It shouldn’t. It makes good business sense. Just like in politics or product brands, name recognition is the key. Why remake Dawn Of The Dead, easily one of the greatest and most influential zombie films of all time? Because people have heard of it. The target audience may not have seen it (In fact, ideally for the producers, they haven’t). But, through cultural osmosis, people know that Dawn of the Dead = Zombies + Good.
And if the cinephiles, the elderly and the nerd audience have seen it already? That’s fine too, because it will draw those people out of sheer curiosity. Even to hate on it, a nerd will go see anything genre related. You don’t see a ton of remakes like The Women or Fun with Dick and Jane, but sci-fi/comic book/fantasy/action/horror? Oh yeah. You’ve got a built in audience, which, honestly, includes me. I may not see them in the theater, but odds are good that I’ll get around to seeing the Thing and Alien prequels.
So, we’re all suckers, and they’re going to keep churning these out as long as there’s an audience and a lack of courage on the part of movie studios. Remakes and sequels are here to stay, for better or worse. The question is; How do we make them better?
Well, my philosophy on remakes is pretty simple: Either make it different, or make it better. That sounds simplistic, but let’s look at a couple examples. The previously mentioned The Thing could be viewed as a remake of the classic film The Thing From Another World, or, if you must, another adaptation of the classic sci-fi story Who Goes There? (I think that if you’re adapting a book that already has a film version that knocked it out of the park, we’re in remake territory). It keeps some of the best elements of the already great original film, like the isolation in a barren snowscape trapped with an alien beast. But, it then adds some elements that were in the original story, like the alien being able to change shape. That, and a few other changes, made it different enough that you’re not comparing it to the original film the entire time. I also find it to be better, but that’s always completely subjective; Both films are great, and you could watch them back-to-back and never get bored.
Here’s my advice to Matt Reeves with the Let The Right One In remake: The book is a bit more visceral than the movie. Use that! You can keep all the essential things that make the story good, but change it enough from the first film that the fans (and critics) won’t totally hate it, or be comparing it the whole time. I mean, do you really think you can make a clearly “better” film than the original? Because it’s gotta be miles above for that to be worthwhile, and while I enjoyed Cloverfield, it, sir, was no Let The Right One In.
One remake that I felt really worked was Vanilla Sky. I’m a much bigger fan of the original film, Open Your Eyes, but I did like the fact that while the script was almost line-for-line the same, the tone was completely different. See, sometimes you don’t need to change the structure, just the attitude of the thing. Cameron Crowe referred to it as a “cover”, and I like that sentiment.
Sequels, at their best, keep the overall tone and elements of their predecessors, while advancing the narrative and adding new insight into the characters. Godfather Part II being one of the best examples of a great sequel; The original was not made with a sequel in mind, but if you didn’t know you would almost think that they were shot at the same time. Everything flows perfectly, it expands the world that has already been created, and doesn’t contradict or knowingly wink at the narrative of the first film. Godfather Part III is the antithesis of that; It’s clearly just a paycheck for everyone, there’s no passion on screen, it doesn’t fit with the tone of the original films at all, and there are too many repetitive/parallel elements for it to seem like it’s breaking any new ground (Yeah, I know that the end murder montage was repeated in Part II, but it seemed to have a point. Here, it’s just “Well, it’s the Godfather. Guess we need a murder montage!”).
Some of the best comic books of the past few decades (Swamp Thing, Starman, Green Lantern, Animal Man) have used the complex continuity of their past to their advantage; The worlds have already been diligently created, so why not dust them off and see how you can use them? I wish that filmmakers had the same hutzpah. It was really cool to see Paul Newman reprise his role from The Hustler in The Color Of Money, or, in some fashion, Gene Hackman reprising his Conversation character in Enemy Of The State. That’s why I’m excited about the upcoming Tron sequel; Instead of feeling like they’re just bulldozing over the original concept, it feels like a love letter to the fans that newbies can enjoy as well. And maybe, if they like it, they can track down the original film. To quote Martin Scorcese quoting William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past”.