Budget can be a reason why a remake is made. A low budget movie that picks up a cult following will be noticed by studios, and cult classics grow audiences over time. Studios, being risk adverse, prefer to make movies with a guarenteed audience. What happens when a film made on the cheap gets a budget? Let’s look at the Roger Corman classic, Death Race 2000.
As a producer, Roger Corman is known for being tight with money. He also seldom loses money on a movie. With Battle Beyond the Stars, he kept costs down by using film students for crew and an out-of-business hardware store for a studio. With Death Race 2000, the budget was a modest $300 000. Yet, the film endures.
Based on the short story, “The Racer”, by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 is set in the 1975 future of 2000, where the US economy has collapsed after defeating the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. Mr. President, the head of the Bipartisan States of America, has ruled the country from afar for 25 years, using bread and circuses to keep the masses happy. The biggest circus is the Transcontinental Road Race, where drivers compete from New York to Los Angeles to score the most points and the fastest time. Scoring comes from killing pedestrians, with women worth ten points more in all categories, children under 12 worth seventy points, and seniors worth one hundred.
Not everyone in the Bipartisan States are happy with the status quo. The Resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, played by Harriet Medin, wants to end the race, and plans on kidnapping the top racer, two-time Transcontinental winner, Frankenstein, played by David Carradine. Frankenstein earned the name after being rebuilt race after race, having parts destroyed or removed through accidents and deliberate actions by other racers.
Four other racers join Frankenstein in the starting line up. Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, played by Sylvester Stallone, is Frankenstein’s main rival and is determined to show who is the better driver in the race. Matilda the Hun, played by Roberta Collins, is a neo-Nazi who has named her car “The Buzzbomb”. Calamity Jane, played by Mary Woronov, takes the Western motif to the hilt, decking her car out with bull horns, perfect for ensuring a kill. Rounding out the line up is Nero the Hero, played by Martin Kove, decked out as a Roman gladiator. Each driver also has a navigator; Frankenstein has Annie, played by Simone Griffeth, and Machine Gun Joe’s moll is Myra, played by Louisa Moritz.
The race starts well, at least for the drivers. The Resistance would prefer to keep things bloodless, but even they start taking matters further. Nero the Hero is taken out in the first stage by the old “Bomb in a Fake Baby” trick, robbing him of not only his car, his navigator, and his life, but also of the seventy points the baby would have been worth. The Resistance tries to take credit for the kill, using a pirate broadcast, but the BSA claims that the French sabotaged the race instead. The Resistance also takes out Matilda the Hun and Calamity Jane. Matilda falls for a Wile E. Coyote-style detour. Calamity is forced off the road by the Resistance and hits a land mine.
During the second stage, the Resistance uses its mole to lure Frankenstein astray so that he could be replaced. Thomasina’s great-granddaughter, Annie, tells Frank about a retreat for old senators that is ripe for points. Frank breaks through the ambush, though. Knowing that Annie is part of the Resistance lets him trust her enough about the trick he has up his sleeve. Frankenstein’s plan is to win the race so that he can meet Mr. President and set off his hand grenade. Frank shares a goal with Annie, the ending of the Transcontinental Road Race; he is the latest Frankenstein, with the others having died instead of being put back together.
The movie is presented as a major sports event, a violent version of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The result is a darkly satirical comedy about the nature of sports and entertainment, where sex and violence are draws. The goal wasn’t to shame the audience, but heighten awareness while still reveling in what the movie rails against. Everything is over the top, taking Ib Melchior’s deadly serious short story and turning it into a satire. The script is kept tight, and what appears to be a continuity error near the end is really a clue that scene is not what it appears.
The 2008 remake, Death Race, approaches the events in a different manner. The movie opens with the background. The US economy has crashed, hard, with jobs scarce and crime levels growing higher and higher. To combat the crime problem, all prisons in the US are now privately owned and may well be the most stable companies around. One prison, Terminal Island Penitentiary, capitalizes on their inmates by broadcasting the “Death Race”, a three-day, three-stage event forcing prisoners to race against each other in cars armed and armoured to the teeth. The race consists of three laps, the first where the weapons are unarmed, the second where pressure plates can be driven over to activate weapons and defenses, and the third for the carnage.
Two racers at the prison have a deadly rivalry. Machine Gun Joe Mason, played by Tyrese Gibson, is set to kill Frankenstein, voiced by David Carradine. The race is close, with Frankenstein in the lead but getting chewed up by Machine Gun Joe’s truck with Frank’s defensive systems not working. Frankenstein wins, more from the force of the explosion his car makes as it crosses the finish line than anything else. Ratings and, more importantly, profits go up. However, the warder, Claire Hennessey, played by Joan Allen, needs a new Frankenstein.
Elsewhere, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames finishes his last day at a steel mill as it shuts down due to the economy tanking. Jensen gets his meager last pay just before the SWAT team appear to quell a riot that didn’t happen until the SWAT team arrived. The problem with private prisons is that they need a constant influx of prisoners; the SWAT team may have been trying to drum up potenital inmates. Jensen, though, makes it home to his wife Suzy and newborn daughter Piper. However, a masked intruder breaks in, knocks Jensen out, and kills Suzy, framing Ames for the murder. Jensen is sentenced to life imprisonment at Terminal Island.
After a run-in with Aryan Brotherhood member Pachenko, played by Max Ryan, Jensen is called to the Warden’s office. Warden Hennessey has a deal for Jensen – race as Frankenstein and win one more race, and he can go free. Jensen agrees, and is introduced to Frankenstein’s pit crew. The head of the crew, Coach, played by Ian McShane, shows Frankenstein’s car to Jensen, going over the weapons and defenses available.
The day of the first stage arrives. The navigators arrive by prison bus from Terminal Island’s women’s penitentiary. Other than Machine Gun Joe, each driver has a woman as navigator, for the ratings. Machine Gun Joe, though, has a man; speculation is that’s because either he goes through so many navigators that viewers were turned off by the deaths or he’s gay. Once inside his car, Jensen takes off teh Frankenstein mask, revealing himself to Case, played by Natalie Martinez. Case isn’t surprised; Jensen is her third Frankenstein. During the race, three drivers and navigators are killed. Hector “The Grim Reaper” Grimm, played by Robert LaSardo survives a wreck, but while ranting after escaping his vehicle, is run down by Machine Gun Joe. Travis Colt is taken out by Jensen. Frankenstein’s defensive systems once again failed, but Jensen gets creative. He has Case put the napalm on the ejector seat, then fires it out so that the bottle breaks and the liquid inside cover Colt’s car. Case then tosses the cigarette lighter at Colt’s car. Jensen is well ahead and is set to win until Pachenko catches up to him. Jensen recognizes the gesture Pachenko makes as the same one his wife’s killer had made. Distracted, he doesn’t see Machine Gun Joe until too late. Frankenstein finishes sixth, last among the surviving drivers.
Warden Hennessey isn’t impressed by Jensen’s finish. She calls him in and ups the stakes. Hennessey promises that if Jensen loses, his daughter will be adopted out and he will never see her again. Jensen promises that things will get more vicious in the next stage. In the garage, Frankenstein’s put crew checks the oil sprayer and finds that it is working properly. Jensen starts putting the puzzle together and confronts Case. For her part, Case admits she sabotaged the defenses; she was promised her own release papers for preventing Frankenstein from leaving the Death Race.
When the second stage starts, Jensen has his own plans. First, he gets Pachenko to crash, then breaks the Aryan’s neck. He then gets back into his car, determined to win. Hennessey, though, wants a ratings boost. She’s already seeing record numbers of viewers tuning in, but wants to wring the Death Race for every dollar she can. A new vehicle enters the race – the Dreadnought, built on a semi-rig tanker and better armed and armoured than any of the other cars. The Dreadnought scores three kills of its own before Jensen convinces Machine Gun Joe to work with him to stop the truck.
