It’s been said by apparently everyone that Hollywood has run out of new ideas. That alone is not a new idea, as that has been common wisdom for possibly the lifespan of the motion picture industry itself. Now we’re in an era where movies from the ’80’s are being remade. In 2011 alone, we’ve seen remakes of Arthur, Footloose, and Conan the Barbarian–not to mention a prequel of The Thing that looks suspiciously like the John Carpenter version from 1982. In recent years, other ’80’s movies like The Karate Kid, Friday the 13th, The Fog, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Punisher have had new versions hit the theater. A lot of people are yelling, “Enough already!” And yet there seems to be a demand for modernizations of films from decades past for nothing more than nostalgia.
Believe it or not, there are legitimate reasons for producing a remake of an older film. In years past, a motion picture’s lifespan was as long as it could run in the cinemas, and very few movies managed to secure a re-release a few years later. Audiences just were not able to see most movies made years before, so the major films were remade every generation or so. For instance, A Star Is Born was made originally in 1937, and then again in 1954, with a third in 1976. There’s talk of Clint Eastwood directing yet another remake. A classic story can be reworked to speak to various generations while older versions can look very dated to modern audiences. There are technology advances, for instance, that make a movie more accessible–there’s a reason why George Lucas replaced the miniature work in Star Wars with CGI for the Special Editions. If you compare the effects for the original Clash of the Titans with the new one, the old version is laughable to today’s audience. Also, wardrobe, hair, make-up, music, and technology of a particular era sets a movie firmly in the time period of when it was made, unless it’s a period piece. Raiders of the Lost Ark seems timeless, whereas E.T. is smacks of ’80’s; however, looking at E.T. now and it almost plays like a period piece–it is a time capsule of 1982, firmly rooted in that year as much as Raiders reflects the 1930’s. There’s a fine line between being a classic that transcends time and being made irrelevant because of seeming to be outdated.
In order for a remake to work, the original must no longer connect to contemporary audiences and a remake would fill this void. That’s why films such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Jaws, and many other classics should never be touched. Despite an occasional sequel or TV spin-off, the originals are firmly set in our collective imagination; a remake could never compete with the original and would only succeed in tarnishing the memory of the classic. Furthermore, a remake should offer something new. The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers worked because it hit upon the paranoia felt by the Red Scare era; the 1978 remake told virtually the same story, though now in a city instead of a small town, but the theme was about the soul-less Me Generation. The subsequent remakes (1993’s Body Snatchers and 2007’s The Invasion) presented new ways of telling the same story, but lacked the depth of the previous ones, so there was no point in doing them at all. Similarly, Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing had the same situation, but brought totally different approaches (and aliens) to create equally effective movies. The new prequel just has more of the same, and is therefore a wasted opportunity. It also doesn’t hurt if the original film is not very good to begin with, even if it has a valid concept. A new movie could be an improvement. This is especially true with adaptations of novels. Stephen King was not pleased with Stanley Kubrik’s take on The Shining that left out much of the story, so years later, King wrote and produced a TV mini-series that told the entire plot. Regardless, most people still prefer the theatrical version for sheer shock value alone. Finally, a film or its actors cannot be iconic, otherwise a remake will cause scorn and anger. After all, the original can still be found on DVD or be downloaded on Netflix. Old movies still have a lift, so producers better have a good reason to attempt to redo something that is firmly set in our memories.
Hollywood will continue to remake films–there’s no stopping the monster. In some cases, they’re justified. In others, it’s just a blatant cash grab. Here are ten movies made in the ’80’s that would actually benefit from a contemporary makeover.
This 1980 film is mostly known for its soundtrack composed of Queen songs and its cheesy special effects. It’s a retelling of the old Buster Crabbe serials from the ’30’s and was riding the wave of science fiction adventures that swept over theaters after Star Wars made its big splash. Unfortunately, it was only able to net a cult following. There was an attempt in 2007 to make a Flash Gordon TV series, but it was also misguided. The story of Earthling Gordon fighting Ming the Merciless on the planet Mongo could get a fantastic facelift from current technology–assuming that the writing rises above its humble origins. Just because it started life as a serial doesn’t mean that a modern approach with a series slant wouldn’t work. Just look at what Christopher Nolan has done with Batman.
WHEN TIME RAN OUT
Irwin Allen became master of disaster in the ’70’s with such epics as The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Swarm. When Time Ran Out was the death knell for disaster films in 1980 which took two decades to resuscitate. It featured Allen staples such as Paul Newman, William Holden, Red Buttons, and Ernest Borgnine on an island resort that gets destroyed by a volcano. The problem is, the eruption waits until the end of the movie. For 90 minutes, we have to sit through a boring soap opera. The previous disaster films knew that you had to have the disaster at the end of Act 1, not in Act 3. Once the volcano finally does explode, there’s an amazing lack of action–after all, there’s only so much you can do with lava on an island. As both Volcano and Dante’s Peak shows, however, that volcano movies don’t have to be tedious. This bland outing could easily be re-worked into an exciting adventure.
