Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Remake, Reboot & Repeat by Leo Goldsmith

Remake, Reboot & Repeat by Leo Goldsmith “Hollywood has run out of ideas!” This phrase was surely not coined this past decade, but with increasing frequency it’s been overheard in theaters while the trailers run, or muttered when confronted with cardboard cutouts of Terminators, not-so-Incredible Hulks, and Titans Clashing in multiplex lobbies. As any fatigued moviegoer can tell you, ingenuity and original visions are rare, if not essentially devalued commodities in mainstream American cinema, where nostalgia is instant and indiscriminate, characters and story ideas are recycled with greater and greater rapidity, and Tim Burton is even now regarded as some kind of sui generis, magical visionary.

You’ll get no argument here, other than to say that this has always been the case. Griffith borrowed much of his best stuff from the poetry, folklore, and theater he had at hand, and Méliès from the works of Jules Verne, Charles Perault, and Jonathan Swift. The Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking is itself a bottomless vault of rehashings and revisions, endless sequels and serializations of the same characters in suspiciously similar situations. Perhaps there’s just something about the medium of film that demands rewrites, retakes, and revisitings of the same material--or perhaps it’s just the curse of cinema as a self-mythologizing artifact-machine that even the least auspicious of studio dross must eventually be catalogued and preserved. TCM’s broadcast slates are clogged with Bowery Boys movies, Karl May films, and even those late, regrettable Marx Brothers entries, and somewhere out in the Pacific, discarded prints of Godzilla movies probably form an ominous floating trash vortex.

And yet, if remakes and sequels have long been cinema’s irritating, but manageable nervous tic, the last ten years have been downright pathological. Now the balance is so askew that only the rare summer blockbuster derives from something other than a beloved comic book, television show, or previous celluloid incarnation. There’s just something so very 2000s about the remake. The American president was himself a sequel (Bush 2: For a Few Dollars More), his last crusade a more violent, bigger budget cliffhanger (Iraq Reloaded). What all this points to is not so much a culture lacking in creativity or ideas (although there is that), nor in the throes of laziness (that, too), nor even what might be charitably characterized as a pervasive form of self-referential postmodernism. No, as history piles up in mounds of discarded film prints, nests of VHS tape, and mountains of used DVDs, the insidious and horrifying trend we have most to thank for the last decade was franchising.

Normally the practice of fast-food chains and weirdly specific mall fixtures (like those places that exclusively sell disgusting, buttery pretzels), franchises exist in the film world as the ideal self-perpetuating, self-marketing idea-machine. In movie franchises, there are no endings and no apologies. As we learned with Ang Lee’s disastrously received HULK, one can just pick up five years later with better special effects, a squarer-jawed leading man, and a barely different title, and the coffers fill themselves. This is partly thanks to the reliable gullibility of the franchise’s so-called “built-in audience” (a core group of simple-minded people who will see anything remotely associated with a good movie they saw once, even several decades ago), but the real power lies in what publicists, professional blurb-writers like Peter Travers, and critics who write like they write for Variety call a “reboot.”

The metaphor that the term “reboot” calls to mind is a curiously self-revealing one. Think of a dying computer, stuttering and staggering in its death-throes, its violent internal convolutions indexed by a cursed and pitiable “spinning beach ball of death.” This is undoubtedly time for a reboot, at which point you forcibly restart your hard drive in hopes that it will work serviceably for a short while until its next catastrophic malfunction.