Hennessey, not so happy with the destruction of her truck but pleased with the new paid subscriptions to the Death Race, makes Jensen a new offer – stay as Frankenstein and live a life of comfort. Jensen wants his daughter back, so no deal. When the third stage begins, Jensen and Joe have an escape plan, using a weakened part of the prison’s outer walls. However, Hennessey won’t let Jensen go easily and has a bomb planted under his car. The race goes as Jensen planned. He, Case, and Joe destroy the wall and escape across the only bridge in. Hennessey sends the signal for the bomb to explode, which it then fails to do. Coach had found the explosive, removing and disarming it.
Outside the prison, police try to chase the escapees, but find themselves outgunned and outmatched. Hennessey orders helicopters to pursue Jensen. When his car is finally stopped, it’s Case in the Frankenstein costume. She’s taken back to prison. Hennessey can at least announe that Frankenstein has returned, and opens a celebratory gift sent to her. Coach detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey.
There are some key differences between Death Race 2000 and Death Race. While each film take a look at the nature of sports and television, the changes to both elements necessitate a different approach. In 1975, the concept of pay-per-view didn’t yet exist. Most people watched television via broadcast, not cable. The three-channel universe in the US meant that the choice in what to watch was limited. In 2008, cable reigns, especially for sports. While some major events, like the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s World Series, are available over national networks free of charge, others, especially for sports with smaller followings, can only be seen on specialized cable stations and even pay-per-view. The more violent sports, like wrestling and mixed martial arts, are pay-per-view only. Violence is movies is far more visceral. Death Race 2000 was almost cartoon-like in its violence while Death Race went for being grittier.
Also gone from the remake was the satirical humour. Much like the Robocop remake, Death Race plays the situation seriously. The remake, though, has several new targets for satire. First is the use of privately owned prisons. A government-run prison doesn’t have to worry about a profit/loss statement at the end of the day; a privately run one has to make a profit, and there’s only so much that a prison can charge to hold a prisoner. Death Race takes the concept of prisoner labour to an extreme, but one that must be on the minds of some CEOs. Would the general public pay to watch prisoners fight in a gladiatorial arena?
The other new target for satire is the new nature of television. Pay-per-view means that after a certain number of subscribers, any more is pure profit. Cut the costs in producing an event, and that minimum needed subscribers drops. Too many cuts, and the audience will be turned off. But if labour costs can be reduced or even removed? Sponsors will be happy to provide equipment at a discount if the producer can show good numbers. Thus, the MOPAR billboard and the Ford vehicles in Death Race.
Budget is another huge difference between the films. Each car in Death Race 2000 was a shell built on top of the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle. Beetles had the two requirements Corman was looking for – they had the engine in the back and could be found cheaply. The Beetle was not an expensive car even when new, and was the most popular import in the US. The latter made finding used ones easy. With Death Race, the two main cars – Frankenstein’s and Joe’s – were current Ford models. Even in a movie decrying bloodsport, manufacturers are willing to take the risk of a bad association if it means free advertising.
Another difference comes from the nature of storytelling on film. In the 70s, slow reveals of the main character’s real purpose isn’t unknown. The audience is assumed to be capable of thinking while watching. Death Race, though, provides all the needed information up front about the main characters. The audience knows right away why Jensen is racing. The audience can sit back and enjoy the spectacle, something that Death Race 2000 satirized.
Death Race also removed the points system. It worked for a cross-country race that encouraged drivers to hit-and-run pedestrians. The remake, though, kept the race in a contained area. Finishing first was the only way to win. Since the hit-and-run was removed, weapons could be mounted on the cars. It wouldn’t be sporting to just shoot an unarmed pedestrian, even one taunting a driver like a bullfighter taunts a bull. But if everyone is armed, then it’s fair game. The defensive systems – oil sprayer, smokescreen generator, and napalm – help cars in front from being sitting ducks. Video game elements like the pressure plates to activate weapon systems fit in with the audience, both the one in-universe and the one watching the movie.
Both movies reflect their time period. In 1975, the US had just gone through Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, showing the cracks in the American system of government. In 2008, the housing bubble had just popped, creating Crash 2.0, leaving people trying to pay for a house that was no longer worth what they had paid for it while struggling to keep a job as corporations cut labour costs to stem the hemorrhaging of money. Each movie’s satire reflects the era, which makes a direct comparison difficult.
That said, Death Race 2000, much like Deadpool, has no problems being silly when it needs to be. Sometimes, a point can be made better when the viewer is laughing. Death Race made the decision to keep things serious, possibly as a nod to the original short story by Melchior. The difference in tone means that people are swearing instead of yelling, “Chrysler!” Staying serious also indicates that the film sees the elements being satirized as grave problem, underlining the nature of the issues.
The two movies take different approaches over most of the same topics. Death Race 2000 is over the top, making it an easier watch even with the nudity and violence. Death Race keeps the violence and uses up-to-date film making techniques to get the audience into the middle of the action. Death Race almost pulls it off, and may have been better off without the original lurking in the audience’s mind.
Technological progress has a way of making older works show their age. In many adaptations, updating the technology to modern ideas of the near future doesn’t harm the work. But what happens when an iconic item becomes outdated?
Case in point, the 1965-70 TV series, Get Smart. Created by Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the spy thrillers of the time, including 007 and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and featured outlandish gadgets that never quite worked properly. The series starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, two agents of CONTROL who fought against the machinations of KAOS, run by Siegfried, played by Bernie Kopell, and his right-hand man, Shtarker, played by King Moody. Max’s boss, the Chief of CONTROL, played by Edward Platt, suffered as Max investigated nefarious schemes, but admitted that CONTROL wouldn’t be half as effective without 86. The opening of the first episode provides a perfect example of how technology changes the intent of a scene. As a stage production is about to start, a phone begins to ring, and Max excuses himself to go to the lobby to answer his shoe. In 1965, this is an unusual situation, something that is absurd. Today, even with warnings and request to turn off all phones, someone in the audience will still take a call.
Get Smart, though, was more than the gadgets. Like many good parodies, like Airplane!, the characters took the situations seriously. That’s part of the humour, the dichotomy between the absurdity of the situation and the seriousness of the characters. With a TV series, the characters also have to be engaging enough for people to keep watching week after week. Max knew his spycraft, even if there were times he stumbled into saving the world or times that 99 came through in the clutch.
As the series progressed, the relationship between Max and 99 grew closer, resulting in a wedding and adding a domestic side to the series. Still, even with the domestic episodes, the series was still a spy spoof, with all the comedic aspects of the core coming through. The in-laws are in town? Great time for KAOS to wreak havoc, just to see how Max and 99 handle both.
There were several attempts at revivals. The first was the theatrical release, The Nude Bomb, with Don Adams returning as Max and 99. Edward Platt’s death in 1974 meant that a new actor, Dana Elcar, had to be brought in as the Chief. The movie took advantage of not being on television and went risque. A second made-for-TV movie, Get Smart, Again reunited Adams and Feldon. A short-lived revival TV series in 1995, also called Get Smart, brought back Adams and Feldon, with Max now the Chief of CONTROL and his son Zack, played by Andy Dick, a field agent. Even Inspector Gadget could be seen as Get Smart aimed at children, with Adams voicing the eponymous character, who was a walking gadget malfunction, who bumbled around while his niece Penny did the hard work.
