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The Reboot/Remake Dilemma: What Works and Why

When Hollywood isn’t releasing a superhero movie, it’s putting nearly all its energies into stoking the nostalgia fires. It seems every day we learn about another remake or reboot on the horizon and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Reasons for why are not always the same. Let’s talk about that.

If you haven’t heard, every movie in the known universe will be getting a reboot soon. Well, a lot of them at least. The trend has gained a lot of traction in the past decade as studios dig into their vaults to take advantage of the easy money to be made off a title and the current massive interest in nostalgia. No genre seems immune and the time between the original and remake grows increasingly smaller (it took the Spider-Man franchise less than 5 years to reboot their hero . . . and then only 3 more after that one failed to do it again). It might not be fair to use a superhero movie as an example, but the point is the same. IMDb lists no less than 140 titles as made or slated for a remake in the next 4 years alone. But it’s not really that new a thing.

The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with remakes. Many are not only very well made, they are significant contributions to the medium. Without remakes we would have missed out on many important films, some perhaps you don’t even know are reboots. Films like 1983’s Scarface, 1991’s Cape Fear, 1982’s The Thing, and 1960’s The Magnificent Seven (itself getting remade for release this year) are just a few. Reimagining a previous work is one of art’s greatest attributes and is done in every field. 

So what’s the issue? Why are they on the rise? Motivation is a good place to start. Naturally, studios want to make money. Filmmaking is a business, and while that element has certainly been reason why many films fail, there’s no denying the need. Movies are made on the success of those that come before them. Additionally, a remake (or sequel for that matter) offers studios a bit of security, a built-in fanbase that all but guarantees a profit. Audiences want to return to experiences they remember as being good (a memory bias aptly named Rosy Retrospection) and movie makers have the advantage with movies that are already called classic. But it can backfire.

Ghostbusters, 1984

Consider Ghostbusters, a reboot releasing this summer, and currently the pariah in the remake pool with many calling foul on what they perceive as a trampling of one of cinema’s most cherished titles. Many, but not all. It shares an odd distinction of being the most disliked trailer on YouTube while simultaneously being one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

Ghostbusters, 2016

Let’s pose a question: What makes the remake of 1932’s Scarface a less controversial remake of 1984’s Ghostbusters? There was a fifty-year gap between each Scarface and a thirty-year span between Ghostbusters so it can’t really be time. Both Scarfaces were well-received and there are arguments on both sides as to which is the superior. Of course the internet wasn’t around for either of these movies, which might have some bearing. Anonymity makes criticism easy. So why the divisiveness? It’s a matter of timelessness. A film like Ghostbusters has huge global appeal no matter when or where you are. More so, it, like many films that are of similar quality, has a deep personal investment for fans. It is a cherished memory, a recollection of a more innocent time, and holds value as a beacon of a golden age in comedy. As years pass, its status only elevates, like a painting by a great master, its worth is immeasurable. To criticize or otherwise fault it is sacrilege. No one would try and replace the Mona Lisa. Image when somebody tries.

Well that someone is Paul Feig, the director of the new Ghostbusters film. While there are many more who look forward to his movie, the vocal outrage of not only remaking it but casting it with all-female leads is too much. Sure, directors have dealt with opposition to their work before, but this feels like something different. The vitriol has grown to such intensity, Feig publicly come out in defense of the film and verbally denounced the haters.

Scarface, 1932

But let’s not veer off topic. The other day, Dwayne Johnson had this to say about his involvement in the remake of John Carpenter‘s Big Trouble in Little China, a cult-classic from 1986 starring Kurt Russell:

That’s happening, man! That’s happening, that’s happening. And again, that’s one of those things where you gotta take really good care of it.”

Dwayne Johnson

It’s the “gotta take really good care of it” that’s curious, and a remark that is a kind of obligatory blanket statement bandied about the industry to somehow appease fans that they have nothing to fear about their favorite movies getting remade. I’m not saying that Mr. Johnson, who’s been involved in his fair share of rebooted franchises is not genuinely going to have respect for the original, but I am saying that ultimately, this is a generic statement used by many who are exploiting films not for art’s sake, but for money. Despite what he says, this is will be one more in a long line of current reboots that will be more about parody and excess rather than innovation and reimagining. There is a difference and it truly matters.

Look at Martin Scorsese‘s The Departed (2006), an interpretation of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak‘s 2002 Chinese film, Infernal Affairs. Here is an Academy Award-winning movie that honors its source material. It’s a thoughtful piece of filmmaking that understands where it comes from and works to maintain the original’s integrity while still creating a fresh narrative. I’m not saying that every reboot should strive for this, but simply making a movie and tacking on a familiar name is not the same.


“We gotta get it right” is what someone says when they know that something is truly beloved by a very core group of fans but don’t realize that not doing it is really the best way to actually get it right. And Big Trouble in Little China is a very good example where this makes the most sense. Who is a remake for Big Trouble in Little China for? Younger audiences (and core Johnson fans) probably have no idea that this movie exists. It is, by Johnson’s admission, a favorite of very specific fans who admire the film for what it is. They aren’t interested in seeing it remade. People today will watch it simply because it stars one of the biggest most charismatic stars working in movies. So it’s being sold a on name for people who won’t see it for an audience that has no idea what it is.

I could be wrong. The reboot of Big Trouble in Little China might get an innovative director who recognizes Carpenter’s vision and surprise us. That can happen. I’ll even admit that Johnson is a great casting choice, filling in for Kurt Russell, who ‘got it’ when taking on the role of Jack Burton. A remake isn’t going ruin the original. That film will always exist and it can be watched over and over without ever seeing a remake. But there is a vapidity to this that feels wrong, like so many of the movies currently getting remakes.

To see what I mean, read these titles and think about your first reaction. All are scheduled for a remake. Do you feel the same for each?

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Crow
  • An American Werewolf in London
  • American Psycho
  • Scarface (Yup)
  • The Bodyguard
  • Weird Science
  • Cliffhanger
  • The Birds
  • House Party

What do you think about remakes? Are there any you’ve liked better than the original? Thanks for reading. Let know your opinion in the comments below.

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