Hollywood is Reducing Itself Every Time It Recycles

Jeff Goldblum hypothesized in Independence Day that the alien signal was reducing every time it recycled. Eventually it will disappear. Hollywood, with its reboots, remakes and re-imaginings, is doing the same thing…

I originally wrote this article as a feature for the BBC in 2006. However, it’s still very relevant, if not more so now.

Watching the latest American re-imagining of a Japanese horror film, or seeing the teaser trailer for the ‘all new’ When A Stranger Calls, or sitting eagerly anticipating Indiana Jones 4, I’m continually reminded of my forgetful eighty-five year old grandmother. No, it isn’t because she was an extra in the Temple Of Doom, nor is she an expert of ancient Japanese mythology, (I’m not even talking about her penchant for talking to photographs on the wall and thinking Des Lynam is speaking directly to her and only her during afternoon Countdown – that’s a whole other story) she is simply someone who likes to tell a tale to whoever is listening. However, her trick is to tell the same story in exactly the same way to the same people even if they’ve heard it a thousand times before. I’ve grown tired of hearing about her first day at school, visiting Prince Rainier’s grave, and her infamous flight to the Costa Del Sol (“I don’t like flying and I hate going to the toilet on a plane but on this occasion I just had to go. There I am with my knickers round my ankles, next thing I hear is the captain saying ‘seatbelts on, we’re coming in to land”). It’s a sad day that Hollywood has turned my cinema-going experience into a constant reminder of Rich Tea biscuits, overdone perfume, false teeth, and my Grandma talking for England.

It was only 1996 when Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day talked about strange outer space signals repeating themselves and recycling until there was no more. With controlled build-up, Goldblum’s David, showing a sort of stoic heroism said “Strange thing is, if my calculations are correct, the signal will be gone in seven hours. The signal reduces itself every time it recycles. Eventually it will disappear.” It’s like a Yoga class – breath in (and raise the tension: audience at the edge of their seats), and breath out (here’s comes the ‘gag’). “And then what?” says curly haired chub Harvey Fierstein. “Checkmate” replies Goldblum, as a bumbling Fierstein runs down a list of lives he has to save without the addition of his blood-sucking lawyer.

Despite the clinical, tidy, manipulative filmmaking being a well-worn attribute of most flag-waving American blockbusters, it’s the metaphor in Goldblum’s analysis that’s more important here. Like David Naughton in John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London going on a murderous lycanthropic rampage every full moon – repeating his quest for human meat every time his Wilkinson Sword became as useful as a camp hairdresser on King Kong’s island – today’s Hollywood and its total lack of originality is just repeating and recycling itself in any disguise it sees fit. From the remake and the re-imagining, to the book adaptation, the latest superhero craze and anything it can pimp off East Asian horror directors. Unlike Stephen King’s Pennywise returning to drag children into the sewers of Derry every thirty years (a book which was adapted into a television movie), Hollywood is repeating itself every thirty seconds. With the general consistency of Michael Palin’s stutter in A Fish Called Wanda, the Land of La is hitting us with the same movies over and over and over again.

When I first saw Alien 3, shortly after its release in the United Kingdom, I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t like the opening which seemed to make a mockery of Aliens’ finale, I didn’t like the style or execution, and I didn’t like the way the story had progressed. Little did I know at the time, of a rift between the then unknown director David Fincher, and the studio. For Fox, Fincher became a toy to be played with, and eventually any kind of director’s vision was stripped away by the studio, who took creative control from Fincher. What can be referred to as the ‘Director’s Cut’, Alien 3 was shown to test audiences in a longer version to the one that eventually made it into theatres. It was these test audiences, whose largely unflattering critical appraisal lead to the film being shortened into a studio cut which the director now wants nothing to do with. Why was the film critically panned? At the time I thought I knew why, but looking at it now I seriously believe that the very things the critics were bashing it for, are the very things that make it such a good movie today.

Essentially, the primary reason I feel Alien 3 should not be remade, is that it’s actually a much better film than it was first given credit for. Director David Fincher shouldn’t shun the movie but embrace it. Yes, he’s done more refined work, and he’s done more personal work, but Alien 3 is an effective horror movie that has won many fans in retrospect. Indeed, with the quality of remakes recently, it would take close to a miracle to improve on Fincher’s film.

A crucial part of this sequel was to get the balance right between how the alien has evolved and how Ripley has evolved since the last movie. Here, we begin to see major flaws in both their characters: Ripley has lost everything she had, again, yet must face her demons once more; the alien, in a wonderful sub-plot, now must rely on Ripley to survive. These elements produce a war we have not witnessed before, putting the film in new territory, the only problem being, they are not executed as well as they could have been.