In 2008, Warner Bros. released Get Smart, a remake/reboot starring Steve Carell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as the Chief of CONTROL. Instead of being a period piece, the movie was set in the current era. The movie changed things up, with Max being a very thorough analyst who wants to be a field agent. His briefings run 600+ pages and gets down into what the subjects of investigation like to eat. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, his notes on one potential threat is shown on screen; “The Claw” was another villain from the TV series.
Max’s arrival at work takes him through a museum dedicated to espionage, with one section set aside for CONTROL. In the section, several of the old gadgets from the TV series are on display, including the old cone of silence, Max’s car, and the shoe phone. The entrance to CONTROL itself is through a set of doors, much like the opening credits to the TV series, complete with the classic theme song playing. The gags through the doors change, as should be expected, but the sequence does hammer home the idea of being in CONTROL’s headquarters. Max’s briefing is dry but thorough, but that thoroughness prevents him from becoming a field agent; the Chief needs him as an analyst.
KAOS escalates its total war against CONTROL, first bombing CONTROL’s HQ then going after field agents. Max and 99 are the first to respond after the bombing, investigating the ruins of the headquarters to find the perpetrators. Max’s quick thinking and knowledge of the fire suppression systems lets 99 go deeper into the headquarters, but that same quick thinking and knowledge leaves the Chief with a dent in his forehead. Because of the shortage of field agents, Max’s request to become one is approved, with the idea that KAOS won’t know who he is.
The Chief pairs rookie 86 with experience field agent 99 and sends them to Russia to investigate Ladislas Krstic (David S. Lee), the munitions supplier for KAOS. The flight to Russia, though, has Siegfried’s heavy, Dalip, played by Dalip Singh aka the Great Khali. Max and 99 use a hidden escape from the plane, though Max wasn’t able to get his chute on in time. Dalip follows, taking the now spare chute. Agent 99 does what she can to get rid of Dalip and prevent Max from plummeting to his death.
At Krstic’s manor, the pair discover the location of stolen nuclear material and bomb-making facility, a bakery in Moscow. Max and 99 head directly there, sneaking in and looking for the yellow cake uranium. Max finds it plus actual yellow cake at a birthday celebration, and plants explosives. During this, though, Siegfried, played by Terrance Stamp, finds him and takes him prisoner. The two men try to get the details of what each other know, with Max getting details about Siegfried’s plans to bomb the president. Siegfried leaves Shtarker, played by Ken Davitan, in charge to finalized preparations, which gives Max a chance to escape.
The bakery explodes. During the chaos, Max and 99 run into Dalip again. Fighting the KAOS heavy gets nowhere, so Max uses his knowledge from analysing tape after tape to convince Dalip to stop fighting and help them escape. He’s mostly successful, but he and 99 do get away from the exploding bomb factory/bakery and return to Washington to report in. The Chief sends Agent 23, Max’s idol played by Dwayne Johnson, to make sure that the facility is gone. Problem is, Agent 23 reports that there’s no sign of the uranium. All evidence that there’s a cover up points to Max, who is taken into custody. While in his cell, he hears a coded message for him relayed through Ryan Seacrest; the bomb is in Los Angeles.
Max executes an escape from CONTROL’s prison cells. The escape leads through the espionage museum. Max takes the suit, the gun, the shoe phone, and the car. The roaring escape ends not far from the museum as the car runs out of gas. He tries to commandeer a car, driven by Bernie Kopell in a cameo, but that car is rear-ended. Max does find a car and heads to L.A, where he finds the Chief, 99, and 23. Agent 86 works out who the double agent is and reveals his identity. In the process, he prevents the bomb from exploding and ends the KAOS plot to kill the president.
In a Get Smart adaptation, several elements are expected. The gadgets, as mentioned above, are important, not only in being used but not working correctly. The cone of silence received an upgrade but still didn’t work properly. The shoe phone, though, is outdated thanks to cell phones. Yet, the movie managed to work it in, thanks to call forwarding. Even the new gadgets, like Max’s Swiss Army knife, don’t work right.
Casting was also key. Steve Carell played Max much as Don Adams had, straight, allowing the absurdity of what was happening carry the comedy. Anne Hathaway has a more-than-passing resemblance to Barbara Feldon, and there are several scenes where Hathaway is a dead ringer for Feldon. Terrance Stamp took a darker tone to Siegfried, but Ken Davitan’s Shtarker blunted the darkness by being a comedic sidekick and punch-clock villain. Even Fang, Agent K-13, had a counterpart in the remake – a puppy that Max wanted to adopt but only if he became a field agent.
The writers were able to work with the original material well. The original series had a number of catch phrases that would recur, most of them Max’s but some from 99 and even Siegfried. It’d be easy to just have Max spout them; instead, the script worked the catch phrases in organically. Siegfried did get his, “This is KAOS. We don’t ‘ka-fricking-boom’ here,” thanks to Shtarker. Max had, “Missed it by that much,” “Would you believe?” and “Sorry about that Chief,” in situations where it made sense. The last phrase came up after Max hit the Chief with a fire extinguisher. Even 99 got in a, “Oh, Max.” Anyone not familiar with the lines wouldn’t have seen these shoehorned in while fans of the original series could laugh.
Even some of the TV series’ gags were reused. Along with the malfunctioning gadgets, other staples that appeared included Agent 13. In the TV series, the agent, played by Dave Ketchum, would appear in the oddest, tightest locations. Bill Murray played 13 in the film, appearing inside a tree near CONTROL’s safe house near the Washington Memorial, his complaints about his assignment and the problems of being stuck in the tree echoing Ketchum’s 13 and his issues. The movie is also book-ended by scenes of Max arriving and leaving CONTROL, much like the opening and closing credits.
Updating Get Smart meant having to change update the sensibilities of the times. The nature of spy thrillers has changed since 1965, with the tone turning darker as the nature of the business and the tools of the trade became more known to the general audience. Adding to the difficulty, Get Smart was a comedy set at work, where work was a top secret organization dedicated to the security of the US. Overlooking that aspect would have lost part of the nature of the series. The movie, though, kept both the spy spoof and the work-com aspects, with enough scenes showing how dysfunctional CONTROL’s office is and still making fun of bureaucracy at all levels. Inter-agency rivalries were added, with the Chief butting heads with the directors of the other agencies, including the CIA and the Secret Service.
The movie remake of Get Smart had a difficult task in front of it; paying homage to a series and a character that is iconic. The result, though, shows that the challenge was met. Get Smart was a well done adaptation that managed to update the setting without losing the core of the original TV series.
The Eighties were an odd decade. The usual follow-the-leader methods loved by studios went out the window as almost anything went. It was the first decade where popular original works outnumbered popular adaptations. Music videos were an art form and could turn a near miss into a hit. Such was the case in 1984 with the original Ghostbusters. The Ray Parker Jr. video for the movie’s main theme showed more of the movie than traditional trailers, getting people interested in seeing the film.
Ghostbusters went on to be one of the top grossing movies of the Eighties. The movie, an action-comedy, followed a team of scientists who branched out into a business after their funding was cut by the university. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, saw the potential of the business. However, Venkman’s ethics were at best loose, allowing him to take advantage of any situation. The technical geniuses behind the team were Ray Stantz, played by Dan Aykroyd, and Igon Spengler, played by Harold Ramis. Ray was the wide-eyed enthusiast, eager to explore the possibilities. Igon was the rational scientist, armed with all literature written on the subject of ghosts, including Tobin’s Spirit Guide. As business picked up, the Ghostbusters added two more to the crew, Winston Zeddmore, played by Ernie Hudson, who joined the guys in the field, and Janine Melnitz, played by Annie Potts, the receptionist/secretary/general help.
