It 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.
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.
[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).
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.
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.
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).
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!)