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date: 25 April 2017

Remakes, Sequels, Prequels

Abstract and Keywords

Film remakes, sequels, and prequels are often understood as forms of adaptation: that is, modes of cinematic remaking characterized by strategies of repetition, variation, and expansion. This essay seeks to examine the circumstances in which these modes of serialization have been taken up in the first decades of the new millennium. It analyzes the practice, aesthetics, and politics of cinematic remaking to build an inventory of contexts, descriptions, and knowledges that contribute to the cultural and economic currency of serial forms. Specifically, the essay interrogates a new millennial context that has mobilized a set of discourses around intermediality, transnationalism, and a logic of convergence to determine how these factors have been worked in and through the concepts of adaptation and remaking.

Keywords: remakes, sequels, prequels, intermediality, transnationalism

Film remakes, along with related media types—sequels and prequels—are often understood as forms of adaptation: that is, modes of cinematic remaking characterized by strategies of repetition, variation, and expansion (see Hutcheon 16, 170). This essay seeks to examine the circumstances in which these modes of serialization have been taken up in the new millennium. Like my earlier work in Film Remakes, which sought to understand cinematic remaking as an industrial, textual, and critical category, it is less concerned with legal-industrial definitions than with the place of adaptation and remaking in a wider cultural landscape of re-production. Rather than condemn remake formats as evidence of the commoditized relations of contemporary media culture, this essay seeks to examine the historically specific circumstances in which these serial modes are registered and negotiated. That is, it seeks to widen and deepen an understanding of adaptation and remaking, moving beyond objections around the commercial debasement of film, to examine the inscription of remake formats across a range of institutional and cultural sites. It analyzes the practice, aesthetics, and politics of cinematic remaking to build up an inventory of contexts, descriptions, and knowledges that contribute to the cultural and economic currency of serial forms. It seeks to demonstrate that, instead of analyzing the transformations of particular adaptations or remakes, it is more productive to examine adaptation and remaking as historically variable practices. Specifically, this essay interrogates a new millennial context that has mobilized a set of discourses around intermediality, transnationalism, and a logic of convergence to determine how these factors have been worked in and through the concepts of adaptation and remaking.

Recent accounts of Hollywood cinema—notably, Thomas Schatz’s “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” Thomas Elsaesser’s The Persistence of Hollywood, and Tino Balio’s Hollywood in the New Millennium—tell a similar story: namely, that since the turn of the century a combination of forces—conglomeration, globalization, and digitization—has contributed to a new historical period of “post-production,” as Nicolas Bourriaud (p. 268) calls it. For these writers, post-production not only signals the way in which production practices have changed significantly over the past two decades, but also heralds a transformed media culture, one characterized by a proliferation of viewing screens and new communicative technologies (iPhones, Twitter, Instagram), a rapid increase in digital distribution (downloading, streaming), and an intensification of interest in moving image content (iTunes, Netflix, YouTube) (see Corrigan, “Introduction” 10). Reversing the direction of these discussions, in which new media provide templates for new ways of thinking about adaptation, Anna Stenport and Garrett Traylor claim that contemporary remakes/adaptations exemplify conceptual frameworks for digital information organization. In Bourriaud’s terms, post-production, and the art of post-production—that is, the proclivity of filmmakers to interpret, reproduce, remake, and make use of available cultural products—is a response to the “proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, … [one] characterized by an increase in the supply of works … [and an associated] eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work” (13).

Costas Constandinides’ recent work on adaptation—a term that he also uses to describe practices of cinematic remaking—further develops this account of post-production through the argument that the shift of all culture to digitized forms of production, distribution, and communication—along with the capacity of digital modes to remake and remodel—at once undermines oppositions between original and copy and demands a theory of “post-celluloid adaptation” (19–26). In such an account, the (new millennial) remake is not, as in earlier definitions, described as a film based upon another film (or films), but is defined from an intermedial perspective as the translation of narrative units and popular characters from a preexisting (celluloid) medium to a new (digital) one:

Post-celluloid adaptation [cinematic remaking] can be … defined as the transition of familiar media content from a traditional medium—print, film and television—to a new media object or a set of new media objects that embrace the concept of the main end-product… . [Furthermore,] post-celluloid adaptation is not restricted to the interconnectedness of two texts, but a multiplicity of texts that function across collaborative media… . [It] does not simply describe the transition of familiar images from an older medium to a new [one], but a process that is a symptom of the cultural logic of convergence culture. (24–25)

