5 Tiny Things That Make Movie Sequels and Remakes Way Better
These are the top-grossing films of 2014:
At No. 16, Interstellar is the only film on that list that isn't a sequel, remake, or adaptation. Six of them are both sequels and adaptations of toys or books, and six of the non-sequels already have upcoming sequels planned. Heck ... one of the films on this list already has a new reboot in the works. While we've been embracing sequels and remakes since the days of Ben-Hur, anyone who has been sentient for the last two decades has seen this slow trickle turn into a Biblical splooge of eternal storytelling.
There are teenagers in this country who will never know an America without some variation of the words "fast" and/or "furious" hitting the marquees on a semi-annual basis. And while many of the films of 2014 are a blast, since this 20-year shift we've also seen a 20-year low in movie theater attendance -- 2014 hitting shitty numbers not seen since the days of Waterworld and Batman Forever. In other words -- this roster of remakes and sequels stands proudly atop a flaming barge.
So, how do we fix Hollywood? As an Associate of Science who majored in film studies before spending a decade bitterly watching and criticizing the work of others, I've decided to take on the task. My solution isn't to abolish sequels, remakes, and adaptations -- but rather to assert a set of rules for them that would, in time, bring us back to the good ol' heyday of the 1980s. You know, when we got real sequels.
Here's what to do:
Keep the Style of the Original (Even if It's Silly)
Let's talk about branding.
For starters, your brain just recognized the color of that last sentence before reading what it says or even making out the basic shapes of the letters. If the sentence was a famous logo, it would have triggered the same area of your brain as a religious symbol. Brand recognition is synonymous with comfort. It's why we trust chain hotels and restaurants while vacationing in some cobblestoned European doucheberg like Birmingham.
It's also why The Joker has the exact same color scheme in every comic, movie, and video game featuring him:
Even porn parodies.
Ever notice that? Considering how drastically different each portrayal is, the big popsicle-eating smile over mime skin, Oscar the Grouch hair, and the Barney suit are more important to the character than the actor under it all. Same goes for Batman, Judge Dredd, RoboCop, and any character that is centered on an iconic color scheme and rudimentary shape. It's such a simple concept that even a shit-eating Birminghamian could feebly cobble it together. And yet ...
The audience does too.
Why would someone do this to RoboCop? To quote a line from the film that's trying to defend the incredibly poor decision: "Make him more tactical ... let's go with black." Only it doesn't take half a fuckwit to know that A) navy blue is actually a more tactical combat hue, and B) seeing a blue bulky robot shooting scumbag caricatures with his "I'm a little teapot" firing stance is part of what RoboCop is. If it sounds too silly, don't remake the movie. Or better yet, consider that one of the more successful games of last year looks like this:
Alien: Isolation embraces the blocky Atari look of the original film instead of slickifying everything the way Prometheus does ... despite Prometheus being a prequel.
In the future, all information will be replaced with green text on black.
Embracing the camp of the original film while appealing to new audiences shows massive creative balls. It's part of why the J.J. Abrams Star Trek was such a hit. There's an instinct to modernize characters and technology lest they appear campy, unrealistic, or out of touch -- but does a movie like Red Dawn or Total Recall really benefit from a contemporary retelling? Frankly, the audience will forgive all the plot holes in the world if the film rubs them the right way. And a big part of that is tapping into the gooey nostalgia reservoir for 30-somethings and getting some neat retro cred for the 20-somethings. As the new, apparently enjoyed Godzilla remake proves: there's a charm in keeping the monster looking like its outdated counterpart, which is why the inevitable Jaws remake is going to suck without bad animatronics and problem drinking.
But the fact that these studio-folk don't automatically know to do this is indicative of a larger problem: most remakes appear to be developed by people with no idea why audiences liked the original. That's why ...
Remakes Should Change as Much of the Original as Possible (to Better Understand Them)
At its core, The Thing From Another World is a monster movie set in icy desolation that, according to reviews, doesn't take itself too seriously. John Carpenter's The Thing builds off the same setting and mood, but casts a belligerent wolfman and turns the monster into a Lovecraftian T-1000. Besides key visuals like a spaceship frozen in ice, murdered sled dogs, and the burning title effect, the remake is an extremely different beast about the same broad theme. It essentially is its own movie, iconic for being a gross-out practical effects tribute to Pod People ... something the 2011 prequel fails to embrace, opting for cheap CGI instead. Unlike what Carpenter understood about the draw of the original, the prequel completely changes one of the aspects that people like most about the '80s version.