Fincher is relatively restrained with the camera until a fast-paced finale, keeping his camera slowly viewing events, maintaining a cold atmosphere and a hollow tension. With director of photography, Alex Thomson, Fincher paints an ugly place in greens and browns, with the hot orange glow of the colony’s furnace offering a bright juxtaposition, shrouding the film in a harsh darkness. The sharp, white lights of the interiors give the small rooms life, but only heighten the feeling of being inside a prison, surrounded on all sides by the dark, black hallways, ventilation shafts, and the cold, desolate wastelands outside. Fincher attempts to do what James Cameron did – to cut his audience off from everything they know, or thought they knew; to centre them in a place, a hell, and cut off every possible exit, squeezing the characters and the audience to create tension, impending doom, and hopelessness. Fincher has a much more raw tone than Cameron, but struggles to maintain the danger and the ultimate horror that the previous film’s director succeeded in doing. Creating hollow tension, which he most certainly does, isn’t a strong enough element, because the pivotal ‘danger’ becomes more of a dormant entity that stings you in the night, rather than the ice-cold menaces that Ridley Scott and James Cameron brought to the screen in their earlier efforts.

The film is graced with a great cast, and Sigourney Weaver again returns to give an exceptional performance. Shaving her head for the role, she reprises her character Ripley, more hardened and toughened than before. It is interesting to see this character she has portrayed in two previous movies, again have to deal with the same horrors once more, but set against the backdrop of a male prison colony. She is the first female they have seen in years, a woman that not only presents something most of them desire, but the very thing they have sworn to neglect. It is also interesting to see that Ripley has faced a deadly enemy, now she is faced with the worst of what humans can throw at her. While this factor becomes a prominent subplot, it falls flat and is never fully realised.

Charles Dance is excellent as the colony doctor, and quickly becomes a major aspect in the dynamic of Ripley’s character. They befriend each other, both finding a uniqueness in the other, and this becomes another interesting part of the film. Dance portrays Clemens with an element of mystery – he is a convict after all, but becomes the most sympathetic of the supporting cast. Charles Dutton is also excellent but vastly underused, and underwritten in his role as the hard talking Dillon. Paul McGann, in what is believed to be a role that is harmed most by the studio’s cuts, is good as the jittery, psychotic multiple murderer, Golic. Brian Glover and Ralph Brown complete the primary cast, as the stout, unbelieving officer Andrews, and his right hand man Aaron.

Elliot Goldenthal had a tough act to follow in terms of the film’s score, but creates an excellent addition, and compliments Fincher’s overall tone. The special effects are however, not up to scratch, with some looking very poor indeed. The word ‘rushed’ comes to mind, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the studio quickly threw in many special effects shots to get the film out on time for its release date.

Alien 3 stands as a worthy addition to the Alien Legacy. It is different to the previous two because it has to be, and it is better off for it. It opens up some very interesting avenues, but unfortunately never fully explores them, and while the original cut of the film could have been a better, more rounded movie, this is still an excellent slice of science fiction.

To say I’d be surprised to see a remake would be to tell a complete, unadulterated lie. Hollywood of the past 10 years is capable of all sorts of unoriginality and the remake is just one them. Consider for a minute another film from the Alien stable – Alien Versus Predator. The film isn’t just an example of Hollywood trying to cash-in on a market that they know already exists, it’s a perfect showcase to see just how unoriginal their ideas have become, as the film is a dressed up, disguised retelling of Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park. Essentially, both films tell the story of a bunch of scientists going to an island in the middle of nowhere and becoming food for prehistoric animals. Both the major protagonists in the film are picked up by helicopter before they have chance to say no to the expedition, and both films gain their thrust based on a mysterious billionaire’s wayward imagination, sense of adventure and limitless funds. It’s surely only coincidence that both films introduce major characters at an archaeological dig and send them to a distant place that has been adapted into the natural habitat of predatory animals. Both follow the same pattern – introduce the characters to the situation, create the dilemma, get them attacked, some die but the remaining few get separated, hero saves the day. It’s a basic narrative formulation you might argue but the conclusions are fairly identical. In both films the protagonists are assisted and saved by one of the antagonists: in Alien Versus Predator it’s on purpose, in Jurassic Park it’s inadvertent but nevertheless, it’s like watching the same movie again.

In a similar sense, if you’ve seen The 40 Year Old Virgin then you’ve seen Hitch and vice-versa, both films having been released within six months of each other in 2005. And yet Spielberg doesn’t escape this trap either. His Sainthood amongst the Hollywood elite glossing over the fact he’s filmed Lex and Tim’s escape from the Velociraptors twice. Once in Jurassic Park, and again in 2005’s War Of The Worlds (dare I say it, another remake), substituting the dinosaurs for metallic tripod tentacles. Both scenes build the tension in the same way, each culminating in a character accidentally nudging something to the floor, enticing further inspection from the villains who would have otherwise left. You can change the characters, the location and the bad guy, but if Hollywood insists on just repackaging the same movies with gimmicky bells and whistles, it’ll find a lot of people turning to their DVD collections for old Hitchcock films, the original and best version of King Kong from 1933, and Hollywood’s Golden New Age during the seventies. They’ll be searching the web for French, Spanish, Mexican, British, Japanese, Indian, Australian, and all kinds of national cinema. The independents will find a new lease of life, especially in the home entertainment market.

