Looking at the slate of movies that have taken up the box offices in the last few years, reboots, sequels, and remakes tend to be what gets most of the attention. In our modern film climate these films provide brand recognition—the idea that a film based on a pre-existing property will guarantee a built-in audience who loves that particular brand. Disney is currently utilizing this idea by running through its vault of animated films as fodder for live-action remakes. From the beloved BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (which will be released in 2017) to the more obscure PETE’S DRAGON, all of these films are familiar to audiences and therefore ideal for a remake.

Many people decry the very concept of remakes, but remakes are nothing new, which also means they aren’t going anywhere. So if we’re stuck with remakes, how can we make them better? One remake that is widely considered superior to the original film is David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, released in 1986. The film, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, lays out the cardinal rules that every remake should follow:

  1. Don’t slavishly follow the original
  2. Find a director with a vision and give him or her control
  3. Speak to a modern audience

Something New from Something Old

Director Kurt Nuemann’s version of THE FLY from 1958 follows the plot of the original short story very closely. In this version, the film follows a flashback structure as Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) explains the circumstances that led to her husband Andre’s (David Hedison) transformation into a half man, half fly and his death. This film is a slow burn that keeps Andre’s mutation hidden until the film’s final moments. One of the strengths of Cronenberg’s THE FLY remake is his decision to strip the film’s plot to its bare bones. By streamlining the story and creating new characters in Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), Cronenberg makes the film’s entire plot centered around the slow unraveling of Seth’s humanity and his horrifying transformation.

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This clean creative break from the original allows Cronenberg’s film to exist on its own. Modern remakes rarely do that. Take the 2014 ROBOCOP for example, a film which, to me, is a perfect example of everything wrong with the modern remake. The film starts promisingly with its presentation of Samuel L. Jackson as a brash television pundit and satire of drone warfare, but it quickly falls apart when it changes its original ideas to hew closer to the original ROBOCOP.

He’s as smooth as a Robobaby’s bottom.

One of those ideas was allowing the Alex Murphy character to retain his memories from his life before becoming Robocop and his emotional intelligence, but then they introduce a chip that turns off his emotions about halfway through the movie. Why? Well, probably because the original Robocop had no emotions. The film also turns Michael Keaton’s Omnicorp CEO character into an outright villain at the end of the movie. Why? Well, the movie really had no antagonist for pretty much its whole runtime and the CEO of Omnicorp was the villain in the first movie, so they just did the same thing again. And don’t worry, they found a way to awkwardly shoehorn in a reference to “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

The problem with remakes is not that there are too many of them, but that they have become too adherent to the originals that they are based on. Rather than forge ahead with a new story that shares a basic conceit with the original, remakes insist on winks and nods to the original film, as if to coddle the audience and try to make them feel the same way they felt during the original release. The idea of brand recognition has become so insidious that remakes are hardly given opportunities to exist as a separate artistic entity. Cronenberg’s THE FLY is filled with the director’s personal artistic interests and inspirations, which allows the film to flourish with its own identity. 

Direct Control

This is something we’re going to address as a “remake” issue, but it’s really a larger problem with modern Hollywood blockbusters. Part of the reason for the explosion of brand recognition films (remakes, movies based on books, comics, or television shows) is because ticket sales for movies are reaching record lows. That built-in audience who loves the pre-existing property can almost guarantee a return on the studio’s investment. Almost. Remakes like 2011’s THE THING and 2014’s ROBOCOP certainly made money, but they were either an outright bomb (THE THING) or barely profitable for the studio (ROBOCOP).

There is so much financial pressure riding on these films that studios take a more active role in their creative output. Rather than trust the director’s vision, the studios will dictate what they believe will and will not work in the film and make changes accordingly. The remake ROBOCOP’s director, Jose Padilha, reportedly told his fellow director Fernando Meirelles that during the process of making the film he “never suffered so much and [did] not want to do it again.” Meirelles also mentioned Padilha’s comment that “every ten ideas that he has, nine are cut.”

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Cronenberg’s THE FLY is a film that is distinctly Cronenberg. Compare his version of THE FLY with the ’58 version. The original falls into a pretty standard creature feature format. In that film, the director is more interested in leaving the effects of Andre’s change into a fly creature a mystery, only to have it revealed in the end as a shock to the audience. Comparatively, Cronenberg finds both the transformation and the biology of bugs fascinating and makes them the focus of the film.