The pick up in business wasn’t just people finally having someone to call to deal with hauntings. The increase in spectral activity signalled the return of Gozer the Destructor, a dangerous entity that had been banished once before by Tiamat. Gozer’s minions, the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, are released to find mortal bodies to inhabit. Meanwhile, Dana Barrett is having some spectral problems. Dana is a musician, a cellist with a symphonic orchestra and one of Ghostbusters’ first customer. Venkman, of the loose professional ethics, starts chatting her up, eventually getting a date with her. One of the reasons she had called the team was that there was a complaint about her TV being too loud during a time when she hadn’t been home. Her neighbour, Louis Tully, played by Rick Moranis, vouches for her.
On the night of the date, Louis throws a big party for all his clients in his apartment. He hears Dana in the hall and heads out there to try to get her to pop in for a moment, but she’s non-commital. She ducks into her apartment. Louis tries to get back to his, but the door is locked. Then the Terror Dog appears. Louis runs, but is chased down and caught outside a fancy restaurant. Louis isn’t the only person to encounter a Terror Dog that night. Dana sits down on her chair to rest before getting ready for her date with Venkman, only for the chair to sprout demonic arms to hold her in place. The door to her kitchen opens, revealing a doorway to another plane guarded by a Terror Dog.
When Louis and Dana return, the are inhabited by the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, respectively. The Keymaster must find the Gatekeeper to open the gate keeping Gozer from returning to Earth. Venkman discovers Dana sleeping above the covers* and gets teh rest of the team to do what they can to find out what happened to her. Igon researches and digs up the details of Gozer and what could become of the Earth if the Gozerian is freed.
Alas, the Keymaster and Gatekeeper meet, releasing Gozer. The power needed to open the gate was provided by the ghosts the team have busted and contained, thanks to human bureaucracy in the form of Walter Peck, played by William Atherton. The released ghosts terrorize Manhattan and the Ghostbusters are given all due authority required to end the emergency. Gozer, feeling benevolent to his would-be defeaters, allows the Ghostbusters to choose how their world dies. While Winston, Venkman, and Igon are able to blank their minds, Ray thought of the most harmless thing he could, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
Ghostbusters was followed up with a sequel in 1989, an animated series, The Real Ghostbusters, from 1985 to 1991, a tabletop RPG in 1986, and a video game in 2009 that featured voices of the four original Ghostbusters. An attempt at a third movie kept running into problems, to the point where co-creator Aykroyd considered the video game to be the third movie. In 2016, the drought ended.
The new Ghostbusters was a reboot of the franchise. Instead of Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore, new Ghostbusters were created and introduced. The movie starts with a tour of the old Aldredge manor in New York City, where the family had locked up their daughter, Gertrude, who had dabbled in the black arts. Gertrude was said to be locked in the basement, which hadn;t been opened since. However, when Gertrude starts trying to break free, the curator locates Dr. Erin Golbert, played by Kristen Wiig, at the prestigious university she works at. He found her name on a book she co-wrote with Abby Yates about the paranormal, a book Erin thought had been remaindered and is now trying to disavow in order to get tenure.
Erin tracks down her old friend Abby at a much less prestigious university to try to get the book pulled from sale. Unlike Erin, Abby has continued her research into the paranormal and is now working with Jillian Holtzman, a nuclear engineer and mad scientist, played by Kate McKinnon. The three women go to the Aldredge manor to investigate and do find the ghost of Gertrude. Erin tries to communicate with Gertrude and is slimed for the effort. All three women run out of the manor, fear giving way to elation as they see their paranormal theories validated.
The next day, Erin is let go by her university as the YouTube video Holtzman put up makes the circuit. Erin goes to see Abby to try to get work there, but the dean of Abby’s university, after learning that the department still exists, cuts all funding. Abby and Holztman take the equipment and follow Erin out. They decide to try getting into business; Holtzman has created a few devices that need field testing anyway. Their first stop is a former firestation, the same one from the original movie. On hearing the monthly rent, the next stop is an office over the Chinese restaurant Abby regularly orders from.
Meanwhile, in the New York subway, MTA worker Patty Tolan spies someone disappearing off the platform and into the tunnel. Patty chases him, warning him that the train is coming. She stops when she sees a spectral entity floating above the tracks. She contacts the Ghostbusters and shows them where she saw the ghost. Holtzman gives Erin her new device, a proton pack that should be able to catch the ghost. There are some problems, including range and recoil, and the women have to get out of the tunnel before the next train arrives.
Patty joins the team, providing the Ghostbusters someone who knows the history of New York City and a vehicle on loan from her uncle. Their big break comes when a ghost is reported at a heavy metal concert. The Ghostbusters arrive in their new car, a hearse from Patty’s uncle that has been repainted by Holtzman. They split up inside the concert hall, searching for the ghost. Patty finds a room full of mannequins and, knowing horror movies and possibly Doctor Who, walks away from the room full of potential nightmares. The ghost, inhabiting one of the mannequins, follows her.
The four Ghostbusters make short work of the mannequin, but the ghsot flees upwards, through the ceiling and into the concert. While at first the audience and the act on stage think its all part of the performance, things change when the ghost tosses the lead singer into the stack of amps. The Ghostbusters arrive and spread out, with Patty moshing over the audience to get into position and Abby not having the same luck. The first shots miss, and the ghost lands on Patty. With careful aim, Holtzman hits the ghost and pulls it off Patty, allowing the others to trap it with their pack. Holtzman sends out her latest investion, the ghost trap, and seals the ghost away.
The success at the concert leads to more calls. Erin hires a new secretary, Kevin Beckman, played by Chris Hemsworth. Unlike Janine in the original movie, where she was the best receptionist the Ghostbusters could afford on the cheap, Kevin was hired by Erin solely to be eye candy. Kevin has trouble with answering phones. Business picks up, but the Ghostbusters realize there’s a pattern to where the ghosts are appearing and track it on a map. Each sighting occurred on a ley line, and the intersection of two ley lines is where the most powerful one will appear. They also recognize the one constant in each sighting, a bellhop named Rowan, played by Neil Casey.
Rowan sees himself as an underappreciated genius and will show the world otherwise. The Ghostbusters close in on him and find his lair in the basement of the hotel, the Mercado. Rowan tries to tell the Ghostbusters about how difficult it is for him to get anywhere in the world**, and apparently commits suicide over being brought in by the police. While searching his equipment, Erin finds a copy of the book she and Abby wrote and takes it along with her.
That night, Erin reads through the book she found and sees the annotations Rowan has made, which includes him killing himself then returning. She runs out to warn the mayor to evacuate the city. At the Ghostbusters’ office, Abby, working late, has her own encounter with a ghost. She manages to elude it, but it flies away. The ghost, Rowan, instead takes over Kevin’s body. Abby brings in Holtzman and Patty. Unable to reach Erin, the three women head down to the Mercado in Times Square.
Along the way, the three women in the new Ecto-1 stop to bust a ghost at a hotdog stand. Slimer, however, turns the tables and steals Ecto-1, going off on a joy ride. The three Ghostbusters run the rest of the way to Times Square to face off against the denizens of Times Square of yore, including a ghostly version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of the Twenties.** The Ghostbusters destroy most of the balloons but one, good old Stay-Puft himself, lands on them. Balloons being balloons, though, are not match to Swiss Army knives, as Erin demonstrates.
Reunited, the four women turn to get through the mass of ghosts under Rowan’s command. Holtzman’s inventions all come out, from the ghost shredder used by Patty to proton grenades thrown by Abby to twin pistol-sized proton packs that Holtzman kept for herself. They fight through the ghosts to face off against Rowan. Being magnanimous in apparent victory, Rowan gives the Ghostbusters the choice of his final form. Patty chooses the cute little harmless ghost in their logo. Rowan agrees, and turns into a cartoon version of the logo before growing into a far more sinister version.
