t…I hadn’t thought about that, even though I listen to a lot of cover songs. Mostly cover songs, in fact. I love seeing how people transform a crappy song into something I like.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Music is the really interesting art form in terms of remakes. There’s a spectrum from, say, jazz — where a given version by a given artist is done slightly differently every time it’s performed — to “classical” — where often the object is playing the piece as precisely as written as possible. (Nonetheless, classical connoisseurs find differences in orchestras and performers.)

      It seems to have to do with the space of variations that don’t alter the base significantly enough to make the new version a new work. Music has a huge space for variation. Perhaps the most of any art form. ❓

      I woke up this morning thinking about plays versus books and movies. Books, I think, cannot be “remade” in any significant way. Movies can, although a given movie usually has — at best — only a handful remakes. But plays are made over and over. They’re almost like jazz that way: a huge space for variation that remains true to the original.

      So it isn’t narrative, necessarily, that makes a work not prone to remakes. I’d thought that was a component in books and poems and, in a much lesser way, movies. It really does seem related to the potential “performance space” available to realize a work. Music, movies, and plays, all have in common a large performance space.

      One might compare that to audio books: different readers can read the same work but give it a completely different tone. Think of, say, Robin Williams and Patrick Stewart reading aloud the same book. With audio books, the realization of the work extends beyond the text.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    When it comes to remakes, I’ve learned not to compare them to the original. I recall struggling with the Battlestar Galactica pilot because of how much they changed it from the original (childish) series. But once I accepted it as a series in its own light, I enjoyed it immensely. (Well, for the first couple of seasons anyway.)

    Aside from Gravity (which I enjoyed), I have a hard time remembering what Sandra Bullock has been in over the last ten years.

    There’s actually been talk for years of a remake of Forbidden Planet (which is itself a sort of sci-fi remake of The Tempest), with J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) being mentioned as behind the latest effort. Although having just googled for the latest, it looks like it might have petered out.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I know what you mean, but it’s hard not to compare them to what they explicitly say they are. My version of your Battlestar Ponderosa story is about the first Mission: Impossible movie. As a kid, I loved that TV show, so I was eagerly anticipating the movie. And what a crushing disappointment it was. Not just not an M:I story — minimal clever con element, although at least the first movie had some of that. But Jim Phelps a traitor? No, I don’t think so. That’s an even worse offense than anything J.J. Abrams did to Star Trek.

      Once I got past that and just considered the M:I movies as okay action thrillers just just happen to share the name of a beloved TV show from the 1970s, I enjoyed them just fine. (The first is still really offensive on the Jim Phelps traitor thing — that’s just plain unforgivable.)

      At risk of bad memories: The Films of Sandra Bullock

      I rank Bab5 very high in my SF pantheon, and I have a lot of regard for JMS. (He was right, you know. He said early on that, once it’s all said and done, some of us would agree with the Shadows. I do. The Vorlons were nanny-assholes! Bring on the Chaos! XD )

      But remaking Forbidden Planet? That’s just asking for trouble. With all the great written SF that’s just lying around, why go back to the well? I can understand an artist wanting to take a stab at something they love, but… geeze… Can’t say I’m not glad it’s petered out. (I can’t agree it’s a remake of The Tempest so much as a version of it. A remake to me is more explicit in duplicating characters and setting.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I never got into the original Mission Impossible, so the Jim Phelps traitor thing wasn’t too much of an issue for me. But I can see how it would be unacceptable for a fan of the original show. It would be sort of like Mr. Spock turning out to be an actual Romulan spy.

        LOLS! Most of those Sandra Bullock films I’ve either never heard of, or only tangentially heard of. I think the only ones I’ve seen are Gravity, Crash, The Net, and the Speed movies (the second of which was awful).

        Totally agree on B5 (except for the last season). I can tell you used to read JMS’ posts on Compuserve or AOL too! I can’t say I agreed with the Shadows though. Not that I agreed with the Vorlons either. Sheridan did the right thing by chasing them both off.

        I agree that the desire to remake things is irritating. There’s a lot of new stuff that could be made. It’s kind of like Star Trek. I understand the nostalgia, but the original series wasn’t about nostalgia. It was about the future. It would be cool to see a new series started today, envisioning the future from 2015 instead of revisiting the 1964 version over and over. Unfortunately, I don’t perceive that studio execs are going to give up any time soon what they perceive as the built in marketing of a remake.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, good analogy with Mr. Spock — it was very much like that!