20 years later, 20 times worse
A lot of adaptations and remakes get away with completely uprooting their source material, because they know which parts of it inspire fandom in the first place. You can interchange the time period and character ethnicities in Scarface as long as the story is about an immigrant's rise to power that is cut short by pride. Peter Jackson can make King Kong pull an American History X on three cartoon T. rexes because the original was received as a groundbreaking visual effects spectacle.
To be clear: nothing saves a movie if it's terribly written. But if remakes were required to throw out most of the original, then we'd live in a marginally better world. Just like if someone was forced to throw out 90 percent of their possessions, a filmmaker forced to change 90 percent of a story will have to figure out what's really important about the original.
What specific itch they are trying to scratch.
If it's in the title, that might be part of the 10 percent you want to keep.
Sometimes it is about retelling a compelling story like True Grit or The Departed -- but other times it's about matching the overall tone and aesthetic (see previous entry) while keeping a few iconic moments and throwing out the rest. The Evil Dead remake, for example, omits the character of Ash rather than futilely trying to follow in Bruce Campbell's footsteps. But it doesn't matter, because they keep that 10 percent of tone, imagery, and R-rated gore of the original. That's why, if all else fails, one of the simplest ways to determine if a remake is going to completely lose the audience is if it's a PG-13 version of an R film.
"Bored or disappointed, you're coming with me."
Fuck you, 2014 RoboCop. You cost $100 million, and no one will ever love you. The RoboCop remake could have starred Paul Reubens in an undersea animal testing laboratory so long as it kept the same violence, tone, and message of the original. This, of course, goes both ways, as nobody goes to see Superman for its 9/11 symbolism and skull drowning sequences.
Bah bah bah, bah ... bah baaah! Bah bah, bah bah, bah baaaah!
But for all its father-murdering and desaturated neck-breaking, the bigger problem with Man of Steel is that it starts the series by having Superman save the entire world from terraforming aliens. At this rate he'll be uppercutting God by the third film ...
Sequels and Remakes Need to Be Smarter About Raising the Stakes
Let's talk about what is objectively the best sequel ever: Jaws: The Revenge.
As opposed to the third film in the series, J:TR doesn't rely on simply making the shark bigger, because some producers know that that sort of thing isn't always the best way to raise the stakes. Instead, the escalation comes from Ellen Brody's monster truck grief. Because that character has lost her husband and one son, the film can focus on the bittersweetness of nostalgia, down to its title font looking like something out of the days of Samuel Goldwyn. From there the film subverts the character of Ellen as she takes on the same Chicken Little role that Chief Brody found himself in for Jaws 2: warning of an impending shark attack. Meanwhile, her surviving son has grown up to be a combination of all three main characters from the original Jaws -- having the same marine biology background and facial hair as Hooper, the determination of Quint, and the drunken fatherly charm of Brody. There's even a scene between him and his daughter that directly mirrors the original film.
What's my point? Other than the fact that we're long overdue for a Jaws sequel (perhaps one focusing on Michael's daughter), my point is that sometimes a sequel doesn't need to escalate the scale of the events but rather the emotional gravity surrounding the characters. Or, hell -- just taking a break to focus on the characters would be fine too. I'll give you another example.
While Temple of Doom is by a noticeable margin the least enjoyed Indiana Jones film, it still has a much higher rating than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And yet, on paper it appears to be the odd film out. Indy has an adorable orphan sidekick that he lovingly endangers, and the story is very small-scale and follows an artifact that zero world powers have any interest in. With all the snake-eating racism and heart-yanking, it's unusually dark. Heck, this is the only film in the series that doesn't have the classic Indiana Jones credits sequence or feature our hero in the fedora and whip right away. Temple of Doom is the odd duck, and having an entry like this should be a requirement for every film series out there.
As should casting Jonathan Ke Quan.
You know what is just an OK movie? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sure -- it has explosions, Robert Redford, and Scarlett Johansson murdering dudes with her legs. But the whole shebang doesn't hold a candle to this one shot it briefly features at the beginning where Cap writes down everything he missed while frozen:
After the first Captain America, The Avengers hastily throws the wing-headed hero into a new adventure while using his 1940s fish-out-of-water persona as a fun side joke. It makes sense for such a large-scale film, but coming into the second Captain America we had a chance to really explore the dynamic between a man who grew up before microwaves and an era where getting dinner boils down to shouting at your Xbox. Considering that we were just biding time until the next Avengers (which is subsequently just biding time until Civil War), Captain America 2 would have been a great time to do something completely unexpected and character-heavy. Instead, they put the fate of mankind on the chopping block once more, leaving the audience to wonder why the rest of The Avengers aren't helping to fight three giant hovercraft assassins. But at least it isn't as insanely dire as Thor 2's villains trying to squash the entire planet with elf portals.
