Cinema’s been a fan of recycling since the very beginning. That’s the beauty of pop culture; give a character archetype a new outfit, spruce up a timeless bit of imagery, bosh on a remixed theme tune and you’ve got a brand new movie. From Beowulf to Batman, there’s nothing new under the sun.
It’s not surprising, then, that studios have gone one step further. Over the past few years, a number of big-name franchises have been given the reboot treatment. Affectionate homage, or tired rehash? It all depends on the execution. Either way, it’s a formula guaranteed to get us off the sofas and into the cinema.
That’s the theory, anyway. Charlie’s Angels – a big-screen reboot of the hit ’70s TV show – has crashed at the US box office with an $8.6 million opening weekend (budget: $48 million). It’s the latest in a string of disappointing performances by fresh takes on beloved properties. Back in April, Hellboy only recouped $40.8 million of its $50 million budget and June’s Men In Black: International, made just $80 million worldwide against a budget of $110 million. Terminator: Dark Fate, out last month, has so far made $249.3 million worldwide, which doesn’t sound too shabby, until you factor in the $80-100 million spent on marketing, on top of its estimated budget of $185-196 million.
It’s not been a good year for new spins on established franchises, which at first glance is confusing, especially when you consider the fact that many feature actors who are audience favourites. There’s Hellboy’s David Harbour, riding high after Stranger Things but even Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson’s proven on-screen electricity in 2017’s hugely popular Thor: Ragnarok couldn’t save Men In Black: International.
Reviews have highlighted the casts’ talent and effort in all of this year’s reboots and blame for the films’ failure isn’t theirs to bear. The razzle-dazzle effects are present and correct, too and the titles all the right nostalgic buttons. So why aren’t film fans rushing to see them?
In the end, it all comes down to that word: ‘reboot’. It sounds good on paper. Nothing wrong with a shot in the arm, right? Purge the system of all the tired baggage (fan expectations, convoluted plot twists) while hanging on to the best bits (evocative world-building, powerful contemporary resonances). Recast the main roles and throw in a few cameos from the originals’ legendary stars and you’re good to go. What’s not to like?
- Read more: They’ll be back: why studios should stop dressing up reverential remakes as back-to-form sequels
Lots, apparently. In an era where streaming services can bring us every previous iteration of a franchise in an instant, there needs to be a pretty strong hook to reel us in. Charlie’s Angels caught our attention with its familiar title, only to lose it by failing to differentiate itself from the TV show or the two 1990s reboot movies of the same name. It’s a shame, as the new trio of Angels (Ella Balinska, Naomi Scott and Kristen Stewart) can easily hold their own against Farrah Fawcett or Lucy Liu, while director Elizabeth Banks has taken the feminist leanings of previous versions and made them work for a different era.
Other franchises have struggled to wipe the slate clean and start again because fans have become jaded by earlier attempts. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate grabbed attention with Linda Hamilton’s long-awaited return as iconic action hero, Sarah Connor, reprising her role alongside none other than Arnie himself and it was co-written by James Cameron, whose Terminator credentials hardly need repeating. Sadly, the lingering negativity left by other sequels to 1984’s The Terminator and its astonishingly good 1991 follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, couldn’t be shaken off that easily.
There’s still hope for the concept of the reboot, though. When it works, all our cynicism vanishes as we fall in love with a franchise all over again. John Carpenter’s Halloween has had no fewer than nine sequels/remakes and in 2018, a new version slashed them all to ribbons. In a stroke of brilliance, it was called, once again, Halloween and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) transformed from the desperate survivor of the 1978 original into an avenging angel, as she faced Michael Myers one more time. The plot was fundamentally the same, but the shifting dynamic between hunter and hunted made it ideally suited to an era where questions of female agency have never been closer to the forefront. The film made back its $10 million budget on its opening night. Let’s hope the makers of next month’s Black Christmas – a remake of the 1974 slasher flick – have been paying attention.
Despite the high-profile failures, reboots aren’t going anywhere fast. December will also see the release of Jumanji 3: The Next Level, a much anticipated sequel to 2017’s hilarious and visually inventive reskin of the classic 1992 movie. Jumanji 2 raked in $730 million globally, with a budget of $252 million. In 2020, we’re getting another attempt to revive the Ghostbusters franchise with a whole new cast and Jason Reitman taking the helm after the disappointing reception given to 2016’s fresh, female-led take. There’s also going to be a hard reboot of horror classic The Grudge, this time starring Andrea Riseborough. Since Disney bought 20th Century Fox in March, they’ve also indicated plans to retweak Home Alone and Planet of the Apes.
When studios hit upon the right formula – clever marketing, genuine innovation and added value – there’s still money to be made and critical acclaim to be won. It looks like the age of the reboot isn’t over just yet.