Did you see "Total Recall" last weekend? Did you think it was a soulless piece of corporate product designed to bring people back into the theater for a (weaker version of a) movie they'd already seen? According to io9's Annalee Newitz, you've got it wrong: remakes like "Total Recall" aren't just not terrible, they're "one of our greatest achievements as a civilization." In terms of our civilization's greatest achievements, I think the order goes something like this: number one, the invention of democracy; number two, Len Wiseman's "Total Recall;" and number three, the cure for polio.
Newitz claims that remakes are the modern day equivalent of folklore, the ancient, unwritten storytelling traditions of our collective past. As mankind's great stories were told and retold all over the world, they got passed down from one generation to the next, spinning off "variants" that reflected each specific storyteller's background and views. Today, popular culture has replaced folklore, and remakes are our variants.
I'm not sure if you can tell, but I am somewhat dubious about all this (NOTE: I'm actually pretty sure you can tell). But let's hear Newitz's argument anyway:
"By retelling stories as variants, we do something profoundly important. We show how our views of the world change over time. We reveal that our definitions of good and evil aren't fixed; they can change to reflect new information… unlike 'original' stories, which remain frozen in the amber of history, folk tales are alive. They change with us, and pass along new stories about our evolving civilization. Every variant, no matter how bad, is a sign that our stories are still vital. And if you don't like this remake or reboot — well, there will always be another. Maybe you'll make it yourself."
In fairness to Newitz, the most interesting thing — maybe the only interesting thing — about the new "Total Recall" is how it shows the way that blockbusters have changed over time. I'm not sure we're seeing a change in the world's views, though, so much as a change in Hollywood's. In mainstream filmmaking, it seems, taking risks is no longer worth the risk.
The "Total Recall" by Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big budget movie full of weird ideas, dirty jokes, and provocative theories about existence, all buried beneath the surface of a non-stop action movie. It was directed by a Dutch guy and starred an Austrian; it had shocking violence and surprising humor, and in spite all of that, it was a huge hit. The new "Total Recall" has a bigger budget and smaller ambitions. It eliminates the dreamlike quality of the narrative and the ambiguous nature of the ending. It's slick and totally safe. It's "Total Recall" for people who found the original "Total Recall" too challenging which, let's face it, wasn't really all that challenging to begin with.
In trying to prove the value of remakes and variants, Newitz cites the differences between "Dracula" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," two similar tales that reflect their respective societies' vastly different attitudes. Of course, those two properties were created a century and an ocean apart, while less than twenty-five years separates the two "Total Recall"s, which were both released by divisions of the same movie studio, Sony Pictures.
And that, to me, is the key problem with this argument. The value of variants rested in the fact that they represented the unique perspective of the storyteller. Increasingly, it seems, modern remakes — and just about every other big budget Hollywood production — are designed to appeal to the mass by smoothing out any and all of a material's idiosyncrasies in order to make it palatable on a global scale. In this day and age, there's just one variant, and it costs $250 million to make and it gets distributed all over the world.
Of course, the storytellers of yesteryear were partly sharing their folklore to keep it alive — it wasn't written down, so they had to keep telling it over and over or lose it forever. But the first "Total Recall" isn't lost — I've got a copy of it sitting five feet away from me on my DVD shelf. There's a new Blu-ray available. You can download it onto your computer or PlayStation — or buy the Philip K. Dick short story and read it on your Kindle. The only things being preserved by modern remake repetition are copyrights and brand value.
Are all remakes bad? Of course not. But I look at the list of stuff that's headed our way in the months and years ahead, and all I see are movies I have already seen. Maybe some will top their inspirations — "His Girl Friday" certainly improved on the first version of "The Front Page," and later Billy Wilder's film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was a pretty satisfying variant as well. But at a certain point, don't we need some new movies to create remakes of? Variant imply variation; too many current remakes are mere repetition; instead of reexamining the ideas in "Total Recall" from a fresh perspective — akin to "Buffy" reexamining the ideas in "Dracula" — you just take the original version, soup up the special effects, and throw out the complexity.
Newitz says "the idea that 'originality' is what makes stories good is actually a twentieth century idea propagated by a bunch of radical artists and thinkers who called themselves Modernists." Call me a Modernist too, I guess. And call me a guy who doesn't need to see a third version of "Total Recall" for at least another twenty-two years. Hey, look — a trailer for a new version of "Red Dawn." Awesome.