The Trouble With Remakes (including Final Fantasy VII)
This week I’ve been trying to force myself to play Final Fantasy VII Remake on my PS4. It seems a ridiculous thing to say: why am I forcing myself to do something that’s supposed to be fun?
The answer is that I want to like it. Not just because I splashed out sixty quid on the download, but because the original is one of my all-time favourite works of fiction; so surely a new version that brings to bear 20+ years of technological advancement, a retelling of a fantastic story remade on an astronomical budget, the clunky polygons of the original’s beloved characters replaced by glorious, hyper-realistic CGI, can’t fail to trigger the same emotions as its creaky old forebear?
The answer, I'm sorry to say, is yes it can. Fail, that is. Dismally. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a dishwater-dull, insipid shadow of its predecessor, and I could write an entire blog post on exactly what it gets wrong (along with about ten posts gushing about why the original is so unbelievably ace). But, instead, I thought I'd instead expand the scope of today’s haphazard musings to a broader reflection on remakes in general.
Switching to the world of cinema, I can easily think of a number of similarly turgid attempts to remake old classics: Total Recall, Robocop and Old Boy spring instantly to mind. And I think I can venture to suggest that my dim view of remakes is shared by the majority of fiction fans. So today’s post has a dual focus: if remakes are so rubbish, why do they constantly get made? And are there any that buck this mediocre-at-best, sacrilege-at-worst trend?
But, before we answer those questions, perhaps we ought to clearly define what a remake actually is.
What is a remake?
This at first seems pretty obvious, but I want to draw a distinction here between remakes and ‘new adaptations’. An example would be Tim Burton’s 2005 car crash, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Godawful though that film may be, with Burton’s retelling completely missing the mark and Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka a (very) pale imitation of Gene Wilder’s brilliant performance in the vastly-superior 1971 musical Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, my point is that this rotten tomato is not a remake of the older film. It is, instead, a new adaptation of a book (apparently setting out to be more faithful to the source material but managing only to suck every last drop of joy out of Roald Dahl’s brilliantly dark children’s classic).
Similarly, I don’t think versions that switch media can be counted as remakes, and therefore the 2017 live action version of Ghost In The Shell starring Scarlett Johansson, while desperately disappointing, cannot in my opinion be considered a remake of the classic 1995 anime of the same name.
My point here is that, to be classified as a remake, a piece of fiction needs to be an attempt to recreate, perhaps with deliberate frame-for-frame fidelity, or perhaps with varying degrees of ‘reimagination’, an existing work in the same media as the original. A few random examples include:
A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)
Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
The Italian Job (2003)
The Ring (2002)
(A lot of horror films here! They seem to get remade a lot)
Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)
Resident Evil 2 (2019)
Shadow Of The Colossus (2018)
Super Mario All-Stars (1993) (this 16-bit remake of the early Mario games proves that the phenomenon is not new to the gaming world either)
It occurred to me while writing this that remakes do not occur in literature – I can’t think of a single example of someone taking an existing novel and attempting to rewrite it ‘for a modern audience’ (except when deliberately applying an entirely new twist, which I think again distinguishes the work from being a true remake; an example is staring at me from my bookshelf as I write, Brom’s brilliant illustrated reimagining of Peter Pan as an evil, child-stealing abuser in The Child Thief).
This is perhaps a neat segue into the next big question…
Why do great things get remade?
The obvious answer here is ‘because Hollywood and the video games industry are both cynical moneymaking machines, with original ideas in increasingly short supply’. But, whilst I agree with this assertion in broad terms, I do think it's an oversimplification.
The first flaw in this assertion is that there are still some fantastically original movies and games out there, proving that our increasingly dystopian capitalist world has not completely snuffed out all of its creative genius just yet. If anything, though, this serves to reinforce the other part of the argument: despite the availability of so many brilliant and innovative new ideas, movie and game producers choose to re-hash old favourites because they believe they are more likely to sell, based on prior performance and an opportunity to exploit nostalgia.
But is that really the only motivation driving the creation of remakes? Aren’t there, at least in some cases, more noble goals at play?
The first is the idea of bringing a story to a wider audience. Here we can classify remakes of foreign films, like The Ring and Old Boy from my list above; the idea is that a lot of westerners cannot abide subtitled movies, so a remake gives them a chance to enjoy the best overseas cinema they would otherwise miss out on. The problem I have with this argument is that the issue lies with the consumer, not with the work; if people don’t want to read subtitles (or are unable to), there are other options available, such as dubbed versions, or simply not watching the film at all. I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t accept an accessibility argument for completely remaking a film with an entirely new cast, purely to switch its language to English.
