Remakes and Reboots Redux: Part 2

Off The Top of My Head

I remember always being behind the times as a kid. I never saw the Rambo or Indiana Jones movies when they were new. I didn’t get the newest pop music or know anything beyond what showed up in “Weird” Al Yankovic or Kids Incorporated. BUT…I distinctly remember the first time I saw a RoboCop movie.

It was actually RoboCop 2, which is slightly inferior but in the same spirit as the original. I loved the action, the big robots, and the stop motion. You saw little glimpses of Officer Alex Murphy’s previous life as a person, enough to make his current state as a cyborg meaningful, but it was mostly shoot ‘em up robot fun with some funny parts and just a dash of character development.

I didn’t see the first film until the 2000s and despite its decidedly 80s vision of crime and the future it held up very well; and I can say that honestly as I didn’t have any youthful attachments to it. Bad guys were wonderfully bad. Robo had an established personality but was a great cyborg. His partner, Anne Lewis, was one of the best tough female characters this side of Vasquez from Aliens. And the story had an excellent progression and a fantastic “oooh gotcha!” conclusion.

The Real RoboCop

THEN they did a remake.

The original RoboCop series established certain demands on anything trying to call itself “RoboCop.” He-is-go-ing-to-talk-like-the-computer-in-War-games. He’ll spin that gun like a he’s in a 1950s western. He’ll call someone a “creep. “ Tell them to freeze. Then lots of shooting will occur.

That’s what RoboCop means to those of us who care about the series and, to be totally honest, would be the audience for a remake series.

Here’s what I don’t watch RoboCop movies for: To see his family life. To get to know him as a person for hour. To have a strong female character turned into…a dude… To see RoboCop CRY. And have Alex Murphy talk like Marky Mark Circa 1991.

Nearly half the remake is used building Alex Murphy’s character. He’s an honest cop, a devoted family man, a good partner, a decent person, a tough guy, a badass, a rebel against corruption. For an hour we see this in story, exposition, and flashbacks. Even after he becomes RoboCop we see more character exposition, as he copes with his new status, trains to become RoboCop a la Batman Begins, and fights against corporate prejudice (from one of the many rather good performances in the film, this one by Jackie Earl Haley. Other great performances include those of Sam Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Gary Oldman).

This is some strange RoboCop…thing

Less than half an hour into the original film Alex Murphy is RoboCop. Out RoboCopping it up with Old Detroit’s street trash. Before he gets all Robo’d, he’s introduced as a rookie to the precinct, which means other characters have to get to know him naturally and thus the audience gets to know him in an organic process. He’s cocky and arrogant, but in less than five seconds of dialogue we see how he’s developed and achieved a rapport with Lewis. He spins his gun because his kid likes it (and maybe he does too…) establishing he’s got a family he cares about, and we see that family in staccato flashes after he’s attacked (actively I’ll say by the bad guys, not in a BS car bomb). All of his character is built in about 10-15 minutes. His transition into RoboCop is done via first-person montage. As he’s switched on, sees something new, and is switched back off again. Time passes, he’s advanced to a new state of Robo, time passes again. Never wasting time so we get to the main story as soon as possible.

RoboCop does a lot of this blow stuff up stuff…

Where Apes updated the premise while making the story fit to a new audience and changing times, 2014’s RoboCop is a near-Clash of the Titans-level farce. The Corporation plot is senseless and muddled. There was a needless “military drones should be legal in the US” angle. Robocop was Strong Sad in an exoskeleton. His wife and child just WOULDN’T GO AWAY. And none of it had to be done.

An hour into the movie RoboCop 2014 makes his first bust (35 minutes passes in the original for RoboCop 1987 to accomplish this) and the corporate mouthpiece comments that Robo ID’d the bad guy after only 60 seconds on duty, and says how impressive that is. Why then, may I ask, did it take the movie 60 MINUTES to get us here?

