Three Easy Pieces

Superior movie remakes

By Rev. Adam McKinney on September 13, 2018

Another month, another edition of Three Easy Pieces, where I explore a specific pop cultural subject from its birth to how it looks today. It's generally accepted that remakes of movies are never as good as the original -- and I'd usually tend to agree. This month, I'm looking at superior remakes: movies that best their inspiration, which is not nearly as uncommon as you'd think.

BIRTH: The Thing (1982)
Honorary mention: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Victor/Victoria (1982), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Fly (1986)

Truth be told, remakes have existed since practically the beginning of film, with various directors taking stabs at the same subject matter until something stuck (there were several attempts at The Wizard of Oz before we got the 1939 classic, for instance). The Thing, though, is the strongest film representing a period that began in the ‘70s, where auteurs were getting their hands on middling properties -- usually cheap horror movies -- and transforming them.

Director John Carpenter took 1951's The Thing From Another World -- a B-movie about a team of researchers trapped in Alaska with a hostile alien -- and used his talents for atmosphere and interpersonal dynamics to create a classic of paranoia. Gone was the lumbering alien of the original, with a shapeshifting organism in its place, creating vast amounts of tension out of the knowledge that the villain could be any one of the people at the research station. Combine a creeping bleakness with some nasty practical effects (neither of which would've been in the ‘50s original), and Carpenter's The Thing succeeds in blowing away its predecessor.

DEVELOPMENT: Heat (1995)
Honorary mention: 12 Monkeys (1995), The Parent Trap (1998), Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Here, we have a remake of a different variety: the director remaking his own work. And yes, this has also happened before, notably with Alfred Hitchcock remaking his 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. Michael Mann, one of the great American directors of terse, seductive films, made L.A. Takedown in 1989. What was intended as a pilot was turned into a TV movie. Years later, after further making his mark in Hollywood, Mann decided to return to this script, retitle it Heat, and cast it with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, who had never appeared onscreen together. Both movies share much of the same dialogue and plot: an LAPD detective on the trail of a thief.

What both movies also possess is many of the same shots. Mann clearly had what he wanted to do with this material locked in his mind, and when given the budget and stars to make the crime epic he'd always intended, went all-out in creating set-pieces that still thrill today. Think of the robbery gone wrong, or Pacino and De Niro meeting for the first time: these are indelible scenes that were, nearly word for word and shot for shot, featured in L.A. Takedown, and I'm grateful that Mann was able to take another crack at it.

TODAY: Pete's Dragon (2016)
Honorary mention: True Grit (2010), The Crazies (2010), Maniac (2012)

Pete's Dragon was originally released in a dark period for Disney films, with the studio not again reaching its power until the late ‘80s. All that was offered was the sheer joy of the at-the-time groundbreaking ability to have cartoons and real live actors existing in the same space.

This film is fine fodder, then, for a modern remake. No one quite expected the Pete's Dragon we got in 2016, though. The director, David Lowery, was a newcomer known for his languid, existentialist western Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Rather than adjust his style for Disney, Lowery created a tender, earthy, "boy and his dog" version of Pete's Dragon that's really an allegory for grief and PTSD.

The movie opens with a 4-year-old Pete on a vacation with his parents, when their car flips and the parents die. Pete retreats to the woods where he meets a giant green dragon. Cut to six (!) years later, and Pete is practically feral, living with his dragon in the Pacific Northwest. Humans encroach on their home, aiming to deforest the area, and Pete and his dragon are forced to reckon with urban life. Not a whole lot happens, but what's there is a tactile, meditative wonder.

Next month, Three Easy Pieces will return, with: Found Footage Horror.