The Death of the Remake

By  · Published on October 12th, 2015

Sony Pictures Entertainment

Technically neither Pan nor The Walk are remakes, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from thinking of them as such. The former is a prequel to the J.M. Barrie play “Peter Pan,” which has been made into many movies throughout the past, and the latter is an adaptation of Philippe Petit’s memoir “To Reach the Clouds,” which previously provided the basis for the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Both movies disappointed at the box office over the weekend, as did Freeheld, which is more directly a remake of the Oscar-winning 2007 documentary short of the same name. Could their lack of success finally show Hollywood that audiences aren’t interested in completely rehashed material?


At least, audiences don’t want regurgitation when it’s clearly regurgitation. Reboots as sequels are just fine, according to the enormous box office for Jurassic World and the popularity of Mad Max: Fury Road, each of which follows a very similar plot to an earlier installment (maybe the failure of the reboot-as-sequel Terminator Genisys was the result of it not being enough of a rehash?). But something like Pan, which people see as a reboot of the oft-adapted Peter Pan story in the same way they look at reboots of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, is not going to work right now.

Not even a hit reboot can result in certain sequels, as we’re seeing with Man of Steel. Sure, that one is getting a follow-up in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then a whole extended cinematic universe spawned from its roots, but there are still not clear plans for a traditional sequel or anything at all focused on its main hero, Superman. The way to go now is to just keep churning out sequels, even if they introduce all new characters for us to follow, such as in the cases of the continuing Transformers, Rocky, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Vacation series, and new actors in major roles, like with Mad Max and X-Men.


It doesn’t matter if many people have seen the documentary version or not. Unless it can really be sold on a lead performance in a biopic type role – see Milk, Monster and The Last King of Scotland – the dramatic take isn’t going to be seen by many either. We’ll see if Sandra Bullock can save the upcoming doc remake Our Brand Is Crisis, because its political plot isn’t too appealing to moviegoers on its own. Remakes that just focus on the same story aren’t likely to fare well, so it’s hard to see positive outlooks for the upcoming Snowden, which stars The Walk’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or the planned remake of Marwencol, which is to be directed by The Walk’s Robert Zemeckis and star Freeheld’s Steve Carell.

The Walk has a spectacle appeal not found in Man on Wire, and its initial 3D IMAX run appeared to be a sign of success, but maybe all the talk of that being the only way and reason to see it have hurt the general release when the movie went wide on normal screens. Plus, unlike many movies adapted from or inspired by docs, The Walk has been constantly compared to its predecessor, mainly since Man on Wire was seen by more critics than most nonfiction films are. It would be interesting to see if there was an uptick in viewings of the doc, which is available at many streaming outlets, including Netflix, and how many were first-time watches. If they bring attention to the docs, that’s a great thing, just not for the makers of the new one.


Like the real Walt Disney in the myth of his cryopreservation, his studio can appear to defy death. Disney made a hit pirate movie (and a franchise out of it) when nobody else could, it gets millions of kids to go see a nature documentary at least once a year, it keeps people excited about mega superhero franchises and the Star Wars series even when the last installment has disappointed them and they can remake their own popular movies and have those remakes be among the highest-grossing releases of their year. While all other remakes on the horizon are looking doomed at this point, Disney’s long list of live-action rehashes of animated classics appears to be safe, seeing as how Cinderella made a ton of money this year, Maleficent did the same last year and Alice in Wonderland was a giant success a few years ago.

Disney is sure to have the same luck with at least next year’s The Jungle Book and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, and maybe their recent slotting of dates for others through 2019 isn’t too ahead of itself. Given the Mouse House’s recent missteps with “original” – as in new, never mind if adapted from something – material like John Carter, The Lone Ranger and Tomorrowland, they’re going to want to stick to the very familiar. And they don’t have to consider them remakes. Some, like Maleficent, are fresh takes rather than faithful copies, and the rest are better off labeled adaptations because they’re delivering the stories in a whole other format, if not quite a different medium altogether.


In the first years of the 21st century, remakes were doing just fine. We got Ocean’s Eleven, Insomnia, Solaris, Dawn of the Dead and War of the Worlds (of course, we also got Mr. Deeds, The Truth About Charlie, The Time Machine, Swept Away and other junk, more than good actually but mainly because we got more in general). Then, almost 10 years ago, we saw the wave of remakes peak with The Departed, the first to win Best Picture (if we don’t count My Fair Lady). Since then, very few remakes have been good or popular, and those that are exceptions – True Grit and Let Me In among them – tend to be re-adaptations over recycled screenplays.

Of course, in Hollywood things can suddenly change with the blink of an eye or a leap from a mountaintop. Maybe the Point Break redo will be a masterpiece? More likely, Secret in Their Eyes will ensure that English-language remakes of foreign dramas, even Oscar winners, can be a safe bet with the proper team or ensemble. But right now it’s not looking good for any movies far enough along in development or production that it’s too late to turn back. Sorry, Ben-Hur. All they have to do, however, is to avoid being too exact while possibly finding a link to the original in order to seem more sequel than remake. Ghostbusters, for instance, is probably going to do just fine thanks to whatever link it has to the 1984 version besides cameos from its stars. But if it does somehow flop, the industry will really have to let go of this rotting corpse.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.