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS
In the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, Walt Disney Pictures went through a time where they were trying to change their image from making G-rated pabulum to producing darker and more mature fare. These were the days of The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Tron, Dragonslayer (which Disney took its name off due to the violence), and The Black Cauldron. In 1980, it attempted a horror film for kids with The Watcher in the Woods, starring Bette Davis as a creepy woman in the woods…watching. At this point in her career, all Davis could play were creepy old women. Based on a book by Florence Engel Randall, the film tells the story of an American family renting a mansion in a British forest and running into ghosts. It scared children but underwhelmed the critics. Largely forgotten now, this would be a perfect movie for the studio that’s not above remaking pretty much its entire library. With the Harry Potter and Twilight series, young people are primed for a really good, scary film that isn’t full of blood and guts, not to mention sex, violence, and vulgarity. A remake would rely on mood and atmosphere, as well as good old-fashioned storytelling, and could be something that would truly entertain kids looking for something a cut above Goosebumps, but not quite Paranormal Activity.
THE CANNONBALL RUN
At one time, Burt Reynolds was the king of the escapist blockbusters, but made a series of disposable fluff that made his one-time sex symbol status a punch line. Arguably the beginning of the downward spiral was 1981’s The Cannonball Run, where he apparently assembled all of his friends for this car chase film that bested his Smokey and the Bandit in audacity if not entertainment value. Co-starring Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jackie Chan, it was a free-for-all mess involving an illegal cross-country race. It was popular enough to spawn a dismal sequel. Imagine if someone like Judd Apatow produced a sequel and brought together his usual gang–Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, James Franco, and so on. If a remake was handled in a similar manner as the original by cramming together every current movie star or comedian imaginable for cameos for an action-packed comedy, they wouldn’t have to follow the original’s plot (assuming there was one) and cobble together a very funny, exciting film perfect for today’s audience.
Comic book adaptations are so commonplace now that we pretty much expect one every weekend. In 1982, it was a novelty, and as Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing proved, filmmakers weren’t exactly sure how to approach the material. Since it was from a comic, should it be comedic? Did it have to be bright and colorful, even if the subject matter was dark? Could it be taken seriously, or did it have to be campy? To give him credit, Craven tried to do something unique with it, but it simply does not hold up to today’s standards. We expect a lot more from our comic book movies now, and a remake could be an excellent entry in the current marketplace. The story of a research scientist whose accidental experiment turns him into a plant creature could have some amazing art direction, as well as develop themes of conservation and ecological concerns that are of importance nowadays.
John Badham’s WarGames from 1983 was one of the first movies (if not the first) to use computers as the basis for the plot. Matthew Broderick plays a teenage “hacker” (probably before the term was coined) who accidentally breaks into the military’s new computer that runs its nuclear missiles thinking he’s only playing a game. When the government discovers this, they go after him as the United States finds itself on the brink of a possible nuclear war. The movie is still great, but with the advancements in computer technology, this could be easily updated to reflect current world situations. Let’s forget about the 2008 sequel, WarGames: The Dead Code, which had no connection to the original anyway and could actually be considered a remake since it basically stole its plot from the first film. This movie made such little impact that Rotten Tomatoes only had three critical reviews, and Box Office Mojo doesn’t even have a listing for it, so it’s essentially a non-entity anyway. A major studio remake with a top director and A-list cast could end up being a fantastic modernization with all our current gadgets galore. Or even better–make a legitimate sequel and bring back Matthew Broderick, now a Bill Gates/Steve Jobs type who is the mentor to a new teenaged computer whiz who’s in trouble.
1983’s Brainstorm was the second feature film directed by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull and was noteworthy as being the final film of actress Natalie Wood, who died during production. With several scene left unfilmed, it left the movie feeling choppy and unsatisfying. The story featured Christopher Walken in one of his rare good guy roles (he’s amazingly likeable playing this kind of character) as a scientist who develops a way to record memories to play back in someone else’s mind. This idea was reworked by James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow in Strange Days, but that was a darker, cyberpunk futuristic story. Brainstorm worked because it was about those innovators who were developing new technology and seeing how far they could push it. This is very meaningful today as we have more and more breakthroughs and technological advancements. The idea that we could actually record our thoughts is not out of the question, and could be made believable rather than being simply a science fiction concept.
THE BIG CHILL
When Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill hit the theaters in 1983, it struck a chord with Baby Boomers everywhere. It starred a who’s who of character actors who would find themselves working with Kasdan repeatedly (Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, JoBeth Williams, and Kevin Costner as a corpse) as a group of friends who were in college together in the ’60’s and now were dealing with getting older and raising families. They regroup for the funeral of a buddy and reassess their lives. This essentially set the tone and format for the TV series thirtysomething. This film is firmly rooted in its time period–the characters are a product of the then and now. A remake would have to take the same situation–college friends reuniting 20 years later to grieve over a friend and ponder their existence–but make it relevant to the current generation. After all, the original cast is now in their 60’s. What if the ’80’s Brat Pack–Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Downey, Jr., Demi Moore, Alley Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and even Charlie Sheen (perhaps taking over Costner’s role as the corpse) were cast in this update? Not only are most of those actors still active with their careers, some are actually good actors who can deliver powerful performances. Also, this would be meaningful for the former kids of the ’80’s who grew up watching this cast in The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes films, making it an actual reunion that would create a real nostalgic feeling for current adults.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB
Speaking of the Brat Pack and The Breakfast Club, that movie screams ’80’s more than most (except perhaps Fast Times at Ridgemont High). It’s a simple story–five high school stereotypes spend a Saturday afternoon together in detention and learn the meaning of life, or something like that. This movie might still hold up for those who saw it as teenagers, but for today’s kids, it’s hokey and out of touch. Times have changed, and even if people haven’t, how can the social networking, iPod and cellphone toting teens of the second decade of the millennium relate to kids from 1985? Look how well Marty McFly connected with his future kids in Back to the Future Part II. The problem with remaking The Breakfast Club is in the casting. There’s a reason why the Brat Pack has largely stayed in front of the cameras for the past 25 years–they had talent. Not to badmouth the current crop of young actors, but a majority of them are trained on Disney Channel/Nickelodeon type of shallow play-to-the-camera performances. Seriously, can you see Selena Gomez in a serious role? The Breakfast Club was rated R for a reason–despite its stereotypes and soap opera situation, it had surprising depth in dealing with what teenagers go through. Most of the tripe made for teens nowadays is either raunch or flash. If someone decided to do a serious remake with a well-written screenplay and a cast that can play realistic characters, it would be a huge hit.
THE RUNNING MAN
No one epitomized ’80’s motion pictures more than Arnold Schwarzenegger. In some ways, he was the ’80’s. It’s no surprise why a number of his movies are now set to be remade, for better or worse (the worse being Conan the Barbarian), but the one that desperately needs another go-around is 1987’s The Running Man. It was based on a book by Stephen King writing under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman and was set in a futuristic society where game shows have become lethal. That is all where the book and film had in common. The novel is an action-packed thriller where a common man from the poor side of the city is selected to participate in the top-rated show and is then re-imagined as a horrible killer for the sake of the audience. He is set out into the public armed with a video camera and must mail tapes of his surroundings every day. This allows the game show’s producers to send hit men after him as well as turn the entire public against him by offering a huge reward. He literally has no one he can turn to. The longer he stays alive, the more money his family will earn when he is finally caught and killed. The movie had Schwarzenegger stuck in a laser tag-ish game room being chased by cartoony villains. Naturally, a remake should throw out the original’s plot and actually stick to what King wrote (what a novel concept!). Its commentary on reality shows gone out of control was ahead of its time in the ’80’s, but now is extremely timely. Not only would a remake correct the abomination that the original adaptation was, but it would be even more relevant now.
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I actually disagree about Flash Gordon. The ’80s movie was about the most perfect modern version of that story and successfully met the tone of the story. I don’t think you can do a serious Nolan-style version of a story about clouds in space, birdmen with loincloths, a guy named Ming the Merciless with outrageous eyebrows, and all the other hilariously corny stuff. If you tried to make it dark, gritty, or realistic, it wouldn’t be Flash Gordon anymore — you’d be better off just writing an original screenplay. The ’80s special effects were actually perfect for the story. They really do look spectacular and fake at the same time, which is exactly what’s needed: it’s not a story to take seriously, but to have lots of fun with. It’s good eye candy, and it puts a goofy smile on your face the whole time!
You do have a pretty decent argument about the legitimacy of certain remakes, though. Classic Hollywood definitely did remake their successful films a lot, although not always successfully (1956’s High Societ is an inferior remake of the near-perfect Philadelphia Story). But you set down some good guidelines: it’s pointless making a remake if the original is still relevant, still beloved, and iconic.
Then, there are certain stories that can constantly get remade for different eras. Like Robin Hood and King Arthur — I think there will always be room for new versions of those stories.
I know that Flash Gordon holds a special place in the heart of many, but it would still be curious to see what could be done with that story now. Of course, there was a short-lived TV version of it not long ago, but the less said about that the better.