And none of this “what have they done to me?!” stuff…

Now many of you may start shouting, “But wait, wait, wait, Apes updated its story, was dramatic, and deep, and you showered it with praise!” True. I did. BUT. The original Planet of the Apes movie was a sci-fi drama. Designed to have social commentary, make observations on human hubris, and still wrap it up into a terse, excellent sci-fi movie. That’s exactly what the two new Apes films did.

What was the original RoboCop series? An outstanding, fun, sci-fi action movie with more Dawn of the Dead style tongue-in-cheek commentary on consumerism, economic Darwinism, and social progress seen in the periphery and through action, rather than exposition. It was not a DRAMA. It was NOT a personal introspective look at the life n’ times of a homie from the block who became a robo cop. And how it made it him feel. And what does it mean for society.

The new movie was a product of a film industry that seems not to know how to have much fun anymore. It either makes dreadful and derivative Scary Movie style “fun” or it makes action movies that have to show consequences and emotions rather than just the cartoon style blasty-blasting we saw in the 80s and 90s movies. Even action movies, have to try to hit you in the feels rather than just show a half-dead robo-man blowing away street scum.

More importantly either filmmakers don’t know what kind of movie they want to make, or want to make a cross-genre thing that, as Jim Sterling would say in a mocking, whiny voice, “appeals to a wider audience.” Before making any film the question needs to be asked, “What is this movie about?” And stick to THAT. A movie like RoboCop can have social commentary, the original certainly did. But it shouldn’t shoehorn it in at the expense of the real plot. We shouldn’t spend more than half the film establishing character. We shouldn’t spend an equal amount of time on drama. We shouldn’t waste even more screen time getting into the mechanics of how RoboCop robo-works.  We shouldn’t go down the plot-rabbit-hole chasing military drone legalization and political debate. A movie that tries to do everything at once accomplishes doing nothing much in the end.

In a scene that packs more emotion in three minutes of activity than the 2014 remake did in an hour of exposition, Alex Murphy lies to his wife in RoboCop 2 saying, “They made this…to honor him.” They certainly didn’t make the new RoboCop to honor you, Alex.  So Hollywood, the fans are taking away your remake privileges. Dead or alive they’re coming with me…

Next week will be a bonus wrap up with a pair of movies about the same character, one from the 90s one from the last couple of years, that both succeeded in making fun movies but in totally different ways.

