This year, the summer movie season is off to a slow start. How slow? So slow there’s talk of rethinking the sequel-heavy approach Hollywood has famously embraced (though not everyone is buying the story). Of course, slump or no slump, it seems like we go through this every summer. As sure as the mercury in the thermometer rises, movie critics and fans take to the internet and decry the number of sequels playing at the multiplex. One man last week took it upon himself to launch a protest against remakes and reboots. Audiences, it would seem, are sick to death of rehashed stories and endless reiterations of the same characters/situations.
Except they’re not. Nor have they been, nor will they ever be.
“Together we can demand original stories,” says the angry demonstrator. I very much doubt it. The truth is, originality is overrated. Show me a moviegoer who publicly longs for “original” pictures in theaters and I’ll show you a copy of The Empire Strikes Back or his or her DVD collection.
“Creativity is the subtle theft of another’s ideas.” –Jim Oblak
From the early days of motion pictures, filmmakers have relied on existing material to propel the medium forward. When they weren’t filming sneezes or locomotives, they would stage productions of established plays for the camera. Books were likewise adapted for the screen, and not always with permission. Nosferatu (1922) is a celebrated horror classic from the silent film era, but it was so similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula that his estate successfully sued for damages. While this bankrupted the filmmakers it in no way detracts from Nosferatu’s artistic merits.
Now we have films based on anything and everything: toys from the 1980s, comic books, Disneyland rides, video games, even trading cards. If any intellectual property can be the basis for a movie, why not movies based on other movies? That’s all a remake or a reboot really is, a new film based on previously released material. Even “shot-for-shot” remakes aren’t literal repeats of the original work; Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) made several departures from the 1960 film, not the least of which was the use of color.
Even if a screenplay is considered to be “original,” the screenwriter is almost certainly drawing inspiration from other media, including (but not limited to) characters, setting, themes, even dialogue. Quentin Tarantino’s entire body of work is steeped in movie culture. His first feature, Reservoir Dogs (1992) closely mirrors the plot of City on Fire (1987) and his other films have been presented as elaborate tributes to past genres.
Sequels are a little harder to defend from an artistic standpoint, especially as their numbers increase. When I was a child in the 1980s the endless train of slasher movie sequels was a joke. Now it seems like every hit movie has two more installments waiting in the wings. Spider-Man 3’s 2007 release date was announced before Spider-Man 2 (2004) was even in theaters. Sequels have become expected; they are the rule rather than the exception.
That doesn’t mean sequels are always doomed to be pale imitations of the previous picture. Sometimes a second movie allows for certain storytelling freedoms (or straight-up budget increases) that make the first film look like a rough draft. Science-fiction and comic book movies are particularly good candidates for improvement in a second installment: Superman II (1980), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Trek II (1982), Aliens (1986), Evil Dead II (1987), Terminator 2 (1991), X2 (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Dark Knight (2008) are all well-regarded or even more celebrated than the films they followed.
Even if sequels are a grab for cash, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Show business is a business (you can tell because “business” is right there in the name) and for every billion-dollar tentpole picture that a studio releases, dozens of smaller, riskier pictures get made. Regardless of what you thought of Avatar (2009) its success means continued employment for thousands of people.
Speaking of jobs, sequels can serve as proving grounds for up-and-coming directors in Hollywood. Aliens (1986) was James Cameron’s first studio picture. Alien 3 (1992) was David Fincher’s first feature-length production. Blade 2 (2002) was Guillermo del Toro’s first hit.
While it’s understandable for disgruntled moviegoers to wave their fists in the air and declare sequels, remakes and reboots as lazy, recursive filmmaking, it’s an empty argument. Every idea comes from somewhere, after all, and ideas do not include expiration dates. You cannot predict what another director, writer or actor might bring to a familiar property.
Indeed, just last week the internet was set ablaze by a mysterious new Mortal Kombat short. It turned out to be an unlicensed pitch to Warner Bros to revitalize the franchise. They have yet to officially respond, but the reaction online has been overwhelmingly positive. I would have never thought anyone could get me interested in a new Mortal Kombat film after the abysmal Mortal Kombat Annihilation (1997) but that teaser surprised me.
Demanding “original” stories is a shortsighted (at best) or an ignorant (at worst) worldview. Not only is “original” a nebulous term, creatively-speaking, there’s no correlation between originality and quality just as there’s no definitive link between revisiting past ideas and shoddiness. I’ve done my share of eye-rolling at the licensing deals Hollywood makes. I cannot imagine how Asteroids, Monopoly or Les Grossman can be the basis for entertaining films. Then again, I rolled my eyes at Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and that turned out to be a hoot.
But those sequels? They were awful.