Constandinides’ account of post-celluloid adaptation at once signals new media transformations of replica practices and frustrates those approaches that seek to differentiate processes of adaptation and remaking by appealing to the relationship between a new version (an adaptation or remake) and the medium of the original artifact. One of the principal arguments of adaptation theory has been around questions of re-mediation: adaptations involve intersemiotic translation or “recoding” (most often from literature to film: see Andrew 32–34; Ray 121–23), but remakes are generally understood as versions of another film, that is, as a process of intralingual translation or “rewording” (p. 269) (Dusi 120). This distinction is, however, already problematic for the many literary adaptations of works that have been previously adapted to film, like the several versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013; Jack Clayton, 1974; Elliott Nugent, 1949; Herbert Brenon, 1926). As Lesley Stern points out, a chain of adaptations often makes the more recent film version “by default a remake, and particularly in a case in which the source is not a classic [literary] text, the reference point will be the earlier film” (226). Accordingly, Pam Cook describes the recent Todd Haynes–directed television miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce (HBO, 2011)—a version of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel and Michael Curtiz’s textbook 1945 melodramatic film noir—as a “multidimensional cultural event that has no single [point of] origin”: “The [Mildred Pierce] miniseries is decidedly transmedia—announced as a film on the credits, made for television, based on a book—signalling the convergences characteristic of contemporary media and the variety of … [ways it opens up to] potential consumer experiences” (379, emphasis added).

The suggestion that cinematic remakes are bound up in questions of translation (and intermediality) is not a new one (see Cattrysse; Mazdon; Evans), but the intermedial relationship between old and new (millennial) media is perhaps more urgently focused on examples like Peter Jackson’s 2005 blockbuster remake of King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933). The original story’s mythic dimension, its inherent spectacularity, and its openness to new interpretations have made it a site of ongoing industrial and cultural remaking, with theatrical reissues (1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, 1956), sequels (Son of Kong, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), spin-offs (Mighty Joe Young, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1949), cross-cultural adaptations (King Kong vs. Godzilla, Ishiro Honda, 1962), and—following the massive commercial success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)—Dino De Laurentiis’s epic remake, King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976), an overt parable of third-world exploitation that ends, in hubristic swagger, with Kong ascending the recently completed twin towers of the World Trade Center. Riding the crest of a wave of fan enthusiasm for his Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), Jackson revisited the story of King Kong with solemn respect (and an estimated $200 million budget), treating his remake to impressive, state-of-the-art digital effects. More significantly, Jackson employed new media strategies to engage fans (or “viewer/users”) and rendered the film’s official “website a powerful paratext of the main text, or created a ‘database as non-linear narrative’ ” (Constandinides 24; see Gray 216). As Cynthia Erb points out in her extended study of the historical reception of the multiple versions of King Kong, Jackson established a relationship between the 1933 film and the 2005 remake by way of a collection of video-blog entries, initially shown on a (Jackson-approved) independent fan website before being released on DVD as King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries (Michael Pellerin, 2005). The video diaries not only demonstrate Jackson’s personal investment in, and creative transformation of, a pioneering special effects classic, but also underline the significance of establishing an intermedial approach to post-celluloid adaptations (and remakes) that attends to the transformation of popular serial forms in and through new media platforms.