Remakes and Reboots Redux: Part 1

Off The Top of My HeadRise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In my very first series of posts on RevPub I detailed what I thought made a remake, reboot, or sequel successful. In the modern film environment it’s easy to see why that’s important. Over this past weekend I watched three films that made me want to go back and revisit this concept. The first two were excellent (one a reboot/prequel and its subsequent sequel) and the last one dreadful and all helped prove the point of what makes the “re-” genre work and what makes it fail. This week I’ll start with the successes: Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Few films are as iconic, not a word to be used lightly, as the 1968 Planet of the Apes. I’d say it’s up there with The Godfather and Scarface for quotability and nearly invented the modern shocker twist ending. It’s a product of its cold war time period, but many of the lessons it professes are still valid and it largely still holds up, even if many of the film making and special effects may seem dated.
There were a number of less-than-stellar sequels and even the Tim Burton remake from 2001, so when a new one was announced it felts like territory that had been over-traveled. The first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a pleasant surprise…and an impressive film in its own right.
Part reboot, part prequel, it does everything a film in this kind of category should. It pays proper homage to the original, making small references, quoting, and even foreshadowing the previous film, and never NEVER once makes light of the original film or attempts to outdo or show up a film more than 40 years old.
Apes movies are in the “monster” genre I feel and in many ways the latter half of the first movie and the entire second film feel like a far more original extension of the zombie genre. These kinds of monster movies are only as effective as their human characters. In the first film the human cast, led by James Franco and supported by John Lithgow, Brian Cox, and Freida Pinto are compelling in their positive and negative qualities. Andy Serkis, of Gollum fame, is a show stealer as Caesar, the real star of the movie and the character in whose story we are invested. Like his role in the Lord of the Rings however his performance is lost in CGI, though I would wager echoes of his emotions shine through. This is very similar to the stories I remember hearing about how difficult it was for Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter to emote behind layers of thick prosthetic make up.
The story itself is character-based, always pushed on my characters (mostly Caesar) responding to events and actively making choices and deciding, rather than having choices thrust upon him. Not only that but one actually feels far more attached to him than to the human characters, even those we like, because of how well he is portrayed, both in the writing and in the performance.
Furthermore it fills in plot holes from the original such as why the apes speak English, use human-style tools, and how they progressed so quickly. It also skillfully updates the setting from a cold war nuclear age to a 21st century biological age without detracting from the original purpose or even re-writing the events of the canon.
All in all it’s a terrific reset to a legendary film, and compelling to watch for fans of the original and just those seeking some great entertainment.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds where the sequels to the original film largely failed in that it is actually a good movie. Dawn picks up where Rise left off, telling the story of how the newly self-emancipated apes and the remnants of humanity come into conflict with each other, and how even in an idealized setting, one under perfect leadership and the best altruistic foundations, selfishness and violence can creep in. It’s a perfect extension of both the ideology and story of the first film and progresses us more and more toward the eventuality of the progenitor film. Again the human cast is effective led by Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell.
Yes this “reboot/prequel” franchise is a success. It succeeds because it takes what made the original film work, builds upon it, pays proper respect to it, and then tells its own narrative. Most of all these two moves are just well-made, well-designed, well-told stories. They know what they set out to do and do it. A rarity in modern film making…
Next week we go from the sublime to the ridiculous as we look at last year’s remake of another classic film…this one from the 1980s.

Sources of Creativity: Buffy and The Zeppo

Like most dorks I’m a fan of Joss Whedon’s 90s moderns fantasy horror show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What’s not to like? Great characters, good acting, clever stories, creative story-telling, some nice eye candy, and tongue-in-cheek campiness.

Whenever one Buffy fan talks the show with another the topic of “favorite episodes” comes up (along with least favorite episodes but let’s keep it positive!) There are a few that are on everyone’s favorite list and I have two favorite episodes: One, Season 4’s Hush is almost universally in everyone’s favorite episode list. My other favorite, Season 3’s The Zeppo, has been catching on, though many fans seem to decray it’s goofy tone.
The plot is simple, with Buffy’s “Scooby Gang” all filling specific roles (Willow and her witchcraft, Giles and his knowledge, Buffy’s slayer-ness, etc) perennial mean girl Cordelia tells regular Joe, Xander, that he is useless. He takes up space. He’s the eponymous “Zeppo” referring the Marx Brother straight man. Xander then goes on an independent, relatively low-supernatural adventure on his own, whilst the rest of the gang saves the world off screen. So why has this episode, that not only follows a non-story arc event but also lampoons the series’ more series elements, achieved such popularity? Here’s why:

Xander’s World-Saving duty: Get the Donuts

1.) Creativity: It’s hard to tell a new story. Most stories have been told. One way to add new life to your stories is to tell them in a new way. Buffy and crew had “saved the world” several times by this episode. While it was always done with high drama and often with personal impact to characters, we had seen it before. We hadn’t seen a story telling the tale of what one member of the crew not involved with saving the world spends his time when he’s not “on camera” during a more traditional episode. So Xander goes on his little journey, sometimes crossing paths with the rest of the team, always catching them halfway through something important, and interrupting their melodramatic events. It’s great to see Xander ask for help from Buffy and Angel as she tearfully tells Angel she can’t lose him, while Xander blunders in…then says he can come back if it’s a bad time, to their awkward silence.
2.) Perspective: After the intro sequences you see events only through Xander’s eyes. The hellmouth opens, we see it only as he scampers by in terror. Demons are battled, we see these events only when he crosses paths with more “important” characters in their world-saving quest. Perspective is a very important creative element often overlooked (too many stories are given ubiquitous third person omniscient) in favor of being informative or simplicity. First person, or even semi-first person can give a known world a whole new feel and make events, even small events, all the more personal.

Xander’s Undead Adventure Companions: All good and interesting characters on their own.

3.) Playin’ it Straight: As I said in my Lampreys review, satire is funnier when those participating don’t act like they’re making fun of anything. The rest of the cast plays the episode as though it IS one of the most poignant and emotional of episodes. Buffy and Angel’s encounter mentioned above is as powerful as ever, only given a new feel due to Xander’s oddly timed interruption. A run down at the end of the episode where the characters refer to all the exciting world-saving events we didn’t see is similarly effective. Even Xander’s antics aren’t comedic or goofy, he stays true to his character as the in-over-his-head friend of heroes, his exciting odyssey being marginalized only by the fact that it is occurring while demons are being unleashed on the world just out of frame…
4.) Character Growth: Shows like Buffy go through “season arcs” that tell one long story over the course of a season with a few non sequiturs here and there. Many of these are one offs that might be referred to in passing later but don’t have a lasting impact. This episode does. Xander’s feelings of never being useful come up in the season finale with definite poignancy. His encounter with Faith is brought up again, with similar important story elements coming out of it.
So why spend time talking about a show that’s almost a decade old? As a writer I can attest it can be painfully difficult to write a story that feels fresh. Even worse is writing a piece and going over it and feeling it is entirely derivative… Seeing creative work really does give you hope and, even better, ideas. Much like the Sliding Doors format a lot of shows would later take (many not terribly effectively) it provides a format of experimentation. Follow a lesser known character. Write it from their perspective. Tell a story backwards (see Seinfeld’s “The Betrayal” for that one!) Do whatever you can to gain inspiration. I know I need whatever I can get to gain inspiration, especially for stories I’ve lived with for years, but knowing it CAN be done goes a long way!

Trends in Modern Storytelling in Film: Conan – Conclusion and The Riddle of Steel


What is the riddle of steel?  The 1982 film asked this question in some of its first spoken dialogue, in 2011 it is asked in the forge, in both films it is posed by Conan’s father.

In 2011 the answer is given in the same scene “fire and ice” provides the strength of steel.  Meaning of course that as heated/quenched steel is best tempered, a spirit that consists of equal parts furious passion and level-headed temperance is indomitable.  A fine lesson for the young Conan, but one he has trouble mastering throughout the film.

Ron Perlman as Conan’s father in the 2011 film teaching his son about steel.

In the 1982 film the answer is provided but never written down on a piece of paper, tied to a rock, and thrown at the audience’s collective forehead so the audience must interpret the answer, and not everyone’s is guaranteed to be the exactly same.

Conan’s original solution is to rely on the strength of steel.  He blunders from place to place, hacking and slashing, until he comes face-to-face with Doom, whose legion of followers catches him easily and Thulsa Doom provides him another answer: flesh is stronger.  Steel is fine, but with his horde of fervent acolytes succumbing to his false prophet-eering, some willing to turn on and murder their own parents, Doom can overcome steel.  Was that the answer then?  If so Conan and the world were doomed.  But that wasn’t the answer either.  During the last battle with Doom’s lieutenants Valeria keeps her promise, that not even death could stop her from fighting by his side, and aids Conan when he most needs it.  Then, renewed with strength, Conan rises to his feet, shatters his opponent’s sword, his father’s sword, and destroys the High Priest of Set, a man bigger, stronger, filled with faith in a false prophet, and with steel forged by the very man who provided Conan the riddle.  Then looking at the shattered sword, he crosses his weapons in his battle-pit salute and bows his head to the Valeria’s funerary altar.  This battle was for her, and she gave him the answer at last: steel is weak, flesh is weak, but the strength of true belief and true purpose can overcome greater steel, greater strength, and any false beliefs no matter how powerful in the brutal world of Hyboria.

