A while back I was talking with some folks about movie reboots and the merits (or lack of merits) thereof. People hate reboots, because we love continuity. That’s understandable. We invest ourselves in these stories and we want that investment to be repaid. This is something of an absurd expectation. First and foremost, it is infinitely easier to consume works than it is to create them. I don’t mean that in the disparaging, “Then you create something,” way that self-proclaimed artists will defensively scream. I mean that purely and simply consumption is easier than creating. Consider: which is easier, cooking a perfect omelet, or pouring ketchup on it and eating it with a glass of chocolate milk?
The conversation that inspired this was about movie reboots. Specifically Robocop. There are two complaints I routinely hear leveled against them. First is that there is no need to reboot, just continue the story, or tell a new story. The second, and this one is deeply troubling, is that the reboot is somehow cheapening your experience of the original. There is a part of me that understands the first concern. However, it’s ultimately a manifestation of a really deep seeded fear of every art lover, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
This is true, in the broadest sense. There is no novel story to be told. I will concede that. Everything is a variation on a theme. However, that’s roughly equivalent to saying, “Well we’ve discovered 4/4 time, so music is done.” When Hunger Games came out people decried its similarities to “Battle Royale”. I consider these people lazy, because you could have gone really literary, and claimed it ripped off the story of Theseus and The Minotaur. It works just as well, and you get to show off that you read The Classics. The fact is, when you boil it down, and humans have been boiling it down since at least ancient Greece, the only thing that really matters, is telling the same old stories in an interesting way.
If, though, we are willing to accept Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in iterations ranging from Jason and The Argonauts to Lord of The Rings to Star Wars, why is it that we are unwilling to accept true remakes? “They’re not true enough to the original,” is a complaint I often here, except that people universally panned Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. This was primarily because it either didn’t bring anything new to the story, or because stories themselves are unique phenomena that cannot be recreated. I agree with this thought, for the record. It seems apparent to me that every story is the sum of its constituent parts, and that should a single variable change the outcome may be something entirely different.
It could also be noted that remakes don’t sufficiently differentiate themselves from the original. For this I will point you to Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Like Van Sant’s experiment in shot-for-shot remaking this movie was panned. Fans of the original rent their garments and gnashed their teeth over the addition of backstory for Michael Meyers. Their reaction is not unfounded, the addition of backstory takes a monster that in its original incarnation was a homicidal force of nature, and turns it into an understandable broken human being (albeit with super powers).
So, in at least two examples, the problem with remakes is not that they are either too faithful or not faithful enough to their originals. So then, it seems as though the problem is that there is something inherently difficult about remaking/rebooting. I submit that the difficulty here is that stories tend to be intricately tied to the times they are created in. Lord of The Rings for instance, bathes in European mythology and was written during largely during WWII, when need for national pride in England was incredibly high. Godzilla was created as a means of dealing with the intensely traumatic experience of having multiple atomic bombs dropped on an island smaller than California. While Lord of The Rings has a sort of baked in advantage by following the tropes and rhythms of myths we are familiar with, Godzilla reboots, especially the awful American attempt, fail because we simply do not have that fear to tap into. However, past failures do not mean that it is an impossible task. The Fly and The Thing are both great remakes that are arguably better than their originals. In both cases they take their originals and update them. The Fly uses the evergreen concept of science gone wrong but presents it in a way that many critics identified with AIDS )The connection is fairly easy to see, a foreign DNA makes its way into a human body and replicates, replacing human DNA until the host dies). The Thing updated a classic 50s allegory for The Red Menace (The monster could be anyone! ANYONE!) and updated it with gore and the bitter nihilism of a country still in the grips of the Cold War. The movie literally ends with two people watching the other die of freezing.
Robocop was a movie born out of Reaganomics. Amid decreased corporate regulation we were given a parable about Detroit, a city built on industry, being bought and run by Omni Consumer Corp. The villains are crooked executives who have literally turned a human into a working machine better suited to labor subserviently and follow directions more completely. The movie ends with the exposure of the lone crooked executive and the robotic labor reestablishing his humanity. This, it seems, could be readily remade in the same way that The Thing and The Fly were. I don’t know that it will be successful, but to dismiss it out of hand is extreme, I believe.
Now the more problematic claim. The idea that somehow a reboot or a remake negates your earlier experience is patently absurd. Unless your argument is that the existence of a new iteration of something completely supplants extant iterations of that thing, that is to say, the most recent G.I. Joe movies completely erase from existence the comics and cartoons that came before them, then the idea that somehow your experience has been cheapened by it is complete bunk. Your experience with media is an internal phenomenon. For instance, I find the new Ninja Turtles cartoons to be terrible. I also know that they are different from the Ninja Turtles that I used to watch, and that somehow does not impact my enjoyment of those old cartoons.
The other part of this idea that bothers me is the assertion that somehow there is one true iteration. The idea that my Ninja Turtles is somehow the correct one is absurd, especially since by the time it was a cartoon it had been through several major changes already. This insistence on slavish devotion to what we consider the original or the pure is not only silly, but often serves as a kind of barrier to entry for possible new fans. When I was a kid, Rocky and Bullwinkle went through a revival of sorts. In 1992 the idea of the Evil Russian Empire was simply not a cultural touchstone for me. As a result, what I now realize were interesting commentaries on culture were just stupid filler in between Professor Peabody and Sherman and Fractured Fairy Tales. My father would tell me it was good, but it wasn’t, because “good” is subjective.
That’s the crux of it really. We want people to know what is good, because agreement validates our taste. Disagreement on the other hand, instead of offering a chance at self-reflection, causes us to wonder what the hell is wrong with other people and why is it that they like shitty things? It’s not pretty, but it’s human, I think. Regardless, the immediate hate for reboots and remakes seems to be based more on a kind of kneejerk reaction than considered and measured examination of the possibilities of the remake itself. So relax, enjoy your memories, and if you really think a remake will be that bad, don’t partake.