As can be seen above, the plots of both movies are similar. Both have a being manipulating spectral energy to gain power and destroy the world. In the original, the being was the extraplanar Gozer the Gozerian. In the reboot, the being was more mundane but also more typical of the problems women in the real world face. The devices are the same, given updates and more flashing lights in the new movie but still recognizable as what they are. The reboot also pulls ideas from the existing franchise, including the cartoon. Rowan’s rampage at the end of the movie is similar to the opening credits of the cartoon. The cartoon also gave direction to Slimer’s appearance in the reboot and may have been the source for the idea of the strong recoil the proton accelerators have.
The gender flip of the main characters also means that what the guys could get away with in the first movie couldn’t be done so much in the reboot. At the same time, Kevin was eye candy, hired by Erin because of his looks, something Venkman didn’t do in the original. The characters don’t match up on a one-to-one basis. Elements of the original characters, however, do appear in the reboot; there is some Igon in Holtzman, but Holtzman is definitely not Igon in drag. Abby may be the one character that has the strongest resemblance to another, in Ray, but Abby is still her own character, with her own traits and flaws.
The use of CGI should get mentioned. The original Ghostbusters didn’t have the luxury of affordable CGI. The Last Starfighter, one of the first movies to use extensive CGI for special effects, came out in the same year as Ghostbusters. The original Ghostbusters used extensive practical effects with cel animation. The reboot could make use of CGI in place of the cel animation, but even then, practical effects were also used. Drones were used as stand-ins for the ghosts to give the actors something to look and aim at. Lighted extensions on the proton accelerators allowed the actors to react without having to keep the ends still to aid the animation process. Special effects caught up to the needs of the movie, allowing for trickier shots, such as Holtzman going to town with two proton accelerators.
Is the reboot the same movie as the original? No, and it couldn’t be. A shot-for-shot remake would be a waste of talent. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon are far too talented and had such great chemistry working together that a mere gender-flip wasn’t enough. Director Paul Feig allowed his actors room to improv, much like Ivan Reitman did in the original movie, allowing the chemistry to appear on screen. The reboot, though, takes in the full franchise and presents it on screen. The new Ghostbusters has fun with the material, which is what is expected with an action-comedy.
Lost in Translation now has a Facebook page!
* “Three feet above the covers.”
** Special features on the DVD reveal that the balloons in the scene were based on actual balloons used in the parade of the era. There really isn’t much difference between the ghostly balloons and the real ones.
Remakes of popular films have it rough; the production staff needs to balance the expectations of existing fans while still working to get new viewers in. With cult films, the balancing act needs to account for what made the original enduring. Remaking The Rocky Horror Picture Show is daunting enough; the movie was one of the 70s top grossing movies and still plays to packed theatres, especially around Hallowe’en, and has audience participation. To say there are built-in expectations is to scratch the surface. Fox, however, added another level of difficulty – The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again was made for TV.
Broadcast* television is heavily regulated as a public resource. In the US, the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission – has issued community standards of broadcast setting down what is and what is not allowed. Since the “wardrobe malfunction” of 2004, the FCC’s enforcement has become more strict, at least before the watershed hour of 10pm. The Rocky Horror Picture Show covers themes that dance over the line of what is allowed. However, since Rocky Horror‘s release in 1975, attitudes have changed. What could only be hinted at forty years ago, such as homosexuality, can be stated outright today, though having gay characters kiss, even chastely, will still generate complaints.
Shot-for-shot remakes just lead to viewers wondering why they just didn’t watch the original. Deviating too far from the original, especially one where there’s audience participation, will leave viewers also wanting the original. There’s a fine line to tread, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again makes the effort to find it. Let’s Do the Time Warp Again frames the movie as a movie, with audiences, both television viewer and in-film, being brought into the Castle Theatre during the opening number, “Science Fiction/Double Feature” sung by Ivy Levan. The in-film audience brings in the audience participation that movie-goers would get and is one of the draws of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The plot of the movie follows the original script created by Richard O’Brien for the stage play, The Rocky Horror Show. Between the movie and the various performances of the stage musical, there’s no getting away from it; audiences are expecting that story. However, it’s not the plot that is key; it’s the performances. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is iconic; Frank-N-Furter is a sexual omnivore casually seducing everyone around, including the theatre audience. Curry is a tough act to follow, and his presence in Let’s Do the Time Warp Again as the Criminologist** serves as a reminder of his previous role. Laverne Cox is up to the challenge as the new Frank-N-Furter. While Cox doesn’t quite channel Curry, she does exude raw sexuality, predatory and assertive, in the role. Meanwhile, Victoria Justice as Janet Weiss and Ryan McCartan as Brad Majors protray the young highschool sweethearts going through sexual liberation, Janet willingly and Brad reluctantly. Rounding out the cast, Reeve Carney does channel Richard O’Brien as Riff-Raff, sounding much like the original. Frank-N-Furter’s castle is played by Toronto’s Casa Loma, and looms menacingly in the stormy night.
The remake includes a few shout outs to the original movie, including Columbia saying, “I hope it’s not Meatloaf again,” during the dinner scene. Considering all the challenges faced, the remake stepped up and delivered. Even the cheesy CGI near the end can be forgiven; no one in Toronto would appreciate the destruction of Casa Loma after all the time and money put into renovating the building. The biggest drawback Let’s Do the Time Warp Again had was the commercial breaks, disrupting the flow at times. The drawback will be corrected with the DVD release, allowing viewers to watch the movie through without interruption.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again won’t replace The Rocky Horror Picture Show, nor does it try to. The framing of the remake goes a long way to set up how to view the movie and brings in the audience participation, the biggest draw of the original movie. The forty years between the original release and the remake’s airing gives Let’s Do the Time Warp Again the room needed to address the theme of sexual liberation, with the Unconventional Conventionlists and the Transsexual Transylvanians being a goal, not an oddity. Given enough time, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again should reach cult status, much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and join the original movie on the repertory circuit.
* Over-the-air, though even that description is getting less and less accurate as online streaming becomes more and more popular.
** Portrayed in the original movie by Charles Gray, who also played Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.
Movies aren’t the only medium that adapts. Television will adapt, remake, and reboot, too, to varying degrees of success. Genres abound on TV, from soap operas – daytime and nighttime – to police procedurals, from sitcoms to action-adventure, adding to the feeling of familiarity. The nature of television has changed over the past few decades. Where once viewers had a choice of three or four stations, there are several hundred options, with channels for every niche. This change means that programming for the lowest common denominator means that’s the only denomination that is watching. Still, with the sheer amount of competition for eyes, not helped by the infinite channels available on the Internet, studios and networks are looking for anything that will let them sell ad time. Remakes of memorable shows is one way to get viewers, at least for the first episode.
This season, the 2016-2017 season, is seeing a number of adaptions, including at least two shows based on movies – Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon. Also premiering is a remake of the Richard Dean Anderson series, MacGuyver. The original series ran for seven seasons, featuring Anderson as the title character, capable of creating solutions out of anything on hand, to the point where creative solutions are known as MacGuyvering. Anderson’s MacGuyver prefered the more peaceful solution over easy violence. MacGuyver used guns a total of two times over the seven season run; once was a rifle set to shoot into the ground, with each bounce due to recoil resulting in another trigger pull, and once to use a heavy revolver as a wrench.
