Films were invented as self-contained stories, but the older the medium gets, the more we see the tendency toward standalone films shift in strange, new directions. Hollywood studios favor established properties over new ones, so their films can be released with a built-in audience, leading to a rush of sequels and spinoffs that only seem more ubiquitous with each passing year.
But when studio bigwigs are short on recent films to turn into franchises, they often turn to the past for inspiration, which is where things tend to get complicated with the whole reboot versus remake debate. The simplest form of reviving a story that’s already been told on film is via a remake, which is a new take on an old story that hopefully incorporates some new stylistic elements or ideas to make the familiar property feel fresh.
Remakes are common when it comes to popular foreign films that may be palatable to American audiences — Martin Scorsese turned the Korean Infernal Affairs into the Boston-set crime epic The Departed, for example — or well-loved but oft-forgotten classics of a certain age that seem to be picked by studio heads at random — Around the World in 80 Days? Sure!
Remakes must begin with the same story as a previous film, though often they hew closer to the written source material that inspired the original, as was the case with the Coen brothers‘ 2008 True Grit remake. Many remakes may fit under the umbrella of reboots — a slightly broader term that applies to any long-delayed addition to an established franchise, generally designed to spark new interest in the old property and pave the way for further sequels.
It gets confusing, since the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. A reboot doesn’t need to begin with the same story as the original film, but it takes place in what is essentially the same world, often with the same characters and similar themes. Reboots are a newer beast, as studios have only recently learned to find creative ways to revisit their biggest franchises in fresh (and some not-so-fresh) ways.
Let’s look at a few of the approaches taken to makes reboots just last year (which Birth.Movies.Death aptly called “the year of the rebootquel”). Creed continued the Rocky series by transitioning its central character (played by the same actor) into a mentor role but retaining the underdog core that made the original such a success.
We think Terminator Genisys did roughly the same thing, but luckily, we didn’t see it and neither did you. Mad Max: Fury Road followed the same central character, replaced by a new actor, through with parts of the apocalyptic wasteland never before seen in the previous films. Jurassic World discarded the old characters and made a big leap forward in the field of dino-tainment, allowing similar disasters to befall a park that’s actually open this time.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens reunited most of the original film’s cast but kept them in supporting roles, effectively handing the reins to a new collection of protagonists. Interestingly, The Force Awakens‘s story was so similar to the events of A New Hope, one could easily make the argument that it’s a remake as well as a reboot.
The gap between films necessary to constitute a reboot seems to get shorter and shorter these days — especially when it comes to superheroes. Marvel is in the midst of rebooting Spider-Man for the second time since the year 2000, only five years after The Amazing Spider-Man’s release in 2012.
It’s important to remember that the bafflingly quick turnaround on rebooting franchises isn’t a bad thing, nor is it a good thing. The most important shared characteristic of remakes and reboots is uncertainty.
Whether a studio is remaking a cinematic classic (a la Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast due out in 2017) or simply rebooting a defunct franchise no one thinks about much anymore (the long-in-the-pipeline Bill & Ted sequel), there are no guarantees that a film will be good or bad, because quality is more dependent upon the execution than the property itself.
That’s why the 1998 Psycho remake is such a slog to sit through, while a reboot of the ’80s high school-set cop show 21 Jump Street, of all things, turned out to be one of the funniest farces in years. Movie fans have an unfortunate tendency to pre-judge planned releases based on their personal feelings, as so many Ghostbusters fans have done for the female-centric reboot even though it’s directed by the remarkably consistent Paul Feig (Freaks & Geeks, Bridesmaids).
Ghostbusters is another one of those few films that straddles the line between remake and reboot, as it seems to be telling the same story in a new context — a world where the events of the original film never took place — while simultaneously reviving a defunct franchise for a new generation. If it’s anywhere near as good as most of Feig’s other comedies, it won’t matter if we call it a remake or a reboot — it’ll only matter that it’s funny.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf