With apparent* remake fever, studios are adapting everything. Netflix recently announced a two-season origins story for Catch 22‘s Nurse Ratched. High brow, low brow, nothing seems to be off limits. The question, though, is why not get some of the old low budget titles? Sure, they may not have the draw that /Catch 22/ has, but being unknown will pique some curiosity. Consider it a bonus if the remake is better than the original. In this spirit, let’s look at remaking the one and only Danish kaiju movie, Reptilicus.
It is safe to say that Reptilicus has issues. Movies don’t get featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 if they don’t. Reptilicus was the first movie featured on MST3K: The Return. It was ripe for riffing, thanks to a slow start, an odd character that seemed to be there solely for comic relief, and special effects that showed a low budget. Yet, the movie had potential, which is critical when remaking a work.
As a Danish-American production, two versions were made. The American version substituted one actress from the Danish version and removed one of the title monster’s abilities because of how it looked on screen. The movie begins in Lapland with the discovery of the tail of an ancient creature frozen in the ice. The tail is shipped to the Danish Aquarium in Copenhagen, where scientists study the remains. An mishap allows the tail to thaw, leading to the monster, dubbed Reptilicus, regenerating like a starfish. Once fully regenerated, the monster menaces Copenhagen and the North Sea. The military is called in, but is limited in what they can do. Using explosives means that parts of Reptilicus could lie unseen and able to regenerate into a new monster. Only two ways will work to destroy the monster – fire and poison. However, the military finds out these details too late, after having blasted off the creature’s foot. The movie ends on a shot of the foot lying underwater.
Reptilicus start off slow, in the way of far too many B-movies, with serious men being serious scientists explaining the plot before it starts. However, the square-jawed science hero isn’t in this movie; the scientists are older with families. The slow start also helps delay the other big problem of the film, Reptilicus itself. It is very much a rubber monster, shot on different film stock than the rest of the movie. The movie tries to avoid showing the creature too much, knowing that it really isn’t that threatening. Instead, the destruction in the monster’s wake is shown.
However, in trying to not focus on the monster, the movie does get a few good shots in, including the panicking of the crowd. One scene has a drawbridge that starts rising before people could cross it. Several bicyclists drive off the edge into the water below before they could stop. The Danish military gets several good scenes as they try in vain to stop Reptilicus. The movie has potential. It was just the execution where Reptilicus had problems.
In the hypothetical remake, the first thing to work on is Reptilicus itself. Special effects have come a long way since rubber puppets in 1961. The monster can be more threatening and appear in the same frame as its hunters today. However, it may be best to keep its ability to fly out of the remake; the American version in 1961 removed it because it was too silly. Given the location, a sea monster would work well; long, snaky, a threat to shipping and the coast. Its ability to regenerate could be kept, though it’d take some work to make it believable today. Monster movies can get away with some biological weirdnesses, but too weird and the suspension of disbelief snaps.
In terms of plot, the monster has to be on screen sooner. The draw of monster movies is the monster as it wreak havok in a major metropolitan area. The lack of collateral damage was one of the problems with the 1998 Godzilla. With better effects, Reptilicus can appear sooner and with the destruction such a monster is capable of. Ships and buildings can be destroyed on screen. Get Reptilicus right, and the initial investigation won’t have to carry the first half of the film.
The scientists can stay. They provide the explanations the audience needs. The monster’s ability to regenerate can be shown on screen, but having someone in a white lab coat mention the process, especially to military leaders, never hurts. Show and tell instead of just telling. The discovery of the remains of Reptilicus and the mishap that lets it thaw are key moments in the film, so they need to be kept. Since it should be easier today to show more of the monster onscreen, the remains can be a near-complete carcass instead of just the tail.
The end of the film will need work. The monster was finally defeated in the movie when a sedative was fired into its mouth by the general using a bazooka. Combined with the poor effects of the monster, the scene didn’t work. The concept is good, but getting it to look right on screen will be tough. The restriction on method in-story was that Reptilicus was in the city; fire bombing the monster would not look good on the military. The collateral damage would be too high. But a difficult shot with a weapon meant to be used against large targets like tanks and bunkers. Accuracy is difficult, and the bazooka has been superceded by the rocket launcher, a weapon that really doesn’t do sedatives. A grenade launcher may work better – gas grenades can be filled with what’s needed with some handwaving – but the accuracy is still an issue. Grenades aren’t really precision weapons. The end may involve someone running up to Reptilicus to toss the modified gas grenade into the monster’s mouth. It would make for a satisfying bit of action after seeing Reptilicus trash Copenhagen.
One of the problems with remakes lately is the Hollywood-ization factor. Studios, not wanting to risk losses on a film, populate casts with either the latest and greatest or the pretty, with no thought on what the roles need. Reptilicus features high level personnel at both the aquarium and the military. The head of research isn’t going to be a twenty-something; likewise, the general isn’t going to be a model. It’ll take a director willing to push back somewhat to make sure that the actors for these roles fit.
Reptilicus has the potential to be a good remake. All the original movie needed was a bigger budget for the monster, something that a studio can provide today. The core of the original is a monster movie; the draw is the monster rampaging. Keep the focus on Reptilicus and avoid the temptation to add subplots and the remake will draw an audience.
* I say “apparent” because the past few decades have been teeming with popular original work. As seen in the History of Adaptations, that wasn’t always the case.
