Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, which opens today, might be the first film of its kind. It’s an original sequel to a popular remake, directed by someone whose name you know, and is as likely to become a hit as its predecessor. For all of that to happen, conditions had to be exactly right. There was the matter of Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh’s slick, contagiously fun remake of the 1960 Rat Pack original. Before that, his brave, razor-sharp remake of art-house titan Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi epic, Solaris. Before that, The Underneath, his remake of Criss Cross. And before that, even, his chutzpah in imagining that doing such movies over might actually be a good idea.
If you’re an older film buff, you might recall a time when everything seemed original. Okay, maybe not everything. But there was at least the hope, the prospect, of originality—and, chief among its enemies, the indignity of the remake. “Why can’t they just leave well enough alone?” you may have pleaded. “Is nothing sacred?” Or simply “Dear God, what have they done?” It isn’t so long ago that the approved response to a movie remake was loathing and hopelessness.
But thanks to Soderbergh and others, those attitudes have softened. The remake, it turns out, has a surprising support base: lately it’s been embraced by filmmakers who, notwithstanding their current major-studio sustenance, built their reputations as independents. These aren’t directors you’d expect to rely on recycled material, but they are maverick enough to ask heretofore unheard of questions; namely, can a remake be significant? Can it be good?
The answers have spanned many genres. Robert Altman tried a remake, successfully, with Thieves Like Us. David Cronenberg induced enough disgust with his rendition of The Fly for it to seem more indelible than Kurt Neumann’s original (but perhaps a new version, due next year, will trump them both). And when Gus Van Sant mounted a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in 1998, he certainly reached some benchmark. Now Tim Burton, who remade Planet of the Apes, is cooking up a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while Richard Linklater is going to bat for The Bad News Bears. Of course, Peter Jackson has no qualms about monkeying with King Kong. Sam Raimi has even decided to produce a remake of his own arguably already-perfect cult sensation, The Evil Dead. Another shot-for-shot remake, this one of Raiders of the Lost Ark (begun by three eleven-year-olds in 1982 and completed seven years later), is now making the rounds at film festivals. We may someday come to know these filmmakers’ names too, but they will always be qualified as the Guys Who Remade Raiders. No longer, apparently, is the remake a dejected, dastardly thing. It is out of the closet and proud—in fact, kind of cool. For directors who seem most inclined to value it as such, the remake has become a telling career milestone. It has acquired indie cred.
This isn’t to say that bad movies, or motives, need be indulged. It’s okay to not fully trust the remake, considering the way it’s treated us. The cynical, studio-born inclination to repackage a proven moneymaker, counting on the current audience not to remember the original or bother comparing it, does no movie lover any favours. And yes, Van Sant’s Psycho is somewhat cheap and tawdry, though that may be to his admirers’ taste. Most of his films are somewhat cheap and tawdry—but so, for that matter, is Hitchcock’s original.
Poor Hitch. Ironic that the auteur par excellence should have so much company these days, as movies just keep coming and theories of their authorship keep getting thornier. As testified, for example, by the countless forgettable films described as “Hitchcockian.” And by the many movies rife with homage and quotation, sourced and otherwise. No doubt graduate students across the continent are right now tracking all the allusions and rip-offs in (as well as all the allusions to and rip-offs of) Tarantino and Godard. The question nags: if movies keep quoting movies, will they eventually stop being about anything? These days even ardent fanboys and mercenary screenwriting gurus seem to agree that there are no original stories left.
But did this content conundrum stop other great painters from simulating Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe? Did it stop Talking Heads from covering Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”? The dynamics of the problem are even addressed quite succinctly in our earliest literature, the Gilgamesh epic, self-described as “an old story, but one that can still be told.”
A generous analysis would suggest that the remake reflex is a way of making sense of it all—the cultural equivalent of how we replay the day’s events in our dreams. And that, arguably, is truer to the spirit of the movies than it is to any of the other arts.
The remake has always had a mixed legacy. For instance, one of Coppola’s best films, The Conversation, recognizably riffs on one of Antonioni’s best, Blow-Up, but Blow Out, by Brian De Palma, is just a shoddy knock-off of the original classic. The hierarchy is illuminating. Each has to do with the selectivity of perception—a rudiment of cinema and so one of its inexhaustible topics—and each has its place. Together they comprise a good set of instructions for subsequent generations.
Filmmakers will always grapple with how to get inside the minds of their influences and teach themselves technique. As long as independent directors don’t become dependent on remakes, not all is lost. Soderbergh, for one, has figured out a way to pursue this path without forfeiting his sovereignty. As a director, he’s always believed in throttling up a movie and seeing what it can do. The art of the remake has provided him with useful resistance, and even helped him warm to his audience. Ocean’s Twelve, which seems at once obedient and imaginative, brings him—and us—into new territory. If it’s any good, it will be a victory for originality.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.