(p. 270) The remediation that characterizes the example of King Kong—and the way this extends into the immersion of the viewer/user through the interactive pleasures of game play and IMAX-3D technologies—is further evident in the more recent example of RoboCop (José Padilha, 2014), a new millennial reboot in which the film—or “main end-product”—clearly draws upon previous versions of the phenomenon and its global reputation as (non-hierarchical) film and television series and set of video games, beginning with the award-winning, cabinet arcade game from 1988. The cross-platform example of RoboCop demonstrates some of the ways in which a digitally networked culture organizes and manages information, with Sony Pictures setting up the film’s official website—as the homepage for the fictional OmniCorp, creator of the RC2000, or RoboCop, project—to embrace the new millennial potential of the Web and so engage a “multiplicity of textual relationships that function across collaborative media … for [textual and] commercial purposes” (Constandinides 24). Online features, such as OmniCorp’s 2027 Keynote announcement of the RC2000 project, resist any simple reduction of the site to its promotional function, and of the remake to any direct or singular relationship between itself and RoboCop (1987). Instead, RoboCop 2014 adopts a non-linear and non-hierarchical database logic, inserting the new millennial RoboCop into a collection of artifacts—RoboCop, RoboCop 2 (1990), RoboCop 3 (1993), the RoboCop television series (1994), the RoboCop: Prime Directive mini-series (2000), the RoboCop vs. Terminator video game (2006)—and extending its content across new aesthetic and media forms, most evidently the website’s hyperlinks to social media and online game platforms. In this respect, RoboCop 2014 accords with Clare Parody’s account of the “franchise adaptation,” wherein the new installment inevitably appeals to RoboCop (1987) as its principal source, but is also “unavoidably structured in relation to the entire franchise multitext, because any instalment chosen is constantly speaking to the others, extending them, completing them, reframing them, and drawing on them for meaning and effect” (212, emphasis added). Despite some withering review comments—for instance, the perceived anomaly of a “PG-rated reboot” of Verhoeven’s vicious, R-certificate critique of Reaganomics (Nayman 82)—RoboCop, like King Kong before it, demonstrates that in the new millennium one can no longer claim an absolute distinction between feature film and other media forms (see James 35).

A digitally networked communications context transforms the way in which films are made, distributed, and consumed and generates new commercial and textual configurations of adaptations and remakes (see Hutcheon xxi). Participatory and social media cultures precipitate unauthorized new versions of recognizable properties and proprietary characters for immediate dissemination on the Internet, as, for example, the non-commercial productions—fan-films, mashups, and recut trailers—described in Barbara Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex (191–238; see also Loock and Verevis 177–247). These appropriations have become a part of a remix culture (for instance, the Our RoboCop Remake online spoof), but official adaptations and remakes just as clearly support and maintain commercial interests, including the negotiation of intellectual property rights and payments, and the conglomerate Hollywood development of “local-language (p. 271) productions” (Donoghue 3–27). Such authorized forms of cultural transfer are, however, not restricted to Hollywood investment in, or remakes of, foreign or non-English-language films (Graser 6–7), nor to the relentless pursuit of synergy and brand extension characteristic of so-called “total film” (Elsaesser, Persistence 283–85). Tim Bergfelder, for instance, has proposed a transnational history of European cinema that focuses on the practice and processes of cultural translation precisely to challenge unidirectional accounts of global media traffic, focus on the interrelationship between cultural and geographical centers and margins, and trace the migratory movements between these poles (320). Recently, trade journals like Variety have reported that “remakes are ringing up box office gold in Europe, prompting a proliferation of local hits being redone for neighboring markets and causing some curious cases of cross-pollination” (Vivarelli 6). European investment in remake rights is consistent with the logic behind the selling of formats for television—in a prominent example, the Danish/Swedish crime series Broen/Bron (2011), remade on the US-Mexico border as The Bridge (USA, 2013), and again as the Canal Plus–Sky Atlantic TV series The Tunnel (UK/France, 2013)—and co-production deals where even large companies seek to limit their budgets and cover a broader audience right from the outset. Stigmatized by Vivarelli as “an American cheap trick” (6), remakes of film (and television) properties that have been substantial commercial successes in single European markets increasingly provide suitable themes and subject matter for cross-border adaptation and translation.

In the case of one high-profile European export, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Figures 15.1 and 15.2), Yellow Bird, the production company behind the Swedish-Danish film version (Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009), bought the rights to Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel, the first of the so-called Millennium trilogy, shortly after its release and (p. 272) consequently earned a main production credit in the Hollywood version, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

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Figure 15.1 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009).