Wouldn't it have been awesome if those sequels dialed it back to get to know the characters a little better? The only blockbuster sequels to consider this have been Iron Man 3, which completely screws with its own genre (thanks to writer-director Shane Black), and the Dark Knight trilogy, on account of the filmmakers having a concise exit strategy. Which reminds me ...
Actually Plan to End It
Fun fact: the ending of Back to the Future where Doc and Marty whisk off to another adventure wasn't actually meant to tease a real sequel; it was just a joke by writer-director Robert Zemeckis. It was only when the demand to make more came up that they added the "To Be Continued" for the video release. Upon realizing that they'd have to make more, the filmmakers mapped out a set of sequels that specifically follow Marty's character as he learns to pick his battles and ultimately takes control of his own future. And then, instead of saying fuck it and making three more after that, the studio conceded that they told the story and moved the hell on to the next project ... because that's how good movies used to work. For all its hideous faults, the Matrix trilogy was the last time a popular series had the self-control to end.
"Hey ... didn't Jesus come back?" -asshole exec four years from now
Iron Man might get his magnet surgery and blow up all his suits, but sure enough he's back in Avengers 2 like nothing happened. Sigourney Weaver may die in Avatar, but you bet your ass she's back for the three fucking sequels that are coming out ... if they decide to stop at three (they aren't sure). You think Orlando Bloom's story in Pirates is done? He's likely coming back for the fifth film. Nobody dies. Nothing ends. Unlike in the Jaws series, there is no arc.
No, really. Ignoring the third film, the Jaws movies have a pretty clear character arc that follows Ellen Brody as the loving wife of an ex-NYPD alcoholic who is forced to question her own husband's sanity in Jaws 2. After the Chief dies between J2 and J:TR, she begins to see the results of her early years of enabling, something she refuses to do to her son in the final film. It's only after Ellen finally takes the helm of her own life that she is able to effectively explode her grief and fears, but not before they bite Mario Van Peebles in half.
Career and all.
But failing all else ...
Everyone Should Stop Making Remakes and Sequels (and Make Ripoffs Instead)
OK. Let's say that Richard Dreyfuss' offices never write back in any sort of constructive or non-threatening way. Does that mean you can't make a Jaws sequel? Perhaps -- but maybe that's actually better.
From the wife-beater-wearing, submachine-gun-toting hero listening to terrorists on walkie talkies, to the condescending family member, to the "wrong place at the wrong time" plot device -- White House Down is basically just a Die Hard movie, something the filmmakers made no effort to hide. Only, luckily for everyone, White House Down isn't actually a Die Hard sequel. Had it been, it probably would have been rewritten according to a scrawling booklet of drunk Bruce Willis ransom notes and shot exclusively on a green screen with him in a sitting position the whole time. Everyone watching it would have felt some deep level of despair as they subconsciously compared it to the earlier films. But, instead of that, the filmmakers opted to reach into their bag of tricks and pull out one of the oldest and bestest tools of the trade: just ripping off some other shit.
"Now I have a film premise Ho-Ho-Ho."
And you know what? That's how we get some of the best stuff out there. Star Wars ripped off The Hidden Fortress, The Fast and the Furious is basically just Point Break with cars, and everything brave and original about Tarantino's work actually comes from his willingness to watch the films our grandparents got stoned and fucked to. Why make another Terminator or Indiana Jones when you can just rip them off instead? It's not like they were original stories to begin with.
It's the American way.
We've already seen this in action with Guardians of the Galaxy -- one of the most successful films of 2014 -- which is based on a no-name comic and opens with an Indiana Jones temple sequence and ends with a Star Wars space battle.
And yes, I understand that studios rely on familiarity to draw an audience and make money -- only that clearly isn't working anymore. It's like an alcoholic insisting that they drink because they can't sleep. So perhaps it's time for Hollywood to cut the crutch and test if audiences really want to go see only films that have some sort of brand recognition. I think they'd be as surprised about the results as they would to read an original thriller following a young FBI agent dealing with the ghosts of her past, only to face a 25-foot beast from the depths of Poseidon's dwelling.
David has written an original script titled Ocean Mouth: Tourist Swallower. If you are interested in buying it please contact him on Twitter.
For more from David, check out 6 Things I Learned Playing 'Alien: Isolation' for 16 Hours and 4 Reasons You Should Worry About 'Ghostbusters 3'.
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