Deja Vu All Over Again…

This article (a rare non-review) was originally published on on 23 April 2010.

I saw a movie this past week (actually three but only one is relevant to this particular op-ed). It was a madcap comedy about the many things that go wrong at a funeral. It is called Death at a Funeral and though I saw it opening night but I had seen it before.

Death at a Funeral is of course a remake of Death at a Funeral, a dry British farce from 2007. While foreign films have been remade quickly before, generally not when the original is in the same language. The new version is a directed by Neil LaBute, who was generally considered to be an edgy playwright and indie director until his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. The film stars Chris Rock who previously starred in I Think I Love My Wife (a remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon) and in Down to Earth (a remake of 1943′s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which had previously been remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait). Also starring is Zoë Saldaña (from the recent Star Trek reboot), James Marsden (from the musical remake of John Waters’ Hairspray and the upcoming remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), Columbus Short (from the 2005 version of War of the Worlds and Quarantine, the English-language remake of Spanish horror flick Rec.), Danny Glover (from Disney’s The Shaggy Dog remake), Loretta Devine (from The Preacher’s Wife, a remake of The Bishop’s Wife), Tracy Morgan (from The Longest Yard remake), Regina Hall (from the movie version of TV’s The Honeymooners), and Luke Wilson (from the 3:10 to Yuma remake and the movie version of TV’s Charlie’s Angels).

Noticing a trend here?

Now I would like to say (not for the first time) that I am not anti-remake. Case in point: Death at a Funeral is quite enjoyable. Not quite so much as the original but very funny, mostly because it is almost entirely the same movie. However, throughout the entire movie I was plagued by nagging thoughts of “WHY?” and “TOO SOON” floating through my head. It’s not inexcusable to remake a great film, but after only three short years? The original still seems like a new movie to me. I suppose in some respects it is very much like seeing a play you have seen before. You know the story, you know the lines, but the point is seeing a new interpretation by a different cast and different director. To see a new person’s vision of the same script. Seen Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet? Try Franco Zeffirelli’s with Mel Gibson. Or Michael Almereyda’s with Ethan Hawke. Or Kenneth Branagh’s with himself. Actually, skip Branagh’s. It’s kind of all over the place…

Now some remakes even go on to be better than the originals. I had a recent compare/contrast article within the subgenre of slasher film remakes which pointed out a couple. But the all-time case of a remake far surpassing the original is John Carpenter’s 1982 science fiction horror masterpiece The Thing.

The Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film The Thing From Another World was based on a short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. The story dealt with an alien life form that could take the form of other life forms. The Thing From Another World did not. Rather it had James Arness as more of a Frankenstein-like lumbering monster that could reproduce like a plant. Classic film buffs who adore everything Hawks ever touched stand by this film but I’m not quite sold on the carrot-monster angle (though there was some pretty decent suspense). John Carpenter’s remake goes back to the source material and is a masterful tale of suspense and paranoia enhanced by great special effects by effects guru Rob Bottin.

There are many reasons films get remade. Sometimes it’s to resuscitate a dormant brand, as with next week’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Sometimes it’s to Americanize a movie from a different culture as with the upcoming Let Me In, a remake of the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In (with Chloë “Hit Girl” Moretz as the vampire girl). But mostly it’s laziness. Studios want to cash in on something they know is already successful. That’s why you see sequel after sequel after sequel every year. That’s why every TV show you or your parents grew up watching is making its way to the big screen. And we go see these movies. In droves. Because the studio’s cynicism is dead on target. People DO go to see familiar things. I know I’m going to see A Nightmare On Elm Street as soon as I possibly can (and hopefully review it for y’all next week).

Individually there isn’t anything wrong with sequels or remakes. I’ve already said several times that many are quite good and far more are… well let’s just say innocuous. But the overall trend does make a statement about the creative bankruptcy of the modern movie industry. People have new bold ideas but they are not getting produced in Hollywood. Movies with balls, like Jody Hill’s Observe and Report land with a thud at the box office. Maybe the industry isn’t to blame. Maybe we need to start demanding more. You all know that theater in your town (The Tower and the Crest in Sacramento) that shows the arty movies. Go see more of their stuff. You don’t have to completely cut off the remake/sequel/TV show adaptation-generating machine but try to fund originality with your hard-earned money!

Incidentally many people have written this exact same complaint before… but no harm in doing what’s been done, right?

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