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Figure 15.2 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

Neil Archer, citing a 2011 production report, notes that for Yellow Bird “ ‘cross border thinking and higher budgets’ are key to the company’s success, which in itself underlines the already transnational, genre [oriented] and property-conscious nature of the company and its output” (5). The transatlantic collaboration yielded a much-anticipated remake directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Although the remake performed financially “below expectation” (Gant), Fincher’s authorial interests, established in such psycho-thrillers as Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), transformed the classical mise-en-scene of Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation, originally made for television, into state-of-the-art genre filmmaking. In a more complex way, Fincher’s “mood-based aesthetic of surface attention and obsessive detail” simultaneously resisted “the conspiracy thriller’s sense of ‘totality’ or the ‘global’ ” (Archer 12–13; see Newman, “Icegirl” 16–18). Examples like this one complicate earlier suggestions that cross-cultural remakes are simply evidence of American “cultural imperialism” (Vincendeau 23–25). Indeed, concerns around moves to lift exemptions (originating in 1990s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks) that treat European films differently from other products under international free trade rules in the European Union were recently reversed by Wim Wenders, who argued that abandoning the EU cultural exemption would in fact hurt Hollywood just as badly as Europe because EU films would not be there as a counterpart to enrich and inform Hollywood, especially through the US practice of remaking European feature films and television formats (Macnab 19).

In Elsaesser’s account of new millennial Hollywood, the forces of conglomeration, globalization, and digitization not only require that blockbuster films perform equally well both in the US domestic market and internationally, but also on multiple platforms: “the (p. 273) film’s internet site, the movie trailer, the video game and the DVD as both textual and promotional entities” (Persistence 284). If one accepts Elsaesser’s suggestion that global Hollywood has entered a digital or franchise era of post-production, then a blockbuster like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of War of the Worlds (previously adapted as The War of the Worlds in 1953) can be understood as a “signature product,” an instance in which a preexisting film or property no longer provides a closed narrative model, but rather functions as a blueprint for “remediation,” and the blockbuster remake ideally becomes a prototype and basis for the generation of serial forms (sequels, series, and cycles), the production of tangible objects (DVDs, soundtracks, and books), and the occasion for commodity experiences (games, rides, and theme park attractions) (Elsaesser, Persistence 283–85). Extending this line of argument, one can describe the way in which new millennial filmmakers—not only “new Hollywood” auteurs like Spielberg, but also post-auteurs like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Soderbergh—seek to insert themselves into the innumerable flows of global film and media production, not by setting out to create something that is new and original, but rather by adapting that which exists: revising it, inhabiting it, and putting it to use (Bourriaud 13–20). In a global marketplace, available forms are remade and remodeled, then “serialized” and “multiplied”—in sequels, prequels, and series—across expanding territories and media platforms (see Lewis 66; Elsaesser, “Fantasy Island” 143–58).

The paucity of critical approaches to the film remake over a long period has been attributed to the concept’s “anti-authorship quality” (Quaresima 75). In the new millennium, the authorial agency and “brand-name vision” of the post-auteur becomes a key element in the remake’s promotion and reception (Corrigan, “Auteurs” 40). The notion of “brand Hollywood” is evident in the case of Soderbergh’s franchise text, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and its two knowing sequels, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), a case that seems to exemplify Paul Grainge’s identification of a shift in emphasis from a regime of rights based on authorship and originality toward one centered on trademark and reproducibility (11). In a perhaps more conventionally “personal” example, Soderbergh created a 2002 film version of Solaris (Figures 15.3 and 15.4) that directly invoked Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film and Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, but reviewers noted that Soderbergh had transformed the source material (even more than Tarkovsky before him), abandoning its broad philosophical questions to focus primarily on the love story: the relationship between Kris (Chris in the remake) and his wife Rheya, and—in a reprise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—their opportunity for a “second chance.” Although Soderbergh claimed that Solaris was a new adaptation, driven by the ideas at the center of the book—“[the novel] just seemed to be about everything I [was] interested in personally”—reviewers drew attention to the thematic and stylistic similarities between Solaris and Soderbergh’s other film work, describing the remake as an authorial re-vision: a property transformed, according to auteur predilections, into “an intimate two-hander between a man and a woman” (Romney 14). In a further comment, one that underlines the way in which cinematic remaking can be understood in terms of a filmmaker’s desire to repeatedly express and modify a particular aesthetic sensibility and worldview, Amy Taubin calls Solaris “the most personal, interiorized narrative of [Soderbergh’s] career, [a film that] could be his Pierrot le fou [1965] or Vertigo” (78). (p. 274)

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Figure 15.3 Solaris (1972).

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Figure 15.4 Solaris (2002).

