With reboots and remakes of long-running franchises and already existing, successful projects making up a significant number of films and TV shows released within the past few years, there’s been some well-deserved complaints among fans who want Hollywood to take more chances on original stories. But, what do we mean when we say “original?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the wake of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ghostbusters, and the Kelvin Universe Star Trek films, and I would argue that “originality” of plot matters less than “originality” of sensibility, and that there’s actually a need for reboots and remakes. There are things that reboots and remakes provide that we can’t get anywhere else.
Check out the above video to hear my ruminations on the subject. And for those of you who can’t watch a video right now, the transcript is below. I’d love to hear about the reboots and remakes you think are successful in the comments below!
With all the franchise reboots and remakes lately, a common fan criticism usually has something to do with “originality.” It’s not just criticism of Hollywood for not taking enough chances on original screenplays (a point with which I agree), it’s fans criticizing the stories these films choose to tell, thinking them too similar to the originals, even as they criticize the ways in which these films differ from the originals and somehow ruin people’s childhoods.
But is “lack of originality” the best criticism to lob at a reboot or remake? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the aftermath of the Kelvin Universe Star Trek films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Ghostbusters, each of which either continues or reboots a beloved franchise.
Most of this kind of criticism comes from fans of the original franchises. Having experienced both the old and the new, they feel entitled to ask for these films to defend their right to exist. Why remake this when there’s nothing wrong with the original?, they ask. I have a response to that question that some fans might not like.
Reboots and remakes aren’t created for already-existing fans of the franchise.
I know. We all like to think that, as fans of a long-running franchise that we hold some kind of sway. That studios are dependent on our money and should therefore do whatever they can to keep us happy. The thing is, they already know they have our money. We will go see these things whether we think they look good or not, because they’re part of a franchise we love, and we can’t help ourselves, even if they’re bad. We’ll pay money to hate-watch things just so we can talk about them with each other on the Internet. And sure, on an individual level, some of us might gradually get franchise fatigue and just stop going to see a certain franchise’s films after a while, but on the whole, they know they have us.
So, who are these films designed for if not for existing fans? Potential new fans, of course. Because it’s true, it is about money, but it’s also about longevity. Existing fans are both a dwindling source of money (they’ve already bought all the old stuff) and a dwindling source of legacy. Sure, there’ll always be kids whose parents sit them down to watch the original films, or people who love quote – “old movies” and will find the originals on their own at some point. But let’s face it. Star Wars is an “old movie”. Ghostbusters is an “old movie”. Star Trek is an “old show.” And most young people, when given a choice, don’t want to watch something old. They want something that’s theirs.
While my older siblings got me hooked on Star Trek by introducing me to the original series in reruns, it was when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out that I truly fell in love with the franchise, because it was then that it became mine and made me obsessed with all things Trek.
I’m also a Whovian, but it was watching the DVDs of the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor that made me fall in love with the show. Since then, I’ve gone back and watched from the First Doctor forward. But I might never have done that on my own had it not been for a series reboot.
Remember, it’s always someone’s first time enjoying a franchise, and what seems quote – “unoriginal” to you is someone else’s first experience with a story. Reboots and remakes are designed with that in mind.
There’s another reason why we need remakes and reboots. They are an opportunity to course correct.
Star Trek Into Darkness was less successful than 2009’s Star Trek as a piece of storytelling. And yes, the plot was definitely borrowed from Wrath of Khan. But what made the film less successful wasn’t that it wasn’t original, but that it didn’t operate from a modern sensibility. It didn’t take what was already progressive about Star Trek and take it further. Like, they whitewashed a person of color who was integral to the plot. For what? Shock value? Because fans didn’t guess that Khan would be the villain of Into Darkness, like, a year before the film came out?
A competent female scientist inexplicably decides to change clothes in front of a male colleague – while also insisting that he “turn around,” totally undercutting the possibility of agency on her part. Like, I’ll change in front of you because I don’t care, or playing it as a sign that men don’t look at women like pieces of meat by having her comfortably change in front of Kirk unafraid while he talks to her without ogling.
It changed things for the sake of change while failing to capture the spirit of what makes Star Trek so special.
Meanwhile, The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters did exactly what a good reboot or remake should do. They rebooted an existing story by making the spirit of the franchise relevant to a new audience with a new sensibility.
The Force Awakens put a female protagonist at the center of its story. There have always been female fans of Star Wars, but this was the first time in the films that they were able to see themselves in someone other than Princess Leia or Padme Amidala, who are both great characters, but always secondary to Luke, or Han, or Obi-Wan, or Anakin.
Ghostbusters allowed female viewers to see themselves for the first time, not as the object of Peter Venkman’s lusty desire, or as the secretary pining for Egon, but as an entire team of heroes.
Putting women at the center of a story, even in a beat-for-beat retelling, still changes the story. It changes how the characters within the script respond to the characters, as well as how viewers respond to the franchise.
The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters also addressed the need for other types of representation. The Force Awakens surrounded its female lead with a black lead and a Latino lead, giving a Star Wars film non-white leads for the first time in its nearly forty-year history. Ghostbusters continued to have one of the Ghostbusters lusting after ladies…but they weren’t a dude.
Both films also took a look at themes from the original films from a modern perspective. In the original Star Wars, we watch Alderaan and the Death Star explode without any real feel for the human cost of those events. In The Force Awakens, however, we see the Starkiller Base attack on the Republic capital from the ground, standing with the people as they’re about to be destroyed.
In Ghostbusters, we see the cost of toxic masculinity through the film’s villain, Rowan, an amalgam of every entitled, misogynistic troll you’ve ever come across on the Internet. And whereas in the original Ghostbusters, Winston Zeddemore’s character was downgraded from a Marine with a PhD to a guy only doing the job for a paycheck, Leslie Jones’ Patty was a New York City historian who pursued the Ghostbusters and wanted to lend her skills to the team.
This isn’t to say that all reboots are perfect. There are plenty that suck. But I would argue that the reason they suck has very little to do with how original they are, and more to do with how they fail to combine the spirit of the original with the needs of a new audience.
Do you have a favorite film reboot or remake? Is there a reboot or remake that made you fall in love with an older franchise? Share them in the comments below!
See you next time!
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