The Dumbest Sci-Fi Remake Is a Warning About What Hollywood Could Become
What happens when you cater to an audience that doesn’t exist?
The term “cash grab” gets bandied around a lot, often by people who seem shocked to learn that Hollywood creates movies in order to profit from them. Indiana Jones 5 was a cash grab; who would want to watch one of the most beloved characters in movie history go on another adventure? Barbie is a cash grab; thank goodness society has wise men to warn us that a movie based on a toy secretly has an ulterior motive. And you might want to sit down for this, but some critics have pointed out that Disney and Marvel aren’t always in it for the sheer joy of creation.
Like gaslight, trauma, and daddy, the internet broadened the definition of cash grab until it became meaningless. But real cash grabs are still out there, lurking in the dregs of streaming services. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. And, like pornography, some examples make you wonder who it could possibly appeal to. That’s what makes a movie new to Amazon Prime so fascinating, despite its dire quality. What happens when inept studio executives try to grab cash from an audience that doesn’t exist? The result is 2012’s Red Dawn.
As much as studios love remakes, 1984’s Red Dawn was an odd choice for revival. How do you update a Cold War classic for a unipolar world? Badly, as it turns out. Announced in 2008, real-world economic instability fuels a plot where China uses American loan defaults as a pretext for invasion. But while Chinese state-run media blasted the premise, MGM ran into its own financial issues. After the studio emerged from bankruptcy restructuring, the villain changed to North Korea in post-production and the movie was finally quietly released in 2012.
For those wondering how an impoverished country with a twelfth of America’s population seizes the entire Pacific Northwest, Red Dawn mutters something about a super-EMP the DPRK apparently developed in-between famines and then practically begs you to drop the subject. And so, as countless North Korean paratroopers swarm the ultimate military target — Spokane, Washington — Chris Hemsworth glazes past their motivations in dialogue thrown over some B-roll. Hemsworth, as Marine Jed Eckert, helps a gang of interchangeable 28-year-old teenagers escape to the woods, where they plan to hunker down until circumstances force them to fight.
One training montage later and our nervous “teens” are hardened killers teleporting around Spokane to wage a relentless campaign of terror against the two or three city blocks the Koreans appear to occupy. Red Dawn feels like it’s fast-forwarding through a checklist, from the rushed characterization to a bizarre Subway promo. At a meager 93 minutes, there’s no room for piddling details like tension and logic. The CGI is dodgy, the action is shaky and incoherent, and the dialogue makes you root for Juche ideology to triumph.
In fact, the cruel Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee, who accidentally out-handsomes our all-American heroes), is the only compelling character. Lee, perhaps best known for playing a hunky surgeon on The Good Doctor and voicing the lead in the beloved video game Sleeping Dogs, brings a steel-eyed intensity to Cho that suggests he should be playing an action hero, or at least the villain in a movie with better ideas than modernizing Yellow Peril. Meanwhile, seeing that the material was impossible to elevate, Hemsworth played down to it. All trace of his charm is absent.
“So what?” you might ask. “It’s freaking Red Dawn.” But while the original Red Dawn is remembered as a ridiculous byproduct of Reagan-era patriotism, it’s smarter and more intriguing than it gets credit for. The villains are intelligent, humanized, and homesick. The heroes are traumatized and disposable. And war is hellish for everyone. Yes, Patrick Swayze gives hokey, jingoistic speeches, but that movie was made by a director with a vision, not an executive riffling through a brand portfolio.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember those details, because MGM didn’t either, and it’s ostensibly in the business of making profitable movies. “What if the greatest fear of our era came true?” was reimagined as “What if Joshes Peck and Hutcherson shot a bunch of foreigners in parking lots?” It’s a tedious, melodramatic mess, an insurgency as portrayed on the CW. The North Koreans might as well be aliens or orcs for all the difference it would make.
The movie even makes bizarre mistakes, from suggesting a teenager in 2012 owned a stash of physical pornography to simply abandoning multiple subplots. How will Daryl (Connor Cruise; yes, that Cruise) fight a rebellion that could kill his collaborationist father? We never find out, because Dad vanishes so Daryl can pivot to a heroic self-sacrifice. How will Cho respond to his angry superior telling him he’ll face consequences for failing to stop the insurgents? Luckily for Cho, his boss is never seen again.
The original Red Dawn ends with most of the heroes dead and the implication that their contributions to World War III made little practical difference. The tension between horror and heroism stems from its origins as an anti-war script MGM wanted to transform into a feelgood flag-waver. So while it feels perpetually at odds with itself, it’s undeniably a memorable film.
The remake, meanwhile, ends with our heroes delivering the America-saving McGuffin to the military before going back to kick some more ass. It has no ideas beyond “Chris Hemsworth is marketable” and no themes beyond “Heroes good.” It doesn’t say anything other than, “Hey, remember Red Dawn? Why not watch another one?” It’s an ugly, boring, stupid movie made at the behest of executives who think films are as interchangeable as widgets.
Red Dawn flopped at the box office and was never released in the Chinese market it worked so hard to mollify. It’s the ultimate example of a movie no one but studio executives wanted, a remake stripped of its politics and passion to satisfy an audience that didn’t exist. A thriller supposedly built for “the post-9/11 world,” it should have been a warning about the futility of imagining a post-artist Hollywood. Instead, creators are on strike because studios want to make nothing but Red Dawn, branded mediocrities that demand no more than a modicum of your attention. Forget North Korea. The enemy is within.
Red Dawn is streaming on Amazon Prime.