Conan then takes his father’s broken sword and kills Thulsa Doom and burns his temple to ash; neither taking his place as a new demagogue nor slaughtering his followers.  It is at this point that James Earl Jones suggests Conan becomes a hero.  By destroying the cult of Set and Doom he does something “for the whole world” not just himself.  For the betterment of everyone, not just for his own revenge.  Meaning there is a progression of the character, from wrathful to heroic.  And doing it all not as a “chosen one” but just driven by his own will.  Not a god nor a giant.  Just a man.  Finding the answer to his riddle.

Where does this leave forging a narrative in modern filmmaking?  Without sounding as old-mannish as shouting “things were better when…” I would like to at least silently mouth it.  Mostly because this trend has exploded into all forms of media; popular books, movies, music, video games; a trend where the narrative is so simple and closed it leaves no room to grow and has been dropped to the lowest common denominator.  Plots now have to be obvious, spelled out, and blatant.  Scenes have to be short, colorful, and loud.  Characters have to be broad and exaggerated.  Nothing can be implied in a character’s personality or purpose; it must be shown in excruciating detail (lengthy sequences of flashbacks, voice-overs, and “childhood” scenes instead of effective montaging done in older films) or spoken in needless expositionary dialogue.  To quote the Robot Devil from Futurama, “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”  So why do the various industries want to remove all nuance and just have their characters simply announce how they feel?  The answer is simple: it’s easier and they have very low opinions of us…

This is definitely not an indictment to say “all new movies bad, all older movies good” but there is something to the reduction in intricacy of a lot of newer media.  I for one would like to see less hand-holding and provide room to let the audience divine its own answers or at least take the narrative training wheels off.

I never again want to have a roadmap explaining all the stops during a tale of high adventure!

The author's take on mini-Conan
The author’s take on mini-Conan

Trends in Modern Storytelling in Film: Conan – Actors and Characters ’82 & ’11 Comparison


So in comparison, what do the films and their characters tell us of how narratives were forged in 1982 compared to 2011?

In 1982, they relied on persona for casting first.  Arnold was a name then, not much more, but one known and larger than life.  Conan was more than a grunting thug and would take some ability to perform, but it wasn’t Hamlet so it was well within his purview of early skills.  The filmmakers wisely chose similarly talented actors to act beside him most of the time (Bergman and Lopez are very good, but they aren’t master thespians) so as not to outshine him, and added veteran screen virtuosos von Sydow, Jones, and Mako to be solid feet on the acting floor to make sure there was some balance.

Conan 1982 learning his swordsmanship.

In 2011, they seemed to rely on the look more than the persona.  Momoa played a good-looking barbarian in Game of Thrones, a character very Conan-like, so since he’s the kind of guy that would bring young women to a hack and slash movie usually audience’d by young men he was a win for them.  The other “good guy” characters seem to appear more out of convenience than necessity, the possible exception being Artus, Conan’s friend.  Tamara is the pretty damsel in distress and El-Shan is a sneaky thief who comes in handy because they need a sneaky thief.

Conan 2011 wielding his own sword.

Zym as a villain is far more in-your-face than Doom; bashing, smashing, and slashing his way through the film seeking revenge…much like Conan really, except he is basically wearing a t-shirt that reads “I’m evil and I know it.”  Doom’s perspective is far more gray, as proven by a speech he gives:

Purging is at last at hand. Day of Doom is here. All that is evil, all their allies; your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges; those who have lied and corrupted the Earth, they shall all be cleansed.

Like any kooky cult leader Doom sees himself as righteous, not wicked.  Not for some personal wrong (“You killed my evil wife!”) but because as the last Atlantean he is clinging to a time when his people were the power of the world and he longs to go back to those halcyon days.  But the movie doesn’t need to spoon you that – it’s just part of the back story, insinuated by dialogue, mood, and Jones’ performance.