In a more recent example, the press kit for Passion, Brian De Palma’s 2012 remake of Alain Corneau’s psychodrama Crime d’amour/Love Crime (2010), announces: “Brian De Palma returns to the sleek, sly, seductive territory of Dressed To Kill [1980] with an erotic corporate thriller fueled by sex, ambition, image, envy and the dark, murderous side of PASSION,” before going on to note that “the screenplay is written by De Palma (p. 275) with additional dialogue by Nathalie Carter [and is] based on the French film Crime D’amour.” Separated by only a few years from (and initiated by the same Paris-based production company as) Corneau’s original, Passion—a film characterized by its use of hi-tech, glass and polished-steel interiors—“presents [itself as] a model of production and distribution strongly influenced by [the] contemporary audiovisual landscape”: the principal characters, Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), “shoot on their mobile, edit on their laptop, project it at the staff meeting, and stick it on YouTube” (Álvarez and Martin). In and through this distinctively reflective mise-en-scene, De Palma engages not only his signature preoccupations—doubling and artifice, including an elegant, extended split screen sequence that ends with a violent murder—but also a further crucial innovation: a “knotty, triangular construction [that] rotates through Christine, Isabelle and Dani [Karoline Herfurth],” transforming the two-sided conflict of the original players—Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier)—into a “disturbing, serial chain [in which] the competitiveness never ends, but [in an eloquent metaphor for the remake itself] only ever perpetuates itself, expanding and renewing with each new turn of the screw” (Álvarez and Martin, emphasis added).

In a less obvious example, Nathan Lee mounts an inspired post-auteur defense of Rod Zombie’s 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), one of a cycle of contemporary treatments of an era of American low-budget horror films bracketed by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the Romero-backed Night of the Living Dead remake (Tom Savini, 1990). As described by Kim Newman, the tone for the cycle was set by films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003; 1974) and Dawn of the Dead (2004; 1978), but ten years on “the cycle has yielded too many unmemorable redos of the likes of When a Stranger Calls [2006; 1979] and Prom Night [2008; 1980] plus genuinely disastrous takes on Halloween and It’s Alive [2008; 1974]” (Evil Dead 91). Contra Newman, Lee’s assessment not only recognizes the way in which the Halloween remake is repurposed within a new discursive field, but also how it is re-envisioned in/as genuine authorial innovation:

Given the hallowed status of the original, [and] the prejudice and blind spots of critical orthodoxy … Halloween (07) has not been seen for what it is: the remake as legitimate parallel creation. An independent feat of imagination that extends, amplifies, and in certain regards improves on the source material, this most original and morally complex of the current [horror] remake cycle properly belongs to a discussion of the distinctly remade: Schrader’s Cat People [1982], Carpenter’s The Thing [1982], Invasion of the Body Snatchers per Kaufman [1978] and Ferrara [Body Snatchers, 1993]. (26, emphasis added)

The new millennium is characterized by an exponential increase in content and availability of not only recycled properties (adaptations and remakes), but also films on video/DVD and more immediately films (and fragments of films) through video on demand (VOD) and on the Internet. If the new millennium is distinguished by unprecedented access, then the issue becomes one of selection: not how to see films, but how (p. 276) to choose between them (Cousins 41). One expression of this shift is found in Paul Schrader’s comments on his recent film The Canyons (2013), a work he calls an example of “post-Empire” independent filmmaking. Schrader borrows the term from The Canyons’s co-writer, Bret Easton Ellis, who says that American film has come into a late post-imperial period: the US film empire was characteristic of the twentieth century, but the country has now entered a period in which it is making films out of the remains of the empire, “the junk that’s left over” (Gross 26). Ellis’s comment is perversely realized in the recent Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) when Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a Texas inventor always on the lookout for scrap he can recycle, encounters an old timer in a derelict cinema who tells him that “sequels and remakes [are] a bunch of crap.” The Canyons similarly plays out the end of cinema over its opening titles through the motif of abandoned movie theaters. However, for Schrader, the number-one fact of the new low-budget (digital) cinema is that it is no longer impossible to get a film financed; instead, because of the sheer volume of work that gets made, it is increasingly difficult to get anyone to see it. In the case of The Canyons, Schrader says that he “got lucky” with the “noise factor” surrounding the film. He says that he and Ellis—along with The Canyons’s lead actors, Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen—had “some cachet” with interest groups:

We were in with four different sub-groups of interested people… . Lindsay has four million (Twitter) followers, and James has half a million. Bret has 250,000… . We got lucky with the noise factor. When you’re pitching a movie, that’s the question they ask: is it going to make noise? Are you going to hear this above the din of the avalanche of film productions? And if the idea has noise, then they are interested in it… . And this idea [The Canyons] had noise. Some of it by design, some of it by luck.