The film explores similar thematic territories as his films THE BROOD, VIDEODROME, and THE NAKED LUNCH, each featuring body horror, ruminations on the human body, and what defines someone or something as being “human.” The film’s iconic special effects are so effective because they are drawn directly from Cronenberg’s fascination with bodily decay. His enthusiasm for insects (Cronenberg was something of an entomologist before becoming a filmmaker) also shows through in the film. While the science is likely more in the realm of fiction, Cronenberg’s knowledge lends a layer of authenticity to the biological changes that Brundle experiences. Though films like VIDEODROME and THE NAKED LUNCH certainly don’t appeal to mass audiences, THE FLY works so well because it is a horror film that allows the director to play with his creative inspirations.

“That…that’s disgusting…”

A recent remake that allowed a director to take on a similar level of creative control would be Paul Feig’s GHOSTBUSTERS. While the film’s financial success is still somewhat questionable (and it was doubtless hurt by the lack of release in some key overseas markets), Feig’s passion for giving female comedians a chance to shine led to an all-female Ghostbusters team. Despite what whiny fanboys on the internet will tell you, this was a smart creative decision and it showed faith in the director from Sony. Feig’s decision also allows the film to create characters that exist on their own as original creations rather than being poor reflections of the original Ghostbusters crew. Where GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) fails somewhat as a reboot is in its inability to create any wholly original iconography.

It’s not enough to give a director control, you have to let them create something that will allow the film to stand out. GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) may have an all-female cast, but many aspects of its visual language are owed to the original film. You see Slimer, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the iconic logo, the proton packs, and cameos from nearly all of the living original cast members. The film wanted to exist on its own, but still suffocated under the weight of the film it was remaking (Melissa McCarthy was even forced to recite lyrics to Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters song. We get it, it’s a remake). 

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This was a weird season of The Bachelor

The original 1958 version of THE FLY has two scenes that became iconic in monster movie pop culture: the reveal of the transformed Andre with a massive fly head and a fly hand, and the chilling “Help me!” scream of the fly-with-a-human-head at the film’s conclusion. Cronenberg’s THE FLY makes no reference to those moments whatsoever. This ends up being to the film’s benefit. Instead, 1986’s THE FLY is remembered for the grotesque special effects make-up created by Chris Walas (who would win an Academy Award for his work) and Geena Davis’ line ,“Be afraid, be very afraid.” The film owes nothing to the original film except the shared basic plot, which allows it to exist as its own independent work of art.

A Fresh Coat of Paint

That idea of a film being a “work of art” is something vital to any film’s success. Sure, studios make films to make money, but even the most bombastic or obnoxious film has some meaning behind it. The film being remade must find a way to update its themes to speak to the new audience.

This is actually something that the ROBOCOP and GHOSTBUSTERS remakes do quite well! ROBOCOP (2014) provides commentary on drone warfare and the importance of a “human element” when making life or death decisions. GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) was borderline prophetic about the reaction the film’s casting would elicit and made the villain an antisocial nerd who condescends to everyone who doesn’t respect his brilliance. The very logo of the Ghostbusters tries to even kill the female Ghostbusters at the end of the film.

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It’s like kaiju 4chan.

Tragically, both of these deeper and interesting ideas are cut short by the film’s insistence on paying homage to their respective predecessor films. By avoiding this adherence to the original film, Cronenberg was able to imbue his version of THE FLY with a new subtext. The original THE FLY was a commentary on rapidly evolving technology, but the 1986 version focuses on what it means to love someone who is slowly dying. Brundle’s transformation is familiar to anyone who has had family members stricken with a malignant illness.

While the story itself is fantastic, Cronenberg grounds the story in the reality of human mortality. This allows the audience to connect with the extreme transformation and recognize the humanity behind the insectoid tragedy. By giving a director with a unique artistic vision complete control, the film found a level of pathos that the original lacked.

“I’d buy that thematically rich remake for a dollar!”

Hollywood’s fears about sinking ticket sales will only be worsened by continuing to make mediocre remakes of beloved films. While the idea of the remake is one that will persist, the quality of the remake is something that can return. If studios want to see people return to the theaters again, they have to be willing to give audiences a product that is more than a name or idea they recognize.

Cronenberg’s THE FLY was a success because it delivered an old story in a way that was new, exciting, and daring for its time. Movie studios need to take a look at their creative output and decide what’s more important: derivative remakes that provide short-term profit, or artistically driven films that, like the 1986 THE FLY, will prove to be both critically and financially popular in the long term.

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