Lost In Translation from 2003 seems to be a prime example. Sofia Coppola, working under daddy’s dollar (her father is of course Francis Ford Coppola who made The Godfather amongst many others) but independent of major studio influence, found her film did exceptionally well in cinemas ($44.5 million in the U.S from a $4 million budget) yet found a new lease of life on DVD. Word of mouth spread through magazines and the internet that here was something genuinely unique. Whilst the film was still showing at cinemas in the U.S, DVD sales reached over 1 million units prompting Focus Features Head of Distribution Jack Foley to proclaim: ‘the phenomenon of Lost In Translation succeeding in both mediums is unique and indicative of the incredible support for this special film’. Zach Braff did the same thing a year later with Garden State making ten times its budget at the box office but it wasn’t just American’s reaping the benefits of Hollywood’s stale ideas. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after his disappointing trip to Hollywood filming the terrible Alien: Resurrection, returned to his native land and independently produced Amelie, a delightful comedy that became one of the most successful French-language films in U.S box office history making over $33 million, whilst also making 4.3 million in the U.K. Yet Amelie’s fantastic journey would continue to prosper on DVD as the film was one of the most sort-after during the year, opening many people’s eyes to their first experience of French cinema. Likewise, after Hollywood remade The Ring with Naomi Watts in 2002, many avid film fans went in search of the original Japanese version on DVD, opening themselves up to the delights of Japanese and east Asian cinema.

Yet, with a ready-made market, a hungry audience already prepared by an easy-to-focus marketing campaign, and the benefit of a franchise behind you, what producer wouldn’t want to seriously evaluate an Alien 3 remake? It’s thus unfortunate, saddening even, that we are the audience having to put up with such stale ideas. I only wonder what it would have been like to be a film fan in the 1950s or during the new wave of the 1970s. Thank god for re-runs and DVDs!

Heck, perhaps I’m wrong. We’re actually a generation that has been in hibernation for twenty years, missing every single movie made since 1980.The cold, calculated mystery of Hannibal Lector passed us by in 1991 with Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Silence Of The Lambs. Hollywood neglecting to realise why the film was so terrifying in its depiction of a monster whose plastic cage separated us and Clarice Starling from his ambiguous madness channelled through controlled, clinical aggression. Of course we missed the beat, and now we’re privy to the answers that seem to negate the purpose in the forthcoming Young Hannibal: Behind The Mask, set for release in 2006.

We’ve the pleasure of such original concepts as the sequel which is basically a form of cinema that continues the story of the previous film (oh of course, we all already know that), so what has Hollywood got in store for us in 2006? Well, we can look forward to the vaguely titled I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, Scary Movie 4, Rambo 4, X-Men 3, Hollow Man 2, and Final Destination 3 to name but a few. We also have the esteemed pleasure to watch Omen 666 on its release date of June 6th, 2006 – the film being a remake of the original Richard Donner directed 1976 version. At least the Hollywood idea machine is stretching itself to thoughtful release dates, it’s just it stinks of yet another gimmick.

We can only hope the talents of comic Steve Martin come good in the remake of The Pink Panther after his wasted time on Cheaper By The Dozen 2. Even greats like him seem to have forgotten the creative pen – his superb writing for his own starring vehicles in 1991’s L.A Story and 1999’s Bowfinger are now just distant memories. Sylvester Stallone is putting some effort in – after the next Rambo sequel we can eagerly anticipate Rocky Balboa, another film to his Rocky franchise. There’s the tasty delights of Black Christmas, When A Stranger Calls, Return To Sleepaway Camp, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Evil Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes being given the 2006 make-over treatment. Also being remade are the classics The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The Fly, and The Wicker Man.

You can ask the question why director Bryan Singer jumped ship from the X-Men franchise to Superman Returns but it doesn’t really matter since anything resembling the quality and the originality of his smash hit The Usual Suspects isn’t anywhere on the horizon. It’s little wonder what John Woo will do with his remake of Masters Of The Universe, you just have to look at Mission: Impossible 2 or Face Off to get the general idea. And then you have to ask what the worth is in remaking the much heralded classic The Wild Bunch for a new audience. Are we missing the point of what cinema is about, or has the industry simply gone along with the times, changing like the cultures that have embraced it?

Yes Hollywood has been doing it for years – the literary adaptation is no new fangled idea of course – but at least there was still a sense of quality, of characterisation, of vitality. Take music for example – The Byrds ‘Tambourine Man’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ – they’re all cover versions of previous songs but in many ways improve upon the originals. In the movie business, Hollywood’s latest output reaches the sorts of heights Ronan Keating’s ‘Fairytale Of New York’ cover climbed – it’s worth very little