(Gross 27)

As the volume of films—and versions of films and other properties—increases and accelerates across media and delivery platforms, pre-sold titles and propriety characters sparked by conglomeration, globalization, and digitization contribute not only to the noise factor (especially for genre films, as exemplified by the series of Transformers adaptations of Hasbro’s line of toys), but to a fascination among both audiences and practitioners for recycled properties, or what Simon Reynolds calls a “retromania” for revivals, reissues, and remakes (ix–xxxvi). Although it may be the case that remakes were once understood to compete economically and culturally with their previous versions, contemporary remakes typically enjoy a more symbiotic relationship with their originals, with publicity and reviews often drawing attention to earlier versions that are increasingly available and so appear more closely connected in time. As recently as 2011, Video Ezy magazine ran a promotion (“[Not] Lost in Translation”) which not only used the line “laughter is an international language, something proven by the fact that this month’s hilarious comedy Dinner for Schmucks [Jay Roach, 2010] actually comes from a hugely successful French film titled The Dinner Game [Francis Veber, 1998]” to promote a new release, but also to draw attention to a back catalogue of double (or doubled) (p. 277) features including The Departed (2006) and Infernal Affairs (2002); Let Me In (2010) and Let the Right One In (2008); The Ring (2002) and Ringu (1998); Vanilla Sky (2001) and Open Your Eyes/Abre los Ojos (1997) (10–11).

The significance of the noise factor is plainly evident in authorized “non-remakes” like Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job (2003) that retain little more than the title from a previous version, but employ this recognizable, marketable signature to invest a new film with an image and brand, ideally in order to add aesthetic and commercial value. The 2003 version of The Italian Job might have been seen as one more generic heist movie and star vehicle for Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron if its pre-sold title (and iconic Mini-Cooper tunnel chase sequence) did not function both as a marker of distinction and an opportunity for remodeling—literally in the case of film’s tie-in with the 2001 new generation Mini-Cooper S series. To this end, Paramount Pictures’ website for the film included comments by director F. Gary Gray: “I liked a lot of things about the [1969] original. It had great style and unforgettable performances. But the film that we’ve made is for modern audiences, with updated technology.” Executive producer James Dyer similarly noted that the earlier version was a point of departure, not replication: “This movie is a little different. It’s not a remake … but it does use similar tools to tell the story: heist, armored truck, gold, Mini-Coopers.” Following the 2003 theatrical run of The Italian Job, both versions were simultaneously released to DVD, with extras on the remake DVD not only drawing attention to the original but featuring scenes from it. The subsequent release of Paramount Home Video’s “The Italian Job Gift Set” DVD edition, which included both 1969 and 2003 versions, demonstrates that, just as adaptations of literary properties often lead viewers back to source novels for a first reading, remakes encourage viewers to seek out original or parallel film properties (Corrigan, “Which Shakespeare” 164).

Just as remakes provide an illustration of some of the operations of new millennial film culture, so do reboots. In the 1980s and 1990s, filmmakers and their production companies had been forced to defend serial filmmaking—specifically, film remakes, sequels, and prequels—against accusations that aesthetically inferior remakes (and commercially timid sequel-prequels) were evidence that Hollywood had exhausted its creative potential. Sven Lütticken, for instance, opens his essay “Planet of the Remakes” with an account of the “widespread critical and popular aversion to remakes of classic—and even not-so-classic—films.” By the beginning of the new millennium—perhaps in part a reaction to the bemused and often hostile response to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho (1960)—there was, however, evidence of a discursive shift, with subsequent industry discourses more positively framing a new film’s “remake” status by ascribing value to an earlier version and then identifying various filters—technological, cultural, authorial—through which it had been transformed (or “value-added”). In the first instance, this move can be seen as a commercial strategy (as, in the Video Ezy example, a way to sell a back catalogue), but it also identifies a serial practice in which the remake does not simply follow an original, but recognizes new versions as free adaptations or variations that actualize an implicit potentiality at the source. This trend, which has increasingly led to (authorized) remakes that bear only a generic resemblance to their (p. 278) precursors, seems to have found its apotheosis in the reboot: a legally sanctioned version that attempts to dissociate itself textually from previous iterations while at the same time having to concede that it does not replace but adds new associations to an existing serial property. In other words, it marks out a critical-historical moment in which remakes no longer linearly follow and supersede their originals, but a digitalized, globalized one in which multiple versions proliferate and coexist.

