Does Total Recall Violate the Unwritten Remake Rule?

“When a good movie happens, which it might, on a roll of the dice, once in five years, it’s like this total aberration, a freak of nature like the Grand Canyon, they’re ashamed of it. They can’t wait to remake it in another ten years and f*** it up the way it’s supposed to be.”

That joke, from Lanford Wilson’s play Burn This, sometimes seems like a literal truth, as when 2002’s excellent Spider-Man was remade in mediocre fashion in 2012. But most filmmakers I know acknowledge an unwritten Remake Rule, though perhaps it’s breached as often as observed.

If the unwritten rule could be written, it would go something like this:  A film may be remade when it represents a great idea that wasn’t fully realized the first time OR when its realization has become so dated as to have lost its appeal to a modern audience. Classics, no matter what the temptation, should not be remade. If you’re so shallow you can’t project yourself back in time to enjoy Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or All About Eve as is, just stay home and watch Jersey Shore because it turns out you’re an idiot. The classic rule can occasionally be negated by dated special effects, but it usually doesn’t work out. The 1933 King Kong does look a little stagy and dinky now, but it’s still a better movie than any version that followed.

All this comes to mind because I saw Total Recall the other day — I wanted to see Bourne but Recall fit perfectly between two meetings. In my opinion, despite what some critics say, this picture was a perfect candidate for remake. The 1990 version has an excellent script but is weighed down by Arnold Schwarzenegger — whom I like but who is asked here to play an ordinary guy, which is absurd. The muscles, enormous head and funny accent make the whole picture seem sort of outsized and cheesy. What could have been a brilliant 
Blade Runner-style classic if it had starred Harrison Ford becomes instead a good-but-dated actioner. A perfect candidate for remake.

Did the remake work? Nah. But given the reviews it got from critics and audience alike, I think it important to note that the new one doesn’t suck. Fun and dumb, I’d say. Mindless and a little passion-less but not boring. If I were ten and had a slow Saturday afternoon to kill, I’d have thought it was really good.

Or maybe not. In the lobby after the show, I overheard two boys, maybe ten years old, the film’s perfect target audience. They were talking eagerly about some of the cool moments… in the 1990 version! Oops.

So the movie is not in violation of the remake rule, but clearly didn’t do what it set out to do. Maybe Lanford Wilson was right, and they were just trying to mess it up.


Cross-posted from Klavan on the Culture

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