Here’s a great article by Sam Strange about the remake of Total Recall. In particular, he drives a stake through the heart of the matter with this point:
The problem isn’t the remake angle, but the “today’s mainstream action films lack character” angle which would apply if it were a remake or not.
This is the absolute truth. I wasn’t against the idea of remaking Total Recall simply because I’m against remakes. I was against it because our current culture has no understanding of why the original Total Recall was such a classic. The studio behind it just wanted a recognizable name to milk some quick cash out of the kids. It really falls to the writers and filmmakers to take the cash grab and make it entertaining or a worthwhile trip to the movies.
Our current culture doesn’t get satire or camp. Everything has to be dark, gritty and super serious. God forbid an action movie be fun and the audience has a good time watching it. But this serious business only grip on our culture might be coming to a merciful end. The Avengers was just a big, loud action movie. It embraced its own ridiculousness instead of running from it like the Amazing Spider-Man did. It was also the biggest box office hit of the year so far and for good reason. People are getting sick of the grim-dark bullshit and just want to have a good time. People have enough problems in their lives right now, they want entertainment to help them escape and cope with their anxieties, not compound them with new ones.
I haven’t seen the remake of Total Recall yet, but every review I read of it pretty much confirmed how I thought it was going to play out when I first heard of the project. It would be a competently made production with good performances, but ultimately a characterless and humorless film. How did I reach that conclusion? Because so many movies these days have no character, joy or humor in them. At least Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has a lot of character, if it is a little light on the joy and humor. But this is Batman of course.
Everything is so standardized and bland. Even the independent film scene is filled with its own cliches and overused formulas. There maybe no more of a bland genre then the dreaded mumblecore. Those soulless films made by soulless, hipster douchebags for soulless, hipster douchebags.
Mass entertainment is at a crisis point as far as cultural relevance goes. There is no one in the movie industry of the likes of Paul Verhoeven or Joel Silver who are willing to push the boundaries anymore. Everything is safe and prepackaged. Anything unique or imaginative is sucked out of the product for fear that the idiot generation will reject it while screaming to the heavens, “this is not Twilight!”
Not all remakes are bad, Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear. While not as good as the original, you can see Scorsese’s attraction to the project, the idea of taking the themes further than you could during the early sixties. He took some of the more disturbing subtexts of the earlier film and brought them out to the forefront of the narrative. The remake of Cape Fear may not have been entirely successful but Scorsese found a purpose in the film. A purpose that lacks in most remakes these days other than to make money.
The problem with a majority of remakes is they tend to miss the point of the original. The point of Total Recall was the absurdity of casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as an every man and sending him to Mars. A more traditional lead and more serious and traditional tone would have made the original Total Recall dull. The original Total Recall embraced the ridiculous premise of Arnold on Mars by kicking up the violence, sex and camp up to eleven.
Paul Verhoeven was a filmmaker with balls. Giant balls. He had no qualms by laughing at how idiotic big budget 80’s action films were, while making awesome 80’s big budget action movies. The difference between then and now is that Paul Verhoeven and the audience were in on the joke, compared to Micheal Bay who IS the joke.
Then you have movies that were products of their time. Robocop was such a product. It could have easily been another straight to video, b-movie like so many cyborg movies from the eighties. But what made Robocop stand out was the blatant satire of 80’s culture and politics. It’s brutal depiction of the immoral corporate culture, and its glee in bringing violence to its boardrooms. What the unrated version of Robocop sometime. When the ED-209 kills one of the board members during a malfunction, it just doesn’t shoot him, it rips his body apart in a fountain of gore. The camera shows every piece of blood and flesh exploding as his entire torso and legs are turned to bloody ribbons by ED-209’s automatic gunfire. You can practically hear Paul Verhoeven laughing his ass off from his director’s chair while yelling, “take that you corporate fuck! LOL!”
That’s the joy in Robocop and Total Recall. You can feel Paul Verhoeven’s joy in making these films. You could feel Peter Jackson’s joy in the Lord of the Rings. That was one of the main things missing from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, you just didn’t feel the joy of filmmaking behind it like you did in the original trilogy. Even the artsy films have this joy. 8 1/2 is dripping with Fellini’s love of cinema as is The Seventh Seal is filled with Bergman’s. Each shot is lovingly crafted to convey an idea or mood in both of those films. Seventh Seal is certainly a serious film, but the love and joy of cinema molds it and informs it. It’s this kind of nurturing and loving detail that is impossible to fake and what so many filmmakers today are missing.
The most evident of this is the comparison of the two Conan the Barbarian films. The original was not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it still had a strength that was undeniable. Watch the scene with Arnold in the Atlantean tomb where he finds the sword. The music swells with mystery, the camera focuses and holds on the details the tomb. The skeletons, the treasures, the coffins, the writing. Conan is in awe of this place, it invites the viewer in and ignites their imaginations. It brings questions to their minds, who were these people? Who was this king? How did they die? Where are their cities and ruins? How old is the tomb? There is nothing spoken in the scene other than a simple “Crom” of amazement from Conan. The ideas are conveyed through visuals and music. There are no such moments in the new Conan, that movie is too busy getting to the next action sequence. We are never invited into the world, to the live there and experience it for two hours.
If people are skeptical of the new Robocop, that skepticism is well earned. We have a generation of filmmakers who can mimic some of the tricks of the great pioneers in film like Spielberg and Scorsese, but no understanding of why. They watch the desert chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark and think, if I put something like that in my movie it will be more exciting and everyone will love it. They never bother considering the context of the scene, how it works in the overall effect of the film. By refusing to understand why the desert chase is such an exciting action scene, they miss the point of those scenes entirely. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an expertly paced film with smart writing and lovable characters. They tend to forget the parts about pacing, smart dialogue and lovable characters.
These create bland and thrill-less action sequences that make you wish you were playing a video game instead. You have investment in the characters or the story. Micheal Bay can throw all the explosions and special effects he wants at you. But he will never match what Hitchcock did with just an airplane and Cary Grant. Hell, Hitchcock didn’t even need the airplane, all he needed was Cary Grant. The most exciting and heart stopping climax to a movie I have ever seen is Notorious, and all that happens is three people walk down a flight of stairs. Why they are walking down the stairs and towards what destiny, well, that’s the rub.