Taken from its original context in computer technology, “rebooting” describes the process of restarting, remaking, or re-commercializing a film property or film franchise by denying or nullifying earlier iterations in order to “begin again” without requiring any knowledge of those previous versions. Citing examples such as Man of Steel (2013), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Star Trek (2009), and—“the quintessential reboot”—Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), William Proctor argues that the reboot differs conceptually from the remake insofar as it is a franchise-specific concept: “A remake is a singular text bound within a self-contained narrative schema; whereas a reboot attempts to forge a series of films, to begin a franchise anew from the ashes of an old or [critically or commercially] failed property. In other words, a remake is a reinterpretation of one film; a reboot ‘re-starts’ a series of films that seek [sic] to disavow and render inert its predecessors’ validity” (“Regeneration and Rebirth”). In making this distinction, part of Proctor’s endeavor is to delimit the concept of the reboot in the face of opportunistic advertising that seeks to promote mere sequels—Tron Legacy (2010), Terminator Salvation (2009), and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)—by assigning them a reboot label and thus aligning the films with the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (Proctor, “Regeneration and Rebirth”).

In recent years, the term reboot, along with a string of remake euphemisms—encore, reworking, refitting, retooling, retread, redo, makeover—has gained cultural currency in film industry and press reports. Sight and Sound reports of three recent examples: “most of the industry’s recent reboots have been expensive disasters … as with this [2011] reconstitution of John Carpenter’s The Thing [1982]” (Atkinson 76); “Danny Cannon’s Judge Dredd (1995) is likely to be remembered as the version that got it wrong… . However, a generation on, the flop has got its reboot [Dredd, 2012]” (Newman, “A Sense of Dredd” 34); “there is a memorable scene in the 1982 film of Conan [the Barbarian, in which Conan is harnessed to a massive millstone that he must turn in perpetuity] but there is no equivalent scene in Marcus Nispel’s [2011] relaunched or remade or rebooted Conan” (Pinkerton 57). Moreover, and in a move that recognizes that popular genres and characters have often been realized as quasi-independent—or “hybrid”—adaptations, rather than as a linear succession of remakes (Leitch 208), the term reboot has been used to retrospectively designate serial properties from earlier decades. For instance, in an account of the serial saga of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan the Ape Man, Tim Lucas attends to a set of eleven post–Johnny Weissmuller film titles—five films starring Lex Barker (1949–53) and another six with Gordon Scott (1955–60)—to assert: “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) reboots the franchise in the same way that Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006] did with the Bond films… . Scott rises admirably to the (p. 279) occasion … and carries the film to the most exciting climax of the entire series” (88). Lucas’s example supports the notion of franchise rebooting and underscores an affinity between comic book and film reboots, but the idea that a new version somehow erases or overwrites previous iterations is at odds with a digitally networked culture in which new media do not displace the old, but rather add layers and associations to them. Hence Proctor concludes that “a reboot is a brand-new product; yet it is already old… . All texts are adaptations. There is no blank slate” (“Beginning Again”).

The force of multiple, parallel versions—which coexist rather than erase or overwrite—is evident in Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton’s 2001 “remake/reboot” (Newman, “Dawn” 85) of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (1963). Poised at the beginning of the new millennium, Burton’s version, with an estimated budget of $110 million, was seen by some as a “jittery catalogue of millennial anxieties” (O’Hehir 12), but more typically as a film that had transformed the B-movie aesthetic of the Planet of the Apes film (and television) series into a B-movie blockbuster, “a wild concept coated in incongruous corporate gloss” (Brooks 56). Despite its differences, the reimagined Planet of the Apes was a film that owed much to Schaffner’s version: its reputation, its progeny, and especially its well-remembered ending, in which astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) realizes through his discovery of a bomb-blasted Statue of Liberty that the ape planet is actually a post-apocalyptic Earth. Indeed, reviews of Planet of the Apes consistently focused on Burton’s transformed ending—in which astronaut Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crash-lands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, only to find that the chiseled features of Abraham Lincoln have been replaced by those of gorilla General Thade—describing it as “spectacularly befuddling” (Paatsch 38) and a “monkey-puzzle of an ending” (Brooks 56). As disingenuous as the Burton ending might have been, these reviews missed a more obvious point: that the Planet of the Apes remake had a twist ending because the original one famously did. That is, it may well be the case that the “crazed final coda … makes little in the way of logical sense, and clashes conspicuously against the pedestrian narrative that precedes it” (Brooks 56), but the ending makes perfect remake sense because it displays a remake logic that builds upon the memory of the cult original to adapt and extend rather than erase it.