I have a similar issue with the idea that remakes bring old movies or games to a new audience. My view is, quite simply, that they don’t – they bring something completely new to the new audience. If the goal is to get people to watch or play the original, the solution is to make these masterpieces more readily available, to ensure they are accessible via streaming services or, in the case of video games, to continue the recent commendable trend of making old classics available on newer machines.
However, I do think there are a couple of justifiable reasons why a remake might be approached, even if ultimately unsuccessful. The first is technology: with better cameras, improved special effects, improved editing techniques, vastly superior gaming machines and so forth, it is at least theoretically possible to recreate a piece of art as a closer representation of the original artistic intention. I’m not saying special effects are always good (I think CGI is chronically over-used and, in most cases, looks utterly fake next to good old-fashioned animatronics), but there are some instances where it’s difficult to argue that technology was necessary for a creative work to achieve greatness (imagine trying to make Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park in the fifties - they would have looked like shite).
The other argument I’m willing to accept, again without suggesting that it’s always correct or successful, is that a director or game designer may genuinely have an artistic vision for the remake, a true belief that they can surpass the original by making certain changes. To me, this is a legitimate endeavour akin to creating a cover version of a great song; although I actually prefer Leonard Cohen’s original, I cannot deny that the world would be worse off without Jeff Buckley’s haunting reimagining of Hallelujah.
So are there any decent remakes out there?
To tackle this question I’ll apply my reasoning from the previous section about the legitimate reasons a remake might exist: to utilise improved technology to better realise a creator’s vision, and/or to reimagine elements of the original with the genuine artistic intention to improve it.
If you accept my premise that these are the only two reasons why a remake ought to exist, then I suppose this section’s question can be changed to ‘have any remakes achieved either of these goals without failing so badly in other areas that they end up still being worse than the original?’ And, even though I started this article with an incredibly negative view of cash-guzzling remakes that trample on the legacy of some of my favourite pieces of fiction, I think the answer is ‘yes’.
The first that springs to mind, ironically enough given the mega-bucks involved, is Resident Evil 2. The 2019 remake really did improve on the classic PlayStation original: the enhanced lighting and graphics made the game much more terrifying, the improved AI made the relentlessly pursuing ‘Mr X’ one of the best antagonists in video game history, and while I wouldn’t award any Oscars for the voice acting, it was a significant improvement that enhanced the overall experience while still maintaining the original’s ‘so bad it’s good’ B-movie feel.
But that’s a video game, where technology is advancing at an astonishing pace. It’s easy to see how remakes of ancient titles can improve them, given the tools the original creators were working with – it’s a bit like comparing the work of a modern surgeon to a medieval sawbones. What about movies, a medium that's had longer to mature and has arguably reached its technical zenith? Are there any remakes worth your time?
I wanted to take this opportunity to enthuse about John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, or perhaps the brilliant anime version of Metropolis, but both fail to meet my remake definition as outlined above (The Thing is actually based on a short story, and Metropolis shifts the format from live action to animation). I also wanted to steer clear of any remakes whose originals I haven’t actually seen, meaning that I can’t include the brilliant Scarface having never watched its 1932 predecessor (I had no idea until writing this article that the Brian De Palma classic was a remake!) Similarly disqualified is The Fly; much as I love Jeff Goldblum’s performance as the terrifyingly-realised fly/human hybrid abomination, I have shamefully never gotten round to watching the story’s first incarnation.
So I will confess that I’m struggling on the cinematic front – but if anyone has a favourite remake I’ve overlooked here, please fire it at me in whatever digital format you like! (The suggestion I mean, not a bootleg copy... of all the things to get sued for, I don't want it to be some diabolical remake like 2006's The Wicker Man!)
Well, that’s enough from me for today. I also wanted to let you all know that this will be my last post for a while – after I recently started a new full-time job, the blog is going to take a back seat to enable me to focus on finishing my latest novel, which is hopefully good news for anyone eagerly awaiting another slice of weird dark fiction! But I will still post intermittently, and I hope this blog can become a more regular fixture again in the near future (after I enact my plan to win the lottery and retire permanently from life as an accountant…)
Until then, look after each other and steer clear of ropey remakes if you can!