Message from the ‘Ben Hur’ debacle: remakes work when they are not exactly remakes

Hollywood’s reboot rush ignores the fact that if the new version does not remind us of the original, it won’t do.

While remakes and reboots have long been a Hollywood staple, the recent spate of films inspired by storied properties has given this trend an urgency that makes one wonder if the world’s biggest film industry is running out of ideas. The situation is worsened by the fact that most such films are performing poorly at the box office.

For instance, the recent release Ben Hur, a remake of the 1959 classic, cost $100 million and recovered only about $25 million in domestic and international markets. Weeks before Ben Hur, the Ghostbusters reboot, with women replacing the Bill-Murray fronted gang from the original, had failed to enthuse audiences. When the backlash against the Ghostbusters reboot started, some on social media painted the outrage as the work of bullying fanboys. But the pervasive hate could not have been misogyny alone. It was also an outcome of the bruising rigours of fandom, which looks upon iconic films as cherished memories. Tweak them and you open yourself to viciousness and ridicule, as Paul Feig, the director of the Ghostbusters reboot, learnt.

In an entertainment culture teeming with good programming on television, audiences are no longer satisfied with bland remakes of old Hollywood fare that enamoured an earlier generation. Even so, Hollywood is in no hurry to give up its addiction for remakes. Films in the pipeline include reboots of The Craft, the 1996 teen thriller about witchcraft; Commando, without Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course; and even the 1930 classic, All Quiet on The Western Front.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

It is anybody’s guess how these reboots will fare. The Craft, which was genuinely creepy for its time, is highly dated today, when horror as a genre has entered a zone of rich psychological complexity (The Conjuring, for instance). Schwarzenegger’s Commando combined its lead’s machismo with a plot that was so steeped in the Cold War ethos and American misadventures in Latin America that unless its reboot updates the setting to West Asia, it is at risk of drowning in tone deafness. As for All Quiet on the Western Front, the mere thought of tampering with the classic is enough to give its fans jitters.

In their rush to redo old hits, studios have failed to understand that those films worked for reasons beyond mere entertainment. They were mirrors to the prevalent social reality, capturing triumphs and anxieties of their era. For evidence, look no further than the poor box office reception of Independence Day Resurgence. Though not a reboot, the film stuck to the premise of the original, deriving its thrill from taking down the unknown enemy from space.

The original Independence Day released in pre-9/11 America, a time of absolute global supremacy for the superpower, where the only real threat Hollywood could conjure for its audience was aliens. Today that movie appears quaint, even cute, the last hurrah of a more innocent time. Little wonder its sequel failed to set the cash registers ringing.

If there is one lesson for Hollywood, it is that the reboot is unlikely to work if it is unable to invoke jolting memories of the original. Even poorly written attempts at revisiting old themes worked when the audiences were supplied enough nostalgia to chew on. Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad offered a mashup of DC supervillains that was too delicious to miss.

‘Suicide Squad’.

Remakes that audiences might be genuinely interested in, like The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink (both helmed by the Coen brothers), have failed to take off because they demand the kind of talent that Hollywood’s assembly line is ill-equipped to nurture, let alone recognise. Television has come to the rescue, with the FX series Fargo taking inspiration from the 1996 Coen brothers’ namesake. Following the anthology format, the series has introduced fresh characters and storylines while retaining the bleak atmospherics of the original.

Remakes will continue to occupy prime real estate on Hollywood tycoons’ drawing boards. When they work, they become an easy target for replication, sacrificing artistic merit on the altar of financial expediency. Meanwhile, the discerning viewer, as also the nostalgic one, will increasingly shift online or to television for his fix of the fresh and the invigorating.
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