Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters movie will go down as a movie that wasn’t as memorable as the 1984 original, despite being a quality flick. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, and not just because the original arrived at such an iconic moment in cinema. Hollywood has spent years trying to skate on nostalgia and name recognition in rebooting movies from the 1980s, but they’ve been, by and large, major failures. Why? We have a few ideas.
1. They’re Always Blatant (And Often Failed) Cash Grabs
The movie business is a business. Regardless of whether or not some plucky producer wants to mount a remake of his favorite movie as a kid growing up, the execution of that plan comes down to numbers. The idea is that easily recognizable properties make bank, but in this case the numbers don’t lie. Remakes of films from 30 years ago have consistently underperformed compared to the originals, and have merely squeaked past them only if the original was a flop.
Does anybody really need a Conan the Barbarian or A Nightmare on Elm Street remake? Not really, and these remakes seem programmed to never take the risks that made the originals so memorable. They simply rely on an audience’s shorthand in remembering why the first ones were so good before deciding to see the new one. It’s the wrong kind of creative motivation.
2. The Originals Actually Earned the Right to Be Classics
Most 1980s remakes are born out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, which makes it difficult to see the originals for what they were in the context of when they were first released. While it eventually became a commercial success and a cult classic, it’s not like 1987’s Robocop was a gigantic smash when it came out. The same goes for John Carpenters The Thing, which legendarily cantankerous New York Times critic Vincent Canby called the “quintessential moron movie of the ‘80s” in 1982.
Most of the disappointing remakes of these movies only tend to remember their inspirations with rose colored glasses. There are droves of terrible movies from the 1980s that have interesting enough storylines that could be tinkered with, so it begs the question: Why aren’t more terrible movies remade? We’d take an Alien Nation or a Krull remake over a new RoboCop any day.
3. There’s Nothing New to Add to the Story Despite Best Attempts
Finding the remake sweet spot is tough. You have to be as recognizable as the original, but when the remake wants to break free of the original it runs the risk of being unlike what made the original so interesting. The 2012 Total Recall neglecting to take place on Mars like the Arnold Schwarzenegger version (which was actually released in 1990 but, come on, it’s a 1980s movie when you think about it) is perhaps the most egregious example of that.
Films from the 1980s, more than most decade-specific films, tend to be products of their time. The New York of that era was a filthy mess that you imagine could rally around four schmos that suddenly show up with nuclear accelerators strapped to their backs to fight ghosts, which is why the Ghostbusters remake overlooks the joke of that kind of surprising solidarity from the original. Mostly though, it’s examples like Red Dawn, which was such a specific product of Cold War paranoia that the teeny-bopper remake in the present makes the lead characters look insane. Even something like Poltergeist was closely tied to its Reagan-era suburban idyll even when it was all about ghostly special effects. It’s not that there isn’t anything new to add in a remake, it’s that there simply isn’t anything significant to add.
4. They’re All Instantly Derivative
Theres no such thing as an original remake, so it’s obvious that, by their nature, remakes are derivative. This, perhaps above all, is the best case against remakes, and 1980s remakes in particular. We’re in an era where remakes are more prominent than ever, and the recognizable titles for properties with enough fandom that could possibly warrant a remake tends to be from creative-types who came of age 30 years ago.
But why try to redo something that works? The “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” idiom saves a lot of people a lot of embarrassment for thinking that we need a Fright Night or a Footloose remake when those same 1980s babies-turned-filmmakers probably have enough talent to use what those movies did right to try and come up with their own original ideas.