Mac worked for the Phoenix Foundation, run by Pete Thornton, played by Dana Elcar. Pete was nominally Mac’s boss, but the relationship was more friendship than anything else. Mac’s pilot friend Jack Dalton, played by Bruce McGill, wasn’t part of the Foundation, but appeared often. Jack was more likely to get Mac involved in existing trouble, often triggering Mac’s acrophobia. Other recurring characters include budding actress Penny Parker, played by Teri Hatcher, and Mac’s nemesis Murdoc, played by Michael Des Barres. A typical epsiode of MacGuyver dropped Mac into a situation, usually an investigation, with several opportunities to jury-rig a solution with whatever is on hand. The show was light entertainment, with the added draw of viewers trying to figure out what Mac would do with the materials on hand, with Anderson narrating the action. In the first season, the pre-credits teaser, called the opening gambit, was often written by Dalek creator Terry Nation.
The new MacGuyver debuted September 23 and is a remake of the original instead of a continuation. However, Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the original MacGuyver, is on board as an executive producer, with Henry Winkler returning as another. The new Mac, played by Lucas Till, still works for Thornton, Patricia Thornton, played by Sandrine Holt. The pilot begins with Thornton as the head of the Department of External Services, one of the myriad intelligence agencies in the US. Mac is part of a team with Jack Dalton, now played by George Eads, and Nikki Carpenter, played by Tracy Spiridakos. Over the course of the episode, Nikki is replaced by the new character, hacker Riley Davis, played by Tristin Mays, and the DXS becomes the Phoenix Foundation.
With just one episode, it’s too soon to do a proper analysis of the series. It takes time for a show to find its legs as actors figure out their roles. However, first impressions do happen. Casting is tough; Richard Dean Anderson’s Mac is iconic; Lucas Till has big shoes to fill. Helping, though, is that he can pass as a young MacGuyver, even taking into account the difference in hairstyles between 1985 and 2016. The new Mac still prefers a peaceful solution, eschewing guns, and still creates jury-rigged solutions on the fly. With the advances in electronics and computers over the past thirty years, there are new ways to MacGuyver a solution to a tough problem. The big change is in the approach. Mac now has a team instead of working solo, and Jack is now part of that team. Jack is also is the heavy on the team, as likely to pull out a gun and shoot as the opposition is, in contrast to Mac. Patricia Thornton is less buddy-buddy with Mac than Pete Thornton was but is still sympathetic.
The new MacGuyver still needs a few episodes to get comfortable in its own skin. There is a lot of baggage from the original that just can’t be hidden, such as Mac’s first name. Once a secret kept until near the end of the series, the name is known well enough by the potential audience that keeping it hidden would just be awkward. However, the show has potential once it settles in. Lucas Till isn’t Richard Dean Anderson, nor should he try to be him. The new Mac needs to be his own person, informed by the original but not a carbon copy, especially given the thirty year difference between the two series. The pilot of the new MacGuyver did feel like a first season episode of the original, and has potential. The new show needs to balance the legacy of the original while still being its own series.
Two adaptations announced this week are raising eyebrows and possibly blood pressures among potential audiences.
First, the BBC announced that it has teamed up with Netflix to produce a four-part Watership Down mini-series. The goal is to introduce the story to a new audience while toning back the “brutal images”. While the movie did have some shots that featured blood, most of the violence was done with discretion shots. However, the mini-series will be using CGI to make the rabbits more life-like, which may make any violence shown more hard-hitting. The animation of the 1978 movie allowed for a separation of reality and fiction, something the new computer animation may blur. With the four one-hour parts, the new mini-series may be able to delve further into the original novel than the ninety minute adaptation did.
The second adaptation is a sequel to Disney’s Mary Poppins. The 1964 movie, which was itself based on a story by PL Travers, was one of the most popular films of its year. While Travers did write eight books featuring Mary Poppins, she wasn’t enamoured with Walt Disney’s adaptation, as seen in the fictionalized account, Saving Mr. Banks. Disney’s sequel, titled Mary Poppins Returns, will follow up with the Banks children as grown ups,
There is a difference between the Watership Down remake and the Mary Poppins sequel. The BBC is expanding the run time available, allowing them to take in more of the original novel. The Watership Down mini-series is also using modern techniques to add realism, while the 1978 movie was done in a rush by an inexperienced writer, director, and producer*. The Mary Poppins sequel feels more like an attempt to cash in on a known name. Granted, the working relationship between Disney and Travers was poor, which may prevent the studio from using an of her other books, but Mary Poppins won five Academy Awards and is still popular. Disney is also working to ensure the movie is a success, including casting Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton. Time will tell if the sequel is accepted by audiences.
* To be fair to Martin Rosen, he learned quickly and was able to produce a quality work limited by its length.
Technology is constantly changing, updating and upgrading as new techniques are discovered. As has been mentioned before, new technology has been the motivation behind remakes and adaptations. The advent of computer animation has made some expensive or time-consuming effects of the past easier to do today. Stop-motion animation has given way to CG animation. Practical effects, though, still exist. It can be easier to film a practical effect and enhance it with CG than to start from scratch with computer animation. That said, the use of CG animation can sometimes lose the charm of a work. The temptation to tinker can be great, but too much tinkering can lose the audience. It’s a fine line.
In 1964, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the minds behind Supermarionation, created Thunderbirds. The series featured the Tracy family and International Rescue, an organization dedicated to helping people in danger. Jeff Tracy, the family patriarch, funded the organization and its vehicles, piloted by his five sons. Aiding the Tracies were Kyrano, his daughter Tin-Tin, the engineer, Brains, and International Rescue’s London Agent, Lady Penelope and her butler, Parker. Together, International Rescue performed daring rescues and battled the nefarious Hood.
The Thunderbirds themselves were the stars. Each vehicle had a dedicated purpose. Thunderbird 1, piloted by Scott Tracy, was a hypersonic rocket plane, capable of reaching any place on Earth quickly. Thunderbird 2, piloted by Virgil, was the heavy lifter, ferrying rescue equipment and modular pods where needed. Thunderbird 3, piloted by Alan, was a re-usable rocket used for space rescue. Thunderbird 4, piloted by Gordon, was a submarine, typically carried by Thunderbird 2 to where it’s needed. Thunderbird 5, manned by John, was a space station used for monitoring communications for calls for help. Lady Penelope had FAB-1, a pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce as kitted out as anything 007 would drive.
The series was filmed using Supermarionation, using marionettes as the cast, with the sets built to scale. For close-ups of hands, real hands were used, allowing characters to manipulate objects as needed. The special effects were scaled down for the miniatures in use, looking very much like effects used in films. Thunderbirds ran for thirty-two episodes, each running, with ads, for an hour, and has been referenced by other works, including Reboot. Thunderbirds has been remade a few times, including the anime Thunderbirds 2086 and the 2004 live action movie. A new CG series, Thunderbirds Are Go is the latest adaptation.
Thunderbirds Are Go first aired in ITV in April 2015. The series brings back International Rescue, updating the show’s concept to reflect the changes in technology since Thunderbirds first aired. The two-part pilot episode, “Ring of Fire”, introduces the characters to a new audience while showing what each Thunderbird can do. There have been some changes; Jeff Tracy has gone missing, leaving Grandma Tracy as the head of the household. Brains is now Indian, and his stutter is less pronounced. Tin-Tin is now Kayo and the head of security for International Rescue, but her family secret is still kept. The vehicles have been updated as well, though still recognizable. FAB-1 reflects today’s car stylings, but still has the gadgets to keep Lady Penelope safe. Thunderbird 5 shows the greatest change in design, reflecting developments in space stations and featuring a rotating ring to simulate gravity and a stationary control area that lets John float around while monitoring communications. The Thunderbirds, though, aren’t CG; instead, they are miniatures, as are the sets. The mix isn’t jarring; the use of both CG and miniatures harkens back to the use of marionettes and models in the original.
