Remake Love, Not War
As soon as the remake of the 1951 classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” hit the theaters, the knives were out. The movie failed on numerous levels, but not because it was a remake. Like the snap judgment on a film adaptation that the book has to be better, the notion that remakes are automatically bad is demonstrably false; some of those remakes are good, or even great.
Often remakes are done simply because a studio owns a property and thinks that if an idea worked before then it will work again, as in the proposed remakes of “Logan’s Run” and “Westworld” currently in development. That may make good business sense, but it’s the wrong reason to tell a story. A good remake needs a valid purpose to justify retelling the story.
One such reason is when someone sees the opportunity to correct and revise a flawed original. Take “The Fly.” Based on a George Langelaan story that had originally appeared in Playboy, it was a melodramatic potboiler about a scientist (Al [David] Hedison) whose experiment goes horribly wrong. His teleportation device leaves him with the giant head and arm of a fly, while the fly, discovered at the end, has a tiny human head and arm. It was good for some screams in the 1950s, even with Vincent Price in a relatively sedate role but, as future director David Cronenberg noted, the story made no sense. If the machine simply swapped body parts shouldn’t the scientist have a tiny fly head? Where did all that extra mass come from?
In his brilliant 1986 remake, Cronenberg attempted to address those issues. The film takes advantage of three decades of scientific advances to make the combination of man and fly more credible, if not actually believable. As Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) notes, his transporter has turned into a gene splicer, merging the DNA of man and fly. Some chose to read Seth’s deterioration into “Brundlefly” as symbolic of AIDS, but Cronenberg explicitly rejected that notion, arguing that it would imply he somehow caught it from science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). He preferred to see it as the equivalent of the aging process, something Baby Boomers were just beginning to experience as they started to find that their bodies didn’t work like they used to.
Simply revising the science of the story might have been reason enough to do a remake, but the film goes further, becoming a chamber piece in which Seth, Veronica and her editor/ex-lover Stathis Borens (John Getz) are caught up in a complex series of betrayals and misunderstandings. In the ’58 film the key job of the wife (Patricia Owens) was to scream at the big reveal of her husband’s transformation. Veronica is much more of an active player. As a reporter she is the one who stumbles on to the story of Seth’s research and then aggressively pursues it, even over his objections. She successfully negotiates access to his experiments as the price for sitting on the story. She deals with both Stathis and Seth as equals, not always prevailing but not taking a passive role either. In the film’s final act her ordeal is every bit as important to the story as Seth’s. She realizes she is pregnant by him and seeks an abortion. It is Veronica who is the pro-active character in the film’s climax, with both men finally overwhelmed by events. Coming five years before Davis’s role in the overtly feminist “Thelma and Louise,” it’s a powerful reflection of just how different women in the ‘80s were from their mothers in the ‘50s.
The lesson here is that, while jazzing up the special effects may be part of the process of doing a remake, the focus has got to remain on the story and characters. John Carpenter knew that when he set forth to redo another ‘50s classic, “The Thing.” The original was directed by Christian Nyby and produced by Howard Hawks, himself a major director. In it American scientists and military personnel at a remote Arctic location discover a spaceship whose vegetable-based passenger thrives on our blood. The arguments between the scientist, who wants to seek knowledge for its own sake, and the colonel, who wants to shoot first and ask questions later, is the mirror image of the debate in the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” which came out that same year, only this time the military is proven right. The movie is fondly remembered for several “sense of wonder” moments, including the closing warning to “Keep watching the skies.”
For his remake Carpenter largely ignored the Nyby film. He instead focused on “Who Goes There?”—the short story by Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym for legendary SF editor John W. Campbell, that served as its source. As good as the 1951 film was, it used very little of that story. Instead of turning the film into another Cold War parable, Carpenter’s version is an exercise in paranoia. The scientists and military men, now in Antarctica, are isolated by a storm when the alien starts to attack. As in the short story, the alien is not a giant carrot but a shape shifter. Who can you trust when one of your colleagues—or even a sled dog—might be the alien in disguise? The movie provided scares (courtesy of make effects wizard Rob Bottin) that would never have been permitted in a movie three decades earlier but, more importantly, it transformed the political and intellectual dilemmas of the ’51 movie back to the psychological and existential unease of Campbell’s story.
Some stories are so timeless they can be told again and again, with new variations and interpretations introduced each time. Consider the variations on a theme in the three versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The 1964 Italian film “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, is a melancholy tale of loneliness and futility as the last survivor of a plague fights vampiric zombies. Seven years later Charlton Heston starred in “The Omega Man,” in which numerous changes were made so that Heston’s heroic stature could be preserved. The zombies were transformed into strange and deadly cultists; other survivors were found; and, most importantly, the macho Heston saw plenty of action. The 2007 “I Am Legend” ups the ante even more with amazing effects of an abandoned Manhattan slowly returning to wilderness. It makes its hero (played by Will Smith) into a combination of Price and Heston. The loneliness is slowly driving him mad, but he gets to kick some zombie butt while also trying to find a cure for the plague.
While one can have preferences among the stylistic or narrative differences of the films, or note the fact that Smith’s film had much more money to play with than either of its low budget predecessors, what’s interesting is that none of these films is universally hailed as the definitive adaptation of Matheson or a masterpiece in its own right. Just as no one complains when a show is revived on Broadway, and different performers and directors bring their own ideas and interpretations to older plays, the “I Am Legend” films demonstrate that a good story can be told again and again, provided that no one version completely overshadows the others.
The key question for any director contemplating a remake is figuring out why you want to tell this story now. Consider “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which has been filmed four times. The 1956 original, based on Jack Finney’s novel, is a classic that still has the power to shock audiences. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his sleepy California town of Santa Rosa to find that numerous people are complaining that imposters have replaced family members. We learn of pods from space, which absorb the lives and memories of humans, killing off the real people in the process. It’s a scary take on conformity in 1950s America, whether you see the pods as stand-ins for Communist infiltrators or for the witch hunters. For his part director Don Siegel said it wasn’t really about politics at all but about letting others do your thinking for you.
The film was remade in 1978 by director Philip Kaufman and was greeted with initial skepticism by fans of the original. However both McCarthy and Siegel did cameos in the remake, implicitly giving their blessings. The new film was still about conformity, but it now reflected the concerns of the “Me Decade.” Bennell’s psychiatric colleague (Leonard Nimoy) became the author of pop psychology self-help books. The action had moved from Santa Rosa to San Francisco, with the anonymity of big city life aiding the pods in their conquest. When McCarthy showed up for his cameo, he was shown running down the street shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!” almost as if he had been screaming out warnings since the end of the last film. Indeed, the close of the ‘56 film, in which Miles is finally believed, was added only after the distributor freaked out over the original downbeat ending. Twenty-two years later—after assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate—moviegoers had grown more cynical, allowing Kaufman to offer a chilling conclusion in which one of the remaining humans is outed by the pod people. Rather than simply rehashing the original film in color and with bigger stars and effects, Kaufman’s version reflected the malaise of the late ‘70s.
The two subsequent remakes provide counterexamples of how not to do it. Abel Ferrara’s 1994 “Body Snatchers” sets the action at a military base, which is also being taken over by the invaders. As Don Siegel might have noted, if you set this story in a situation where everyone is supposed to conform and obey orders, how can you tell who the pods are? Even more disappointing is the 2007 “Invasion” which was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (the German director of “The Experiment” and “Downfall”). It was defeated by the real life pod people at the studio. Much of the film is a thoughtful retelling, with the renamed Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) now a psychiatrist and mother living in Washington, D.C. with her young son. Instead of pods the film posits an infectious goo transmitted by one person to another, almost as if it’s a sexually transmitted disease. However, the downbeat film Hirschbiegel intended was never released. Instead, James McTeigue was brought in to do reshoots including new scenes written by the Wachowski Brothers (of “Matrix” fame), providing a wholly unbelievable happy ending. The studio was less interested in what story was being told than in giving the public what they wanted. As it turned out, the public didn’t want it.
So, with so many examples of how to do a remake right, why did the new “The Day the Earth Stood Still” fail? The 1951 film featured Michael Rennie as the alien Klaatu who arrives on Earth with a message he wants to deliver to all of Earth’s leaders. The problem is that getting all of Earth’s leaders in one place proves impossible. Instead, after numerous difficulties, Klaatu delivers his message to a group of the planet’s great scientists and thinkers, led by Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe channeling Albert Einstein). His message is this: there’s a vast interplanetary union out there that lives in peace which has no intention of letting Earth export its wars. Humans can kill each other, but once we start putting our weapons into space they will have no choice but to destroy us. Coming in the midst of the Cold War, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima only six years in the past, “Day” was a cautionary fable about the choices in front of us: war or peace, life or death.
The new film keeps the framework of the original but now has Klaatu concerned about pollution and global warming. That makes it timely, but the filmmakers seem never to have asked why this story was necessary to address those issues. The political content of “Day” is not simply a modular chip that can be replaced by an upgrade. The fear and suspicions of the Earth authorities in the 1951 film were reflective of the anxieties of the time. We get little sense that the authorities in the new film are in a post-9/11 world. When the new Klaatu finally delivers his message, it is that he’s come to destroy all human life on Earth. Mankind is not given the chance to make a choice. Where’s the educational value of that? Indeed, if the whole point of his mission is to destroy humanity, why even bother to land? Just send a drone ship with the new robot Gort and be done with it.
By turning the alien’s warning into a special effects attack on the planet it defeats the whole purpose of the tale. The original movie is about humanity being given a chance to change before it’s too late, to see if the wise scientists and thinkers can overcome the paranoia and defensiveness of the political and military leaders. When Klaatu wins the trust of a widowed mother and her young son, we know there’s hope. Although these elements are retained in the new version the meaning is lost. The boy, now her stepson, is simply a brat while her goal is no longer helping Klaatu complete his mission but trying to convince him to abandon it. Instead of a superior alien race warning us, now we get a destructive one that is no better—and arguably worse—than humanity. There may be some interesting points to be made about how our environmental troubles are possibly beyond our ability to cope, but “The Day the Earth Stood Still” wasn’t the vehicle to deliver it.
In spite of the failure of “Day,” we shouldn’t give up on the potential for a remake to be as good as or better than the original film. For those still not convinced, the clinching argument falls outside of SF. The 1941 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel The Maltese Falcon marked John Huston’s directorial debut and helped make Humphrey Bogart a star. For many it is one of the essential film noirs. Not as well known is that the movie was actually the third film version of the book. When Huston announced it as his chosen project, the executives at Warner Bros. thought him foolish, since it had failed twice before. Why remake it? Huston told them it was because he was going to do it the right way. The result was a classic film that totally eclipsed its predecessors.
Are good remakes the stuff that dreams are made of? No, they can be quite real. The secret is this: it has to be put in the hands of filmmakers like Huston or Kaufman or Carpenter or Cronenberg who know why they’re doing the remake in the first place.