Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hollywood and the Remake Machine

Firstly, let me start off by saying that I’m not immediately opposed to the idea of “the remake.” Though there should be plenty of books, comics and original ideas out there to keep the film market alive and fresh, I don’t mind if someone wants to remake a previous film. The main problem is that studios choose to remake films that have nothing wrong with them and don’t need to be remade/reimagined/regurgitated to begin with. Take the too-many-cooks approach of today’s filmmaking, add a heaping tablespoon of a movie-going public who won’t sit still for anything but eye candy, and simmer in an atmosphere of ‘if it isn’t a guaranteed blockbuster, we don’t want to make it’ and you have a recipe for failure. I equate most films these days to a fireworks display. Lots of bangs and flashes and when it’s over, I take nothing away and the film fades from memory as fast as it burst before my eyes. There are, of course, always exceptions but not too many in recent years.

What I endeavor to do here is pick some films that have been remade and compare them to the originals (and other source material, if any) and see where Hollywood went wrong (or right) with each production.

“The Time Machine”

The book by H.G. Wells is a favorite of mine but is, in my opinion, unfilmable as it stands. I love it but for cinematic purposes it is repetitive and drawn out. A direct film translation would smack more of a documentary than an entertaining adventure story. A rewrite is a definite necessity to make a watchable movie.

The George Pal film from 1960 was the first film adaptation of the book and is nearly flawless, certainly for its time of production. I’m not talking about the dated special effects or other technical issues. Those are all products of their time and the level of technology that was available to them and were very impressive in their day. If anyone watching the film can’t accept and get past that fact, they have no valid criticism to voice. Where David Duncan’s script departs from the book, it introduces aspects that were relevant to Wells himself or helped to legitimately move the story forward. George, the Time Traveler, is a self-proclaimed pacifist as was Wells. This was the impetus for his journey through Time rather than just as an experiment as in the book.

The script sticks enough to the book without being slavishly devoted to it and manages to improve upon the basic concept by introducing the idea of George stopping at different periods before continuing to the world of the Eloi and Morlocks. I imagine any scientist who possessed a time machine would be compelled to stop at intervals to see what changes were occurring as he went, wouldn’t you? The loss of the book’s social commentary is a missed opportunity to some extent, but to include too much would have been dull for most movie audiences.

The only real flaw in the film, for me, is that Pal (and possibly Duncan) apparently didn’t see the irony of their hero’s actions. George’s great desire is to escape the war and violence of his own time, but immediately launches a violent one-man war on the Morlocks in the future. If the filmmakers spotted the irony, it isn’t clearly presented to the audience and within the context of the film, the point seems lost. The omission of the Traveler’s journey into the hopelessness of the even farther future and the dying of the Sun as described in the book, likely didn’t fit into the film’s ultimately positive message. The inclusion of the romantic relationship between George and Weena is a necessary addition for a film of this and almost any period to widen its appeal.

The 2002 Dreamworks remake has many problems, the first of which is the lack of any real similarity with the book or the original film. Rather than use Duncan’s script as a starting point and building on it (this movie was announced as a remake and credits David Duncan for his original screenplay), Simon Wells and John Logan throw out everything that makes the story recognizable as The Time Machine, apart from the machine, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The first mistake is the introduction of a romantic tragedy for the hero, Alexander. I would imagine this was added because the studio execs couldn’t grasp the concept of ‘inner conflict’ and insisted on a clear-to-understand motivator for the hero, hence the tragic romance. The exclusion of the dinner party scenes present in both the book and the Pal film is odd. These scenes help explain the hero’s intentions and ideals and introduces us, though on a smaller scale initially, to the time machine.

Depicting the Morlocks as huge, hulking brutes instead of the small, creepy subterraneans of the book was a misstep as well. As much as I insist on being understanding about the technical limitations of older films, newer films have no such excuse when it comes to special effects. “Jurassic Park” set the standard high for CGI creatures and for filmmakers not to be able to maintain or surpass it years later is ridiculous. The Morlock suits created by Winston’s team are stiff and phony-looking from every angle. If this were a low budget affair or a first-time effects crew one could possibly understand or cut the filmmakers some slack, but in a big budget film like this, their unconvincing appearance is simply inexcusable.

The Uber Morlock is another curious addition, but Hollywood executives don’t think movie audiences can relate to a hero’s struggle without a single face for the villain. I personally find the idea of an uncommunicative horde more frightening than a single lead bad guy. The Uber Morlock also served to clarify the paradox concept to Alexander (and the audience).

By changing the Eloi from the free-loving, simple-minded loafers of the book and Pal film to a people of traditions, that possess engineering and artistic skills, this film ignores the point that Wells was trying to make in the book. Perhaps Dreamworks or Logan saw the human race divided into ambitionless, ADD-ridden layabouts and thugs that prey on the weak as too close to our own society.

Like the Pal film, the romantic relationship between the hero and heroine is an expected plot point, though it only serves to show how apparently unimportant Emma was to Alexander, since she seems fairly quickly forgotten once he meets someone new. Weena’s name being replaced with ‘Mara’ is another mysterious change and the inclusion of a little brother only aids the script’s journey from the source material into cliché.

The Dreamworks remake is still a watchable film and has an excellent score by Klaus Badelt, but overall, it is not a worthy replacement or reworking of the Pal film nor a fitting adaptation of the book.

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