“Ring of Fire” starts with a runaway hot air balloon caught in a storm, its passengers, a father and his son, calling for help. Out of the storm clouds, Thunderbird 2 appears, matching course with balloon. Virgin comes up topside and helps the son into Thunderbird 2. Before he can get the father, though, a gust of wind up ends the balloon. Virgil calls John up in Thunderbird 5 to get the father’s vector, and has Thunderbird 2 dive to get beneath. He’s able to grab the father and bring him inside before reaching the ground. Meanwhile, Thunderbird 3, with Alan and Kayo, are working on correcting the orbit of a satellite, allowing John to relax while watching his favourite TV series*.
After a breather, International Rescue gets a call from an undersea lab that has suffered damage after a seaquake. Virgil and Gordon respond with Thunderbirds 2 and 4. While approaching the lab, Gordon discovers the source of the quakes, a device that creates the seismic disruption. Worse, several more quakes occur, caused by similar devices. Lady Penelope and Parker investigate and find a warehouse with a note and a button. On pushing the button, a mysterious figure hijacks the airwaves and makes his demands; the Hood will end the quakes upon being given the Thunderbirds. International Rescue ignores the demands. With the sealab’s scientists rescued, IR work on finding the Hood. Alan and Kayo head to the satellite to try to track the Hood’s location. On the ground, Scott and Virgil rush to Taiwan to prevent a solar reflector, misaligned because of the quakes, from frying Taipei when the sun rises. Alan and Kayo discover the frequency the Hood is using, allowing Brains to trace the villain’s signal. Kayo performs a high-altitude, low-opening, or HALO, jump from Thunderbird 3 to land at the Hood’s hideout. The Hood summons his men to deal with Kayo, but she also has backup, having alerted the Global Defense Force to the Hood’s location.
The production team is making an effort to be faithful to the original’s feel while still updating the series for modern sensibilities. There are nods to the original Thunderbirds, including the episode “Fireflash”, a remake of the first original episode, “Trapped in the Sky”. Both episodes feature a supersonic jet that is in trouble and needs the assistance of International Rescue to land safely. The sealab from “Ring of Fire” resembles a damaged Eagle from Anderon’s live action series, Space: 1999. The series even has David Graham returning in the role of Parker. Thunderbirds Are Go runs thirty minutes, including ads, or half as long as the original, but the writing is kept tight, not letting up on the tension until the rescue is complete.
Thunderbirds Are Go makes use of new technology, but doesn’t let it take over the core of the series. There are changes, mostly to reflect the realities of today, but the heart of Thunderbirds has been kept.
* The show John watches is Stingray, another Supermarionation series, with a clip of the opening credits being shown. In a clever touch, the slip is shown in reverse to the audience, meaning that John is watching it the correct way.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the problems Jem and the Holograms live action adaptation had at the box office. The same week that Jem was pulled from theatres, Mark Wahlberg announced that he would be involved with a remake of The Six Million Dollar Man, Today, a look at what such an adaptation needs to beware of.
The remake, The Six Billion Dollar Man, appears to be working from the TV series. However, The Six Million Dollar Man was an adaptation itself, based on book Cyborg by Martin Caidan. Will the remake acknowledge the original work is still a question. Another catch is the forty years since the original TV series aired. Time is seldom gentle as it progresses. Can The Six Billion Dollar Man update the series without losing what made the original popular?
Technology may not be a problem. Computers are far smaller and far more powerful now than in the mid-Seventies. Thanks to the silicon chip and advances in miniaturization, computers no longer need to take up an entire floor and can fit inside an artificial limb with space leftover. Steve Austin’s bionic arm, legs, and eye are still beyond current commercial technology, but advances available today in artificial limbs now allow for fine motor control. Small cameras are available to all, with infrared available at low extra cost. Web cameras are built into many computing devices, like laptops, tablets, and cameras. Putting a military version of commercially available camera types into an artificial eye isn’t far-fetched.
The real problem, seen with every adaptation, is getting the feel right. Jem and the Holograms failed there by going for a generic plot with no connection to the characters. The Six Billion Dollar Man needs to acknowledge the feel of the original, even as it tries to be its own work. The problem there is the Seventies. Steve Austin didn’t just deal with rogue agents. He went up against robots with his capabilities, against terrorism in ersatz versions of Northern Ireland, South America, and the Middle East, against psychics and mind readers, and against aliens. The Seventies explored ideas that never panned out and are seen as bizarre today.
Compounding the issue of the Seventies is the change in how stories are told. This was also seen in the remake of The Mechanic, which went from a character study with a deliberate pace to an action movie without changing the plot. The Seventies saw longer shots, almost foreign to today’s near-constant cuts through editing. Yet, for some effects, the camera may have to linger.
Another issue that could cause problems is the change of tone seen in adapted works, eschewing the tone of the original in favour of a darker, grittier story that sometimes misses the point. The Caidin novels had Austin as a super secret agent, sent in where regular agents wouldn’t succeed. The TV series followed that idea, but with a lighter touch. The Six Billion Dollar Man could fall back to the Caidin novels or even just the first pilot movie. The Six Million Dollar Man saw a shift in tone between the first of the TV movies and the actual series. Colonel Austin stopped using weapons during the series, but does use grenades in the pilot.
The passage of time may be of help to The Six Billion Dollar Man. The series ended almost forty years ago and is no longer in syndication. While the TV series has been released on DVD, not everyone in the audience will have a copy. This will allow the remake movie to recreate the general feel of the series – a bionic man working as a top agent for an agency – without necessarily getting all the details correct. The main elements, the bionic sound effects, can be used to create a genuine feel, even if some details get changed.
The goal of Wahlberg’s remake should be to blend the sensitivies of both today and the Seventies without either treating the source material as a source of jokes or to go down the dark and gritty road without having some of the TV series’ levity. Both have a place in The Six Billion Dollar Man.
Short round up this month. Just a few of note.
Absolutely Fabulous movie coming.
AbFab is returning. Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the original show, has confirmed that a movie will be filmed this summer, once a budget has been set. Saunders has said that the movie will bring back the main characters, including Joanna Lumley’s Patsy.
Steven Spielberg and SyFy Channel to bring Brave New World to the small screen.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World is being adapted by Spielberg for SyFy as a miniseries. Huxley’s novel looked at a future Earth where consumerism won the day, leading to a sterile world except for areas that refused to conform.
The Rock to play Jack Burton.
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China will be remade with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Kurt Russell role. Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz, who wrote X-Men: First Class, will write the script. Johnson wants to bring in John Carpenter, the director of the original, on the film.
Alphanumeric! ReBoot reboot confirmed.
Corus Entertainment is set to reboot the 90s CG-animated cartoon, ReBoot, with a full twenty-six episodes. The original series, the first one to use CG, lasted four seasons, with the last being comprised of two made-for-TV movies. The series ended on a cliffhanger, with the virus Megabyte having taken over Mainframe. The new series, ReBoot: The Guardian Core, is set to pick up with four sprites defending their system with the help of the VERA, the last of the original Guardians.
Speaking of the 90s, The Powerpuff Girls are returning, too.
Once again, the day will be saved! The Powerpuff Girls are returning to Cartoon Network, with new voices and new producers. The reboot will be prodiuced by Nick Jennings, of Adventure Time, and Bob Boyle, of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! Tom Kenny will return as the Narrator and the Mayor.
The Adaptation Fix-It Shop is open again. The Shop looks at adaptations that have major problems and tries to rebuild the concept. Previously, the Fix-It Shop rejiggered the 1998 Godzilla as a action/comedy monster hunting flick and separated the two movies trying to get out from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li.
Today, I delve back into Dungeons & Dragons.
The first inclination is to drop a meteor swarm* on it and call it a day.