Vivian Sobchack finds something similar in the case of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), a reboot of the Alien franchise that is impressively attended to and extended through its (fictional) Weyland Industries website (administered by Alien’s parent company, Twentieth Century Fox). As described by Sobchack, the estimated $130 million Prometheus is a work that gets caught literally between a rock, the planet LV-233, and a hard place, the spaceship Prometheus. More precisely, the difficulty some viewers found with Prometheus was that it presented itself as both a type of remake, a prequel to Alien (1979), and a completely original film, a reboot of the Alien franchise, only to fall apart because, like Burton’s Planet of the Apes, it obeys a remake logic incompatible with the narrative logic of the discrete rebooted episode, thus leading to confusing, illogical, and disjointed plotting. In Sobchack’s metaphor, the bedrock in this case is the industry franchise and mythic universe initiated by Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror hybrid Alien, then serialized in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992), and (p. 280) Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997), and multiplied in the Alien vs. Predator video games (1999, 2001) and films, AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and AVP-R Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). The tension between remake and reboot logic is evident in Fox’s own promotional material, which presents Prometheus as a film that “started out as a prequel to Alien” but wants to function as a “stand-alone film … that tips its hat to elements of the original Alien” (Sobchack 33). Ultimately, the film leads back to the future, with the planet’s various (xenomorphic) life forms transforming at the end into “the old alien we’ve come to love—a kind of annunciation of a hoped-for sequel to the prequel” (33). However, the key question for Sobchack, as for the reboot, remains: “how to get out of this double bind between [a remake logic of] origins and [questions of] originality?” (34). She concludes that “while [Prometheus has been] rightly criticized for its unforthcoming and ultimately incoherent narrative, and its often arbitrary character motivation and editorial (il)logic, Prometheus is indeed coherent as an allegory of its own struggle with and resistance to its origins… . That is, not able to escape that old mythology completely and unable to integrate it with a new one, the film instead signifies the resistance brought to bear against both” (34).

When asked what appealed about “rebooting a series that had already been interpreted,” Nolan replied that when he undertook Batman Begins, “there was no such thing conceptually as a ‘reboot.’ That idea didn’t exist” (Foundas 7). This understanding of the reboot—the notion that it is as much a discursive category as an industrial one—has most recently been advanced by Joe Tompkins, who writes that “rebooting does not necessarily entail a process of aesthetic negation or an intertextual break with the ‘aura’ of an original brand” but operates instead “as a critical industrial practice, … a means of activating and sustaining the discourses of aesthetic value and distinction … to bolster consumer ties and brand loyalty” (3–4). In and through the example of Zombie’s 2007 Halloween, Tompkins describes the way industrial and critical discourses not only communicate the new “film’s cultural status as artistic ‘re-imagining’ (as opposed to a [disreputable] remake),” but also invoke intertextual frameworks—specifically those of (post) authorship and canonicity—to revive the character of Michael Myers and reboot the Halloween franchise (4–5). In this respect, Tompkins’s essay aligns itself with key critical discussions around franchise adaptation and with those inquiries into the nature of remaking that do not limit it to industrial and textual strategies, but understand it in relation to a more complex set of general and cinematic discursive fields. The loose set of theses advanced in this essay around remediation and convergence, proliferation and simultaneity, seek to advance a similar understanding of adaptation and serialization, with the additional aim of sketching a provisional map, or at least some significant lines and contours, for a “media-historic profile” of new millennial remakes (Kelleter and Loock). While it may be too early in the millennium to draw conclusions about the nature of the present historical period, the preceding notes should at least demonstrate that the present and future of cinema—especially in the new millennium—is a re-vision of its past, and that aesthetic and economic evaluations of film adaptations and remakes are less interesting than the cultural and historical significance of new millennial remake practice.

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