The Remake Spectrum
The thing about Spike Lee’s Oldboy, contrary to what a review aggregator might suggest, is that it’s not bad, at least when it comes to the majority of disparate elements that comprise a movie. In all honesty, most of it is pretty good — the cast is all turning in fine work, particularly Josh Brolin as the tortured protagonist, and Lee’s keen visual eye is a good fit for the pulpy material, so much so that it makes you wish he’d return to the genre well more often. But Oldboy’s problem lies less with the execution and almost entirely with its very existence — despite what works, the fact remains that it’s a remake of a widely appreciated South Korean film that was barely a decade old at the time, which raises the eternally relevant question: what was the point?
It’s a question that consistently plagues remakes — even though Hollywood’s been making them for decades — and there’s no easy answer. There are a multitude of reasons any movie exists, ranging from purely artistic to purely financial, with most somewhere in between, and remakes are no different. When considering this particular brand of moviemaking, I have found that its helpful to think of remakes in two ways. First, I would argue that most remakes generally fall into one or more of six categories: Cash Grabs, Experiments and Homages, Non-English to English, Legacy Stories, IP Reboots, and Inspired Bys. Second, both the categories and the films themselves can be placed on a spectrum, the backbone of which is drawn from the world of music. On one end are the Covers: the remake is essentially the same as the original, differentiated primarily by the style of the artist at the helm. On the other end are the Riffs: the original mostly functions as a backbone of sorts, while the new artist performs a solo in the foreground.
Of course, not every film easily slots into these categories or along the spectrum, but as a guiding tool it can be instructive — by examining the categories below, it starts to become a little more clear why some remakes fare better than others.
Increasingly, this category consists of Disney’s live-action remakes that are taking over cinemas a couple times a year. They do what they’re meant to do — make a metric ton of money by trading on nostalgia — but for the most part are relatively soulless, lacking much of the heart that made the original animated classics so popular. But Disney isn’t the only company hoping to eke out a profit by rehashing yesterday’s hits — most studios dig into their back catalog at one point or another, hoping to distill a decades old gem into a new version with enough appeal to make a tidy $100 million or so above budget. Sony and Warner Brothers have both notably gone to this well in the past ten years, and their attempts provide a telltale sign of a cash grab: beware the beloved R-rated genre film whose remake nets the commercially coveted PG-13 — Total Recall (2012), RoboCop (2014), and Point Break (2015) all bear this questionable mark.
Experiments and Homages
This is an interesting one, as it tends to showcase respected directors taking a swing at reimagining the films that likely inspired them in their early days. When these films don’t quite work, it can often be chalked up to too much reverence for the source material — think Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (a remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess) or Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Also under this umbrella are the directors who remake their own films, generally for one of two reasons: they made a non-English language film and were tapped to direct the English language remake (Michael Haneke and Funny Games, Sebastian Lelio and Gloria / Gloria Bell) or they made a low-budget film and jumped at the opportunity to take another shot with the resources necessary to fulfill their vision (Sam Raimi and Evil Dead / Evil Dead II, Michael Mann and L.A. Takedown / Heat).
Non-English to English
The optimistic view of this grouping is that these remakes stem from a true interest in examining cultural differences by having filmmakers of different nationalities tell the same story; the more cynical alternative is that Hollywood remains convinced that American audiences hate subtitles and so the English version won’t even read as a remake to most viewers. Though both sides of the coin may be simultaneously applicable, we’ve reached a point where non-American film is more accessible in the States than ever before, making it hard to really justify these endeavors — especially when the studios are acquiring the rights and starting pre-production before American audiences even have a chance to see the original. That being said, however, films in this category run the quality gamut more than in any other: on one end you have Secret in Their Eyes, The Upside, and Downhill, but on the other you have Sorcerer, Insomnia, and The Departed. I may sound like a broken record at this point, but here again the key tends to lie with the driving creative forces — the best of the “swings and misses” in this category (e.g. Oldboy, Vanilla Sky) give off an air of singular vision, even if things didn’t quite coalesce along the way.
The wells that Hollywood just can’t help but return to, but — as opposed to the Cash Grabs — often come with at least an attempt at a fresh take or a stylistic flourish depending on the talent behind the camera. A Star is Born is the clearest example, with four separate versions from the ‘30s, ‘50s, ‘70s, and 2010s (five if you include predecessor What Price Hollywood?), but if you look closely Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai also fits the bill, spawning (clearly) The Magnificent Seven, itself later remade, and (arguably) A Bug’s Life. The other notable entry here would be King Kong, whose particular style of romanticized tragedy sets it apart from the other classic monsters, most of whom belong in the next category.
There’s a lot of overlap here with the Cash Grabs, but what separates the two is how much each remake differs from its predecessor(s). The best example may be The Mummy: the 1932 original is a classic Universal horror film, the 1999 remake is a rolicking action-adventure movie in the vein of Indiana Jones, and the 2017 kick-off to the aborted Dark Universe experiment is a muddled mix of zombie and vampire tropes. Though not the only genre represented, horror franchises are the backbone of this category, primarily because of how much those films tend to rely on elemental archetypes — plot is often almost completely inconsequential, making it easier for filmmakers to take the central conceit (usually some sort of monster, killer, or deathtrap) and build something new around it when the studios decide it’s time for an update. It doesn’t always work, but even an attempt at originality deserves some measure of applause.
Often the most interesting type of remake, possibly because in some cases it’s a stretch to call the resulting film a remake at all. The term frequently thrown around is “re-imagining,” which in many cases is simply a way for the marketing team to try to avoid any negative connotations that come with calling the film a remake or a reboot, but sometimes the moniker is accurate — the most recent example is Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which is recognizably rooted in the Dario Argento original but spins out into something distinctly unique. Other exemplars include David Cronenberg’s The Fly (though the lines are blurred as to whether it is more an adaptation of the short story than it is a remake of the 1958 film) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (an expansion of Chris Marker’s experimental short La Jetée), as well as Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia, a clear progeny of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window.
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all quality that separates a successful remake from an unsuccessful one, artistically speaking — with the right talent, a good cover can surpass the original, while a lack of innovation in a solo can merely serve to reinforce just how strong the underlying riff is in comparison. But more than anything, it comes down to the reason the new film exists: if born out of a commitment to artistic expression or high-quality entertainment, chances are multiple versions can coexist as complementary pieces, each valuable both in isolation and as contrasts.