Remakes, sequels and the curse of franchise media

In the past decade, the idea of the remake has both blossomed and wilted, coupled with a secondary drive for creating sequels to properties both ancient and new. Remakes themselves aren’t a new concept, and in some cases the remake is what history remembers most. For instance, “The Thing” (1982) is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name. “The Thing” (2011) is actually a prequel to the first film, and was not as well regarded as the 1982 remake.

Many roads can lead to a remake or a sequel, and not all of them are bad. “Blade Runner 2049” was a gorgeous and authentic sequel, separated from the original by decades. It wasn’t a box-office hit, but it justified itself creatively. However, this isn’t always the case. The sequel “Independence Day” received in 2016 (“Independence Day: Resurgence”) was both a financial disappointment and commercially soulless. “Independence Day,” of course wasn’t ever on the level of “Blade Runner” when it comes to artistic merit, but even the silly, bombastic energy of the first “Independence Day” film was gone. 

Another case of this kind of failure can be seen in the “Pacific Rim” sequel (“Pacific Rim: Uprising”), which failed to make much money and lacked all of the charm of its predecessor. It was an exemplary case of how marketability can lead to a lack of actual interest. “Pacific Rim” is not a movie that was traditionally marketable. 

While watching big monsters fight big robots is always in vogue, the dark scenes and clunky machines coupled with a grim but hopeful tone made the movie unique, leading to surprising success abroad for the film. The sequel immediately dispensed with these factors, making the fights take place in daylight hours, making the robots sleek and shiny, and losing many of the more interesting monster designs in service of copy-paste enemies. Why this happened is its own mystery, but the fact remains that, by failing to hold true to what made the first film great in search of mass market appeal, it ironically became a less beloved and less profitable film.

So now that the strengths and weaknesses of sequels and remakes have been explored, what remakes have I enjoyed? 

To my mind, the best remake that is also in its own way a sequel is George Miller’s masterpiece, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” While it does have one commonality with the two failed sequels I’ve mentioned (a two-part title), it stands apart for its art direction, score and commitment to creating something new. 

It works first as a reboot, having recast the main character and setting up a world that’s almost wholly apart from the world of the first three movies, and then works as a sequel by carrying forward themes, aesthetics and iconography from the first three movies. Someone could watch it having never seen the first three movies (although I would endorse at least the first two Mad Max films, particularly the second), and someone who had seen the first three would enjoy this one even more.

A lot of its strength is owed to Miller’s commitment to, as previously stated, making something new. A lot of things look like “Mad Max,” but “Mad Max: Fury Road” at worst self-cannibalizes some of the franchises’ ideas, while summoning forth new ideas and designs to go along with a far more mythical reimagining of a post-apocalyptic Australia. It adds something new for other people to reference for their own works, which to me shows the potential of the delayed sequel or remake—creating something that inspires as much as the source material. 

Movies can have a tremendous power to add ideas and aesthetics into the public consciousness, and remakes or sequels can do a lot when they properly understand the source material and aim to go beyond it instead of living within it. Best of all, they can do that while still being profitable and fun. There’s a misconception that things that are meaningful or interesting can’t also be ultimately dumb fun, but the truth is that dumb fun can be found in media that still provides a complicated message or idea. All it takes is directors and crews with vision and some bravery.