Overall, it gives the newer film less complexity, but not really in a good way, just in a “this-is-just-a-sword-swinging-hack-n-slash-adventure-for-fun-so-let’s-not-do-any-more-than-that” kind of way, which really is the trend of narratives now.  If something can be simpler it is made simpler.  Or often “darker” because much of the audience automatically feels “darker” is “better” or “more real” (See Star Wars I-III).  “Real” has come to mean everything has to be shown or explained directly.  Nothing has nuance or subtlety.  Many narratives’ most powerful points are either spelled out and/or done so blatantly as to provide little interpretation or analysis, thereby robbing the audience of some of the intensity of personal realization.

Next time will be the  summation, one best provided by a riddle…

Trends in Modern Storytelling in Film: Conan – Actors and Characters (2011)

As I mentioned previously, the 2011 version’s star Jason Momoa actually looks the part of Conan far more than Arnold.  He really does resemble a Vallejo painting quite well.  His choices for his portrayal of the conqueror aren’t bad at all.  He laughs heartily, drinks, brags, threatens all with believability, so why is it that when people say “Conan” the vast majority will say something in an Austrian accent?  Charisma.  Momoa certainly has the attitude and the look but he doesn’t have that “special quality” that Arnold possesses.  It’s no shame, few do, but it’s one of the strongest reasons I think Arnold made a superior Conan.  His presence and persona in the part are just overwhelming.  Add to that the voice, and yes, range Arnie gives his Conan (his exclamation of “you killed my people!” in rage and despair is far more effective than the many anger-filled tirades in the new film voiced in a grumbling hiss through clenched teeth) and this it becomes relatively clear why 1982’s portrayal will endure while 2011’s is classified as more a popcorn film.

Momoa looked very Conan-esque as Drogo in Game of Thrones.

Furthermore since we see so much of Conan’s childhood (a trend I think the film industry needs to start doing without…we see how Michael Meyers, Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, and Conan become who they are rather than providing glimpses of a backstory and letting either good dialogue flesh them out or leaving it to the audience’s imagination) we see he has changed little from when he was a warrior boy to when he was a warrior adult.  Leaving only modest room for the character to grow and removing the mystique provided so well through montage in the first film.

Momoa’s performance is quite good, but not as larger-than-life as a guy who’s entire life is “larger-than-life” but what of his cast mates? Nonso Anonzie is great as Artus and wins the prize for the secondary character I’d most like to see in a spinoff.  Said Taghmaoui is good as a stereotypical thief but his character is in it with such unusual irregularity you don’t get nearly as attached to him as you do Subotai.  The main female character, Tamara, played by Rachel Nichols is done well, but she falls back into the “chosen one” category that so many characters are in (though “chosen for sacrifice” is less appealing) and has none of the bad-assery of Valeria.  Which only leaves our villains.

Of course Khalar Zym is our bad guy, played well with manic ferocity by Stephen Lang, however when comparing villains we see how much simpler he is as a character to Thulsa Doom.  Not only did his back story require a long pre-title narration, but he IS a skull-smashing, sword wielding, wildman.  He’s the Sonny Corleone of Conan villains to Thulsa Doom’s Michael and it makes you wonder how a cell-block boss like him could maintain power in the intervening decades between Conan’s village being burned and adult Conan’s revenge.

Zym looks more like a crazy villain than did Jones’ Thulsa Doom

This film’s scene is clearly stolen, as was mentioned previously, by Rose McGowan as Marique, who is a far more fascinating villain than Zym.  Not only is she a wicked sorceress with serious Elektra issues, but she is played somehow both as a incredibly creepy and still somewhat sultry by McGowan, who really has to try not to be full-on sultry just standing there in most of her roles.

Rose McGowan is great as Marique, possibly the best character in the film as her background and motivations aren’t always 100% obvious.

2011’s actors all did well with what they were given and made a fun adventure film, but it’s almost as though the bar they were provided was set far lower than in 1982’s outing.  Next post we’ll compare the two methods and see what they both accomplish.