Tired indispensables: The 'throwback' film
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Seems that nearly every movie is about time-travel these days...
Over three weeks have passed since Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables hit our screens and slightly longer still since Joe Carnahan’s revamp of The A-Team romped through cinemas up and down the country. Two films that provide further clear evidence as to the cinema’s growing penchant for the ‘throwback’ movie. The Expendables and The A-Team are action films released in the summer of 2010, yet very much belonging to another decade. Contemporary cinema is increasingly willing to revisit movies and television shows that cash-in on cult following and cheap gimmicks, without infringing upon those films considered as classic cinema. The groundbreaking success of ‘New Hollywood’ in the late 1960’s and 1970’s meant any cinema and television that immediately followed was always likely to suffer in comparison. Certainly the late 70’s and the 1980’s aren’t renowned for their great cinematic contribution in the same manner, yet even they still produced classics such as: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Stand By Me (1986) and Platoon (1986). Why then does contemporary cinema insist upon trawling these decades for dated, often awful, film and television to inflict upon contemporary audiences?
Cinematic representations of the 1970’s and 1980’s shows Starsky & Hutch (2004) and The A-Team are far safer than attempting a remake of a classic New Hollywood picture. Revisiting what in reality were crude television shows cashes-in on cult following, as a wave of ageing fans are allowed to revel in garish depictions of their past. Heavily stylised shows such as these are canonised as true emblems of 70’s and 80’s life and as such remakes provide guaranteed viewers and guaranteed revenue.
"Indulging an ageing audience or stars, as in The Expendables, becomes tiresome and is done so at the expense of fresh, innovative cinema"
At some point though, indulging an ageing audience or stars, as in The Expendables, becomes tiresome and is done so at the expense of fresh, innovative cinema. The A-Team and The Expendables provide a joyous catalogue of comical one-liners, spectacular explosion scenes and glittering special effects, but in reality they provide little else. Whilst the stars of The Expendables will be forever remembered for their other work, the pervading memory of The A-Team, for many, will still be Mr T and that theme tune. In short, neither modern revamps added to fantastic franchises that are just best left in the past.
There is little wrong in the occasional remake of a cult classic; for instance bringing Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) to a wider, contemporary audience would have been a fantastic move had Neil LaBute’s remake in 2006 been done with any class whatsoever. Yet when poor remakes, made seemingly as cheap gimmicks with guaranteed revenue, begin to saturate the market, there is very real danger in the ‘throwback film’.
Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans (2010) starring Sam Worthington is a moderately enjoyable remake of an equally moderate 1981 original, but certainly it doesn’t carry the innovation of Worthington’s most famous epic – Avatar (2009). The last few weeks have also seen the release of Piranha, Alexandre Aja’s woefully poor remake of the 1978 comic-horror – itself hardly a classic. Both Piranha and Clash of the Titans were released in 3D, a trend seemingly at the height of fashion as well as technology, yet neither provides any valuable, innovative contribution to cinema. Rather, an audience perhaps largely unaware they are watching superfluous remakes will swiftly forget such mediocre films, their vast budgets and 3D technology.
"The throwback film shouldn’t be about modernising tired classics; rather it should be about encapsulating the intrinsic nuances of the period and incorporating them in contemporary film"
Seemingly resources, time and money are being spent revamping tired, dated and crass films, rather than being invested in new inventive cinema. For instance, despite Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) being a fresh, delightfully camp and fantastically funny adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s books, the film opened to relatively poor box office receipts in America. The witty, diverse direction of Wright and the enigmatic chemistry of his cast, are lost in a world of testosterone-fuelled explosions led by the seemingly indispensable Stallone clang.
The throwback film shouldn’t be about modernising tired classics; rather it should be about encapsulating the intrinsic nuances of the period and incorporating them in contemporary film. The bizarre rite of passage, Michael Cera enjoys in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could be likened to the comical journey of discovery, a young Michael J. Fox takes in Back To The Future (1985). In contrast casting Russell Brand in the forthcoming remake of Arthur, won’t in any way capture the estranged, troubled life Dudley Moore both led and portrayed in 1981.
Similarly the childlike Jaden Smith fails to capture the pubescent struggles of Ralph Macchio’s ‘Daniel Laruso’ in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid (1984). Where the original film was a subtle exploration of youth, race and violence in a volatile America, the remake is a clichéd expression of contemporary cinema, produced by Will Smith and starring Jackie Chan. The 2010 The Karate Kid is less a throwback to John Avildsen’s classic coming of age film, as it is a clumsy effort to make money through a cult hit. Compare this to Jaden Smith’s earlier role in the brilliant The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) an original, evocative, picture that is based on a true story, yet manages to both pay homage to and exude 80’s styling and cinema.
Success of the 'throwback' and remake film rests entirely upon where they emanate from. The desire to produce a carefree romp through our past can lead to tremendous spectacles and joyous cinematic experiences – of which The Expendables and particularly The A-Team certainly are. Yet where the occasional revisiting of bygone eras may provide us all a chance to indulge in nostalgic reverie, saturating the film market with poor imitations of classic cinema can only do harm. Rumours of remakes of films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) provide a scary prospect. Like The Italian Job and Rear Window before it, any tampering with such esteemed cinema history can only tarnish great films and waste resources which could be spent on the creation of 21st century classics.
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