The Hollywood franchise reboot operates by this hopeful logic, and judging by box-office receipts it’s proven mind-bogglingly effective. This decade began with one of the most ill conceived reboots imaginable: George Lucas’s infamously mediocre Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The film’s very title screams, “Do over!” and yet it grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. (Its sequels only grossed in the high hundreds of millions of dollars.) In 2008, Lucas brought his magical gift for making money through a haphazard sabotage of his legacy to his other big franchise, Indiana Jones, and the results were similarly financially lucrative and embarrassingly executed. Ironically, with this film, Steven Spielberg capped the most consistently rich, varied, and rewarding decade of his career with a film that looked more hurried and cheaply made than his last crack at the sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Publicity-driven financial success aside, what these films demonstrate is that reboots really only work well when new management takes over. (This case might also be proved by Live Free or Die Hard, though perhaps this is less a reboot than merely a late, pointless sequel.) The singular exception to this – and it’s a good one – is Sylvester Stallone, who now seems so conscious of his own camp value that he was able to reboot two of his own franchises (ok, the only two) in Rambo and Rocky Balboa. But Sly is the exception that proves the rule. Most reboots follow the mold of Mission: Impossible: fire the old guys, insert new blood, and, most importantly, make things “grittier,” “darker,” and, if possible, “relevant.”

These were in any case the attributes of those reboots that, by most estimates, worked best. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) were, to be sure, just the makeover that the Nippled Crusader needed after Joel Schumacher’s garishly fluorescent production design. Nolan managed to make Batman edgy again – mainly by having blank-eyed cipher Christian Bale growl his lines and by entrusting the role of the brilliant, disturbed Joker to an actor who tragically shared those qualities – even if his pretensions to currency and, sillier still, his film’s vague, pro-Bush stance were as incoherent as his direction of many of the action sequences.

The ostensibly back-to-basics Casino Royale marked the end of a string of disastrous entries in the venerable James Bond franchise, paving over past indiscretions with the introduction of a new and – after Pierce Brosnan’s pompous sleepwalk through the role – refreshingly unorthodox choice of Daniel Craig. Despite a certain apeishness, the actor’s charisma and admirable physique (not to mention the bizarre comments Dame Judi Dench made in the press about the size of her co-star’s penis) managed to occlude the fact that the film was scripted by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the same flabby hacks who had scripted some of the series’ worst offenses: The World is not Enough and Die Another Day. Compounding matters, Paul Crash! Haggis was hired as writing coach for the franchise reboot, and then suddenly everyone seemed surprised when the Second Bond Film of the New Millennium, Quantum of Solace, proved to be a pile of crap.

Aside from such sickening oddities as Steve Martin’s two baffling Pink Panther movies – acts of Robin Williams-level career-suicide – franchise-rebooting seems to have hit the horror genre the hardest, beginning with Alien vs. Predator, a film that manages the dubious feat of shitting on two beloved film series simultaneously. Thanks to films like Hostel and Saw (which, say what you will, were at least original concepts), the horror genre enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, virtually guaranteeing that stagnant horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Exorcist (and soon, Nightmare on Elm Street) would be milked for any lingering value. Presumably, the originals of these films are deemed too shopworn and amateurish for modern audiences, even if, for many, this is precisely where the original appeal of the films lies. The reboots themselves are the predictable yield of hungry directors fresh out of film school--only Rob Zombie’s variations on John Carpenter managed anything vaguely interesting, though the director was merely spinning his creative wheels in the process.

But then, unkillable horror icons like Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers are the most literal embodiment of what franchises are all about. Still, with such a glut of undead zombie franchises roaming the market, one might expect (or hope) that Hollywood is headed for an ultimate creative dead-end, the ebb in its flow of ideas presaging a moment in which there are no more machines to reboot. But actually, my guess is that the opposite is more the case. If anything, this regenerative propensity will only solidify those franchises to be revived, staking out territory for each decade to rewire and resell. Each new generation will have, as we do, its very own Star Trek (minus perhaps the depressing Nimoy cameo), or still buffer and prettier Holmeses and Watsons to call their own. Already, re-reboots are underway for such hoary film series as Resident Evil, Fantastic Four, and even Predator (thanks, or no thanks, to master-franchiser Robert Rodriguez). Rather than running out of hard drives to reboot, Hollywood will simply keep punching the keys, kicking dead chipmunks until they spring back to life again, if only for one more squeakquel.


Return to site index →