        I liked The Net. Gravity was kinda meh. (Speed and Crash were good — maybe she should stay with that theme! 😮 ) I have a major soft spot for Demolition Man — love that movie! Love Potion #9 is goofy, but kinda fun. 28 Days isn’t bad, and I’ve heard good things about The Blind Side. I had to stop watching The Heat after about 20 minutes.

        She’s such a cutie pie — America’s sweetheart girl next door. But she has bad taste in scripts (and spouses).

        Yeah,… Bab5 season five… Well, as you know it almost didn’t happen. JMS was forced to shoehorn the ending of his five-year story into the fourth year. When season five did happen he was left having to tell more story. It is interesting to watch the entire series (I had it on VHS I’d taped off the air; now I have the DVDs). It’s fun to see the seeds planted in the first seasons knowing what’s coming.

        Pretty remarkable idea at the time: telling a five-year story on TV. Now everyone has season-long and series-long arcs, but back then even double-episodes were rare. Go back far enough and TV stops having any continuity growth arc at all! (You can, for example, watch any episode of TOS without needing to have seen any other episode.)

        Totally agree about Star Trek, though. It’s dead, Jim. It’s time to move on.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I totally forgot about Demolition Man. I did see that one. Even tho it was cheesy, I still liked it. I think I liked Gravity for it’s authentic feel (even if its grasp of orbital mechanics is ludicrous.)

        On B5 season 5, yeah, left having to tell more story without actually doing much with the telepath war, the last major plot thread, because TNT wanted to save it for a movie, which never happened. We would have been better off if TNT had never “saved” B5. At least then we might have gotten the telepath war in book form or something.

        After it’s main run, B5 came on daily in syndication in my market, which allowed me to get the experience you described. It’s also funny to watch the old Star Trek Deep Space 9 episodes. You can almost see them reacting off B5 season by season. And to think, B5 was once accused of being a cheap copycat of DS9, when it was the other way around.

        I had no idea that Abrams was involved with Armageddon. How disillusioning. I don’t hate the new Star Treks as much as you do, but I do agree that they’ve become mindless spectacles, big bright noisy shadows of the former franchise. But ST was always at its best on TV, where it could afford to take risks. The movies have almost always been mindless spectacles imitating the TV shows.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s a very good point about Star Trek on TV! Even in its later TV days it stopped really “being about something” and went the SF-action route. None of the movies really amount to much. The fourth one waves hands about whales, but it’s the silliest of the lot — it’s usually one of the higher-regarded ones for most fans, because it was kinda fun and silly. Insurrection is probably the one that comes closest to the “real” Star Trek model.

        Definitely! If anything (and it probably was something), DS9 was copying off Bab5‘s notes. JMS tried to sell his series to Paramount; they declined. Then, shortly thereafter, here comes DS9. Uh huh. Right. I liked DS9 okay (although shape-shifters really push my suspension of disbelief — when Odo is a drinking glass, where does his mass go, and how does he see and hear?), but rank it below the series that actually take place on an Enterprise. (But DS9 does rank above Voyager, which I never watched.)

        Ah, yes, I’d forgotten the telepath war! I really enjoyed Evil Chekov! Koenig seemed to be having so much fun being not-Chekov. JMS buried some interesting ideas in Bab5 — the idea that, if a superior race of humans arises, the rest of may face extinction or war.

        Demolition Man is — at least to me — one of those little unexpected gems. Goofy as hell, but filled with really interesting and fun bits (old commercial jingles are beloved “pop tunes”), and the pairing of Stallone and Bullock hits a lot of right notes. Snipes made a good villain. And it has an embedded point to make about society (sort of Brave New World-ish in an action-comedy-SF story). The director is a “video artiste” — this was his first film, and he really only ever made one more. The story and script writers didn’t have — still don’t have — much of a track record. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t try to hard, doesn’t take itself too seriously, is filled with sly references, and manages to surprise and play against trope.

        Good example: when Stallone finally gets a (rat) hamburger. The usual trope has the character loving the taste until they find out what it’s made of — then the spitting and retching is the standard reaction. Here Stallone reacts by munching appreciatively and saying, “Mmmm! Best rat I’ve had in decades!” (or something like that). Which is exactly how his character should react. Maybe that’s what it really is: as goofy as it is, it still manages to be somehow authentic.

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