I know, we say this every year. But Hollywood ran out of new ideas about 70 years ago, and each year it only gets worse.
Last year was the year of the threequel, as there were 7 different movies last year that were the third movie in a trilogy, and 10 other entries in other movie series. It looks 2008 is the year of the remake, with 12 remakes -- that is, 12 new versions of movies that have already been made -- poised to hit theaters. There are also 17 other straight sequels, six TV adaptations including a Hannah Montana concert movie, and two Tyler Perry movies. (Plus there's Meet the Spartans and Superhero Movie.) All in all, that's 17% of all movies (213 in total, by my count) coming out this year. It's a good thing the WGA wasn't striking for originality, or they'd still be on the picket.
There are twelve remakes coming out in 2008, from J-Horror like One Missed Call and The Eye (and a remake of the Thai film Shutter) to comic book fare like The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher: War Zone to sci-fi (Scanners, Death Race, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to awful-looking family movies like Horton Hears a Who and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D. Only 11 years after the original, Michael Haneke is remaking Funny Games in English; only a year after Hairspray, we'll get a new version of Fame.
Last year, when I was trying to explain why it seemed like every single movie was a sequel, I concluded it was because movies were like TV pilots: buy enough tickets to a movie, and the series gets picked up and you'll get to see the characters in another go-around. This seems to be exactly what happened with Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix, not to mention Star Wars.
But remakes are even curiouser. Remaking a movie sends a mixed message about the source material: it implies that the source material has merit, but nonetheless can't be completely enjoyed on its own merit. Many remakes update a foreign movie for domestic audiences, a tacit acknowledgement that most moviegoers would prefer to watch a movie in their own language. Others update the context, usually to jazz it up for the current political climate (and, often, the film stock from black and white to color), like the recent All the King's Men or The Manchurian Candidate or this year's The Day the Earth Stood Still, playing on a marketing assumption that most people don't like to watch old movies.
But many relatively recent movies are getting remade, hoping that audiences will forget the past and look at the material in new light. This summer will see new attempts to correct the historical record left by comic book flops of The Hulk and The Punisher, which between them have inspired three turkeys in the past twenty years. Both will hope for the success found by Batman Begins, which revived the moribund Batman franchise by bringing in a new star, new director, and new screenwriter, and brought in so much cash at the box office that it earned its own sequel, coming out this summer: The Dark Knight. Undoubtedly, if the Hulk or the Punisher are successful this time around, they'll win sequels of their own. If most big-ticket movies today are like pilots, auditioning for a franchise, then remakes are like a second bite at the apple, trying to find a new dedicated audience -- and cash stream for future entries in the series -- for old source material.
Remakes are less of a sure thing than sequels, because their audience isn't as built-in. Fans of the originals may not want to see a new version they feel betrays the source material. But they're not as risky as original idea, because they still involve characters that have been greenlighted by Hollywood and seen on the big screen. They clearly can be made into a movie, even if it isn't a good one. If a sequel is frequently a purely commercial ploy, a remake may look comparatively like a calculated risk, a compromise offering limited artistic freedom without sacrificing the bottom line.
Sometimes, that compromise works, as Batman Begins was one of the best comic book movies in years. But usually remakes are just as bad as sequels. And I'm not looking forward to Keanu Reeves coming to earth this December and stonefacedly whoaing his imprint onto three of the most famous words in movie history: Klaatu Barada Nikto!