The first inclination, while satisfying, is wrong. While Dungeons & Dragons had many problems. Its 2005 direct-to-video sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, was a far better movie and a far better adaptation, just lacking the effects budget the first movie had. The sequel works as a template on how to fix the the original. There’s also the issue of the original movie having decent set pieces that just didn’t work with all the others.
Let’s get some of the problems out of the way. Role-playing games add an extra twist to adapting that most media doesn’t, as mentioned before. While most novels, comics, TV series, and even video games have a plot, RPGs leave that up to the players. Characters are the same; in an RPG, the players create them. Settings may or may not be included, depending on the game. Dungeons & Dragons, in most editions, has The World of Greyhawk as a default setting, but with little information beyond names like Drawmij, Mordenkainen, and Zagyg. Other settings were produced and sold, and Dungeon Masters (DMs) were given world-building tips, much like Way with Worlds, to help create their own. That leaves game mechanics, which did appear in the movie.
Wrath of the Dragon God showed that it is possible to do a D&D movie. Wrath had a lower budget, but made up for it with more attention to game elements and easing those elements into the narrative. The sequel created its own setting and characters, using ideas presented in the Third Edition core rulebooks, and building on them for the plot. Wrath is proof of concept; a D&D movie can be made that isn’t bad.
With the above in mind, what can be done to repair the Dungeons & Dragons movie? The core plot is about five adventurers who band together to stop an evil wizard from overthrowing the queen. It’s a good plot, one not used too much lately in movies. The devil’s in the details, though. In a D&D game, evil wizards capable of succeeding in overthrowing a monarch tend to be capable of tossing fireballs without breaking a sweat. While a group of adventurers can defeat a much higher level opponent if they team up and work together, an evil wizard should be portrayed as smart enough to have lieutenants, henchmen, and minions in between him and any resistance. In the movie, the villain was powerful enough to command dragons and beholders, one of either can be a difficult foe for a group of adventurers.
It could be that the plot needs far more time to resolve properly than a movie can provide. Stopping anyone from taking over a kingdom can be a full campaign spread over several months of play. The same thing happened with the Dragonlance animated film; a ninety minute animated movie wasn’t enough to cover a novel. Even with the expanded DVDs of the Lord of the Rings movies, a lot had to be left out just to get the story told. Epic fantasy just doesn’t fit in a tidy 90-120 minute time slot. Three ways around the problem; the first, look at going to television. TV allows for 13-20 45-minute chunks of time, providing far more time to properly tell a story. The anime Record of Lodoss War lasted thirteen episodes, each one being 25 minutes long, and it was based on an RPG campaign.
Second method involves multiple movies. There’s a risk inherent to the approach; if the first movie isn’t a draw, the story ends incomplete. This seems to be the fate** of The Mortal Instruments. The City of Bones underperformed at the box office. leading to the sequel to be first pushed back and then cancelled, leaving the story unfinished. The goal for the repaired Dungeons & Dragons, under this workaround, is to keep the production costs down without looking cheap to maximize the box office returns. It will be a balancing act to keep the effects looking good while still not breaking the budget.
The third approach is to cut through the backstory and start in media res. The evil wizard is making his move and the adventurers have to act and act now! Details can be filled in as flashbacks and the Seven Samurai-like gathering of the heroes avoided or truncated. The key events are the discovery of the plot, the investigation into how the plot will be enacted, and the stopping of the plot and the wizard. The heroes have a time limit.
While a TV series may be the best approach, to properly fix the movie would be to keep the format***. Multiple movies aren’t a guarantee; unlike Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t based on a series of bestselling books. Even Star Wars was filmed to be a stand-alone work if it didn’t do well. That leaves option three, cutting out or cutting down unnecessary events and trimming the gathering of the heroes. The goal, now, is to get something that feels both epic in nature and still personal. To elevated, and the audience doesn’t have a character to follow. Too close, and the saving of the kingdom becomes overwhelming.
The wizard’s plot to take over the kingdom needs a bit of work. Summoning a flight of evil dragons is epic, but one dragon could turn the heroes into cinders without effort. Controlling one is enough and keeps the menace of both the dragon and the wizard intact. A quest to retrieve a means to call a good dragon to counter the wizard’s will allow the dungeon half of the title to appear. The wizard’s motive is power and riches, something the kingdom has in plenty.
Now that the villain’s plot is more or less set, a way to stop or at least neutralize him is in place, it’s time to get the heroes going. Two rogues, a mage apprentice, a dwarf fighter, and an elf ranger discover the scheme and work together to recover the MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning before the evil wizard can overthrow the queen. Let’s use a plot point from the original movie, the apprentice discovers that her mentor is part of the evil scheme. Instead of discovering this after stopping two half-competent thieves, she does this and then discovers them looting the lab. This gives her leverage; help her stop the evil wizard or be turned over to her mentor. The rogues, being greedy but decent people, help because while the kingdom, a magocracy, benefits only wizards with non-magical types on the edge of society, having an evil wizard in charge is a change for the worse.
A mage and two rogues aren’t an effective combat force. Earlier editions of D&D saw magic-users who could die if their cat familiar played too rough. Rogues do their best fighting when their opponents can’t see them. The group takes stock and heads to the best place to find someone who is good in a fight, a seedy tavern. “You all meet in a tavern” is a cliché, but works to get players together fast. By choosing a dive where brawls are known to occur nightly, the group can invoke the cliché without engaging it. They’re looking for the last man standing, who turns out to be the dwarf fighter. They explain what’s happening, tell the dwarf there will be lots of fighting, and work out the next step, which is to somehow summon a good dragon. The dwarf knows someone, a ranger, and leads the group to the elf. At this point, the group is as connected as it can get, and time’s wasting.
The dungeon is the location where each character can show off their abilities, though this needs to be subtle. It’s also a chance to bring in some classic monsters that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the plot, though the choices need to be careful. As tempting as it is to toss in a rust monster to scare the dwarf fighter, the creature can look a little silly. The rust monster was based off a toy that Gary Gygax used as a miniature. But, if the rust monster can be brought in and made fearsome, it is iconic to the game and easier to avoid or defeat than a beholder.
The MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning now in their hands, the heroes rush back to the capital, but dark clouds loom overhead. The wizard finishes controlling his dragon and sends it out to wreak havoc on the city. The heroes must now use the MacGuffin to call a good dragon while fighting off the wizard’s lieutenants and minions. It’s close, but the good dragon arrives and attacks the evil one. The heroes slip into the city as the wizard closes in on the queen, leading to the final fight. Pyrotechnics go off as the heroes battle the villain while the dragons fight in the background, reflecting the fortune of the heroes. Ultimately, the heroes win, the kingdom is saved, and triumphant music plays.
Plot aside, that leaves the effects, another point of failure. By reducing the number of dragons, that should give the effects team both the time and money to focus on just two instead of two flocks. The dungeon can be built on a set instead of on location, unless a decent catacomb can be found for less. Some set pieces from the original are lost, including the Thieves’ Guild maze, which was a high point of the film. That maze, though, just duplicates the dungeon, and can be let go. The final battle needs to reflect spells that are in the game, and the mage apprentice should run out of spells or be down to utility types like light or mage hand.
Will the above work? It depends on the cast, crew, and budget. Wrath of the Dragon God did show that a D&D movie is possible, provided that the plot can handle the effects budget available. A less ambitious plot could help, as could reducing the time spent on subplots that lead nowhere.
Next week, the June news round up.
* Ninth level magic-user spell that summons a meteor shower on an area that used to have opponents in it.
** A TV series, Shadowhunters, is in the works, however.
*** Besides, D&D has already had a TV series, albeit animated.