There are many movies that could have been done better. Not just in the realm of B-movies, where budget is often the limit, but also in movies from the major studios. The more interesting films are the near-misses, the ones that just missed the mark. The effort is there, but misapplied, resulting in a disappointment instead of an outright flop. Disney’s The Black Hole is such a movie. Released in 1979, The Black Hole was part of a science fiction renaissance born from the tremendous success of Star Wars. Everyone wanted a science fiction movie. However, Star Wars was also a game changer. While inspired by, among other soruces, the pulp serials of old, the hero wasn’t the square-jawed scientist as parodied by the character Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Instead, Star Wars featured a farm boy, a character type more likely to be found in a fantasy.
Changing approaches takes time. Scripts need to be written to accommodate the new paradigm. But to get something, anything out to take advantage of the sudden interest, time isn’t a luxury. Star Trek: The Motion Picture used a script meant for the pilot of a rebooted TV series, and it showed. The Black Hole, released the same month, had a script that would have felt more at home with the science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, featuring square-jawed science heroes. The problem there was that The Black Hole wasn’t solely a science fiction movie.
The Black Hole was gothic horror tucked in a science fiction shell.
Science fiction and horror do go and have gone together. Alien was a classic monster in the dark plot on board a spaceship. The Terminator featured an unrelenting robot out to kill one woman and was born from a nightmare. Having The Black Hole be horror isn’t a stretch; the elements are there. The big problem, though, was timing. The Black Hole was a first in many ways for Disney – the first Disney-branded movie to get a PG rating, the first with even mild swearing, the first with on-screen human deaths. It’d be understandable that the studio would be nervous. Disney created both Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures to be able to release films for adults, but neither existed at the time The Black Hole came out.
That was the core issue with The Black Hole – it was a horror movie from a studio that shied away from being too horrific. Disney was known for children’s entertainment. The studio could present frightening situations, like an evil woman becoming a terrifying dragon, but there was always someone brave to stand up to fight the evil. The Black Hole had the evil, but bravery didn’t help save the day. In horror, the hero doesn’t necessarily defeat the evil, just survive it, and that concept doesn’t always translate well to other genres.
The Black Hole looked like a mish-mash of genres. The crew of the Palomino were the square-jawed science types, using intelligence and research and talking to tackle the problem of the day. The Cygnus, despite being a spaceship, wouldn’t be out of place in gothic horror or a Hammer film, hanging in space orbiting a black hole. The end sequence may have been inspired by the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a side trip to Dante’s Inferno. And V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. owed more to the animal sidekicks of past Disney films than they did to R2-D2 and C-3P0.
This isn’t to say that The Black Hole was a bad movie. The film had a strong cast, with Antony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and Maximillian Schell, and the vocal talents of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickins. The special effects were cutting edge for the time, with the black hole a presence on screen. Even with their almost cartoon-quality appearance, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. were as capable as any droid from Star Wars, possibly more so with their ability to hover long before CGI made it easy.
Remaking The Black Hole isn’t just hypothetical. One attempt at a remake fell to the wayside after scripts were written. The main issue comes from figuring out just what approach to take with the film. However, for Lost in Translation, the idea is to figure out the core of the original and how to coax it out properly while still keeping the original plot more-or-less intact.
The first step is to get the science as close to correct as possible while still being able to tell a good story. In the original, the Cygnus was poised near the accretion disc of the black hole, using anti-gravity to maintain position. Adding a star in a dying orbit around the black hole allows for a Lagrange point where the acceleration of gravity of both are balanced and will enhance the visuals. The balance of forces also means that the Cygnus can be knocked out of position into danger.
While on the topic of the ships, the Cygnus and the Palomino should look like they’re from the same world. The original Palomino looks more like a lunar landing module of old. The interior of the Palomino is enough room for its five crew and robot. The Cygnus is far larger, and even with its original larger crew, still has far more space than the Palomino. Both were deep space explorers, so why the difference? The Cygnus may have a hydroponics section for longer endurance, but the Palomino doesn’t look right beside it. And it’s the Palomino that needs the change. The Cygnus needs to look like it belongs in gothic horror, brooding in the terrible sky. The Palomino, while smaller, should be a reflection of the Cygnus and what it once was. Get the mood going early.
The last technical design change is V.I.NCENT’s. The core design is good; V.I.N.CENT looks like he should be functional in zero-gravity. The change here is to make the robot more part of the crew, less like an animated character. Keep the basic design, but make V.I.N.CENT less like a commercial product and more a contracted design, where functionality takes precedent over appearance. However, Reinhardt’s robots should keep their appearance, if only updated for modern camera techniques. Provide more articulation to Maximillian, but otherwise keep his appearance. Likewise, the rest of Reinhardt’s robots should only receive minor updates, with some subtle foreshadowing of their true nature before the reveal.
The general plot can be kept, but change the focus from pure science fiction to horror. Once on the Cygnus, the audience should have a feeling that something is off. The scene outside should help; a star losing part of itself to a black hole is not normal. Reinhardt should seem reasonable on first meeting, but as time passes, again, something is off. Only when his plan is revealed should he begin to monologue. For the end, the trip through Hell needs to be kept; Reinhardt’s goal and his fall are key to the plot.
Getting the right feel is the critical. The original was trying to be both science fiction at a time when science fiction in film was going through a paradigm change and horror when the combination of the two was more likely to be a monster movie. The Black Hole won’t work as an action film, and the studio will have to resist the temptation to turn it into one. The goal is to keep the horror aspects front and centre. The Black Hole has potential, but will need work to bring it out properly.