There’s an oft-repeated maxim that alleges there are only seven ideas in the entirety of fiction and that everything we watch and read is based on them. Well, perhaps. In today’s Hollywood, though, they need only one. It’s called the remake.
Not long ago, I heard a rumor that a new version of Ben-Hur — a remake of the Charlton Heston flick, itself a remake of the 1925 silent film adapted from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel — had hit theaters. Skeptical, I headed online to hunt down the trailer, and YouTube, as is its wont, forced me to watch another ad. It was a preview of the remake of The Magnificent Seven, starring Denzel Washington, based on the 1960 movie starring Yul Brynner, which was itself a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Now, Washington and director Antoine Fuqua had only recently teamed up to produce The Equalizer, a not entirely awful reimagining of the 1980s vigilante television series, so I wasn’t completely turned off by the notion. What red-blooded American doesn’t enjoy a cinematic orgy of righteous vengeance from time to time? Bruce Willis is working on a Death Wish remake as we speak. I’ll probably see that one, too.
My only question is, When is Hollywood going to make something original for the folks in the 21st century?
We should not be reflexively opposed to remakes or reboots or even rehashes because, let’s face it, most movies are undeserving of sanctification. As a kid, for instance, I heard adults showering films like Spartacus with accolades. Watching Kirk Douglas lead his sunbaked, shirtless slave revolt was entertaining enough, but it’s gotten difficult to take the movie seriously. So Hollywood — after a couple of cartoonish stabs at remaking the story — is now working on a gritty but historically accurate version of the epic. I’ll see it.
There are plenty of similarly familiar stories that could benefit from a contemporary reset. But the predominance of sequels and remakes has gotten to the point where it’s starting to feel like our cultural imagination is petering out. It’s an accelerating trend. Do we really need another iteration of A Star Is Born — a remake of a remake — directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Lady Gaga? Or The Wild Bunch starring Will Smith? Or Jumanji starring The Rock? Or how about Mary Poppins with Meryl Streep? Or Logan’s Run starring . . . oh, who cares. New versions of Cliffhanger, Blair Witch Project, Splash (this time with merman!), Overboard, and WarGames are also on the way.
As we speak, producers are spending millions to create new adaptations of Porky’s and Police Academy. If a generation isn’t even able to conceive its own sex-fueled gross-out comedies, how can it possibly grasp its place in history?
Create your own pretend heroes, people. Think about it: Nearly every superhero movie — and what is that, around 90 percent of film profits these days? — is merely reintroducing characters that have been around forever. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Doctor Strange, you name it, we were reading those comics when I was a kid. Ant-Man was first introduced to comic-book readers in 1962.
For a while, the golden age of television offered Americans some respite from this trend. This fall, however, Fox will be reintroducing Lethal Weapon to Americans in series form, while HBO will be reintroducing them to Westworld — a series based on the Michael Crichton movie. And what say you to another Star Trek reboot on CBS? Because rebooted Star Trek movies weren’t enough, evidently.
We already share an entire registry of timeless films that feature either a singular vision of a director or an extraordinary performance of an actor. Think Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Granted, it’s comforting to share a few intergenerational cultural touchstones. The recent updates of Jurassic Park and Star Wars — remakes masquerading as sequels — were imbued with a technical proficiency and sophistication that transformed timeless stories into something more palatable for modern sensibilities.
Then again, these efforts can go horribly wrong. I recently nearly sat through the remake of 1991’s gloriously cheesy, adrenaline-fueled Point Break, a CGI-laden remake that reached into the chest of the original and tore out its heart the way that pagan priest from Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom did to his victims. It is a crime against the ’90s. Please stop.
And there are no shortcuts. Technical advances can take you only so far. As can shtick. Recasting Ghostbusters entirely with women does not transform your movie into something fresh. The same trick is now being used for a remake of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven — itself a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film.
We used to share epochal cinematic moments with movies like Jaws or E.T. or Pulp Fiction, which changed our cultural trajectory for better or worse. What are the 2010s about? The only national cultural phenomenon of the past five years that I can think of is watching multitudes chase around cute little Pokémon, a Japanese concoction cooked up in the mid ’90s.
If movies reflect the national id, we’re in trouble. Is it risk aversion? Is it cultural myopia? The promising news is that the Ben-Hur remake was a $100 million–budget critical and financial disaster. Then again, if the entertainment establishment wasn’t hindered by efforts like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Lone Ranger, perhaps nothing can stop them. All I know is that if our grandkids are sitting though the 25th reboot of Spider-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we will have failed them.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.