Are movie remakes a good or bad idea? Recently I heard about Gene Wilder trashing the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, calling it an “insult” to the classic 1971 version. (Yes, that was eight years ago; I like Gene Wilder, but he sure can hold a grudge.) Around the same time, I listened to an NPR interview of Lynda Obst, one of the producers of the 1991 masterpiece Fisher King, in which she said that remakes were what’s keeping Hollywood alive through the current economic downturn. I’d say we should examine them on an individual basis. In this installment I’ll discuss three remakes I’ve seen this year.
Of course I would not have missed the latest installment in the Star Trek reboot franchise, Into Darkness. All my fellow Trek fans seem to love the characters and the way the new actors have re-invented the old favorites from the TV show. Kirk, Spock, Scott, McCoy, Sulu, Checkov – they’ve all got it down. It’s especially cool to see Uhura in a more active role, and being played by the very hot Zoe Saldana. The film had non-stop action and plenty of high-dollar CGI effects, but it was disappointing to see yet another recycled Trek plot. Yes, I know there are only a few basic archetypes in fiction, but they could at least invent some new villains. And the romantic relationship between Uhura and Spock? Highly illogical.
The newest Superman show, Man of Steel, generated a lot of controversy. Many people ridiculed the “emo” incarnation of Superman. I liked it; it brought some depth to a character who was always too wooden for my taste. Continuing the “spunky female” trend, Lois Lane has a major role, though this time she’s not a brunette – heresy! Like the previous Superman movies, this one ditches the whole Superboy story line. Though the young Clark Kent does a few rescues in secret, he doesn’t don the cape until he’s well into adulthood. This one had a decent plot and great villains; once again, non-stop action. There was an extensive and imanginative segment on the planet Krypton, something previous movies have ignored. My main complaint about Superman is the Man of Steel himself. As my son remarked, he’s the ultimate “OP” (over-powered) character. It’s appropriate that Kent’s true surname is “El,” a Hebrew word for “God.”
The third and most recent of this year’s movie remakes is The Lone Ranger, featuring Johnny Depp (the guy who stole Gene Wilder’s thunder as Willy Wonka in 2005) in the sidekick role as Tonto. This one got many negative reviews, and I’ll admit it has substantial flaws, but I enjoyed it. Armie Hammer does an interesting portrayal of the masked vigilante as a mild-mannered attorney driven to seek justice for the murder of his brother. With Depp playing Tonto, this neglected character finally gets the attention he deserves. The Native American hero is not the PC version you’d expect these days, but a trickster with her own faults and foibles. After all, Tonto is Spanish for “fool,” something Kemo Sabe mentions at the end of the move. As for the plot, it was the old “evil railroad baron” story, and it veered from melodramatic (a villain who eats the hearts of his enemies) to ridiculous (riding a horse on top of a moving train.) In any case, I appreciated the anti-authority message; they’re all corrupt, even the Army.
As I stated before, I believe we should judge each remake on its own merits, rather than bemoaning the trend. I admit, however, that Hollywood has been intellectually lazy and overcautious for far too many years. If it wasn’t for foreign films and TV shows, or the occasional youth-oriented book series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) they wouldn’t have any new ideas at all. Still, some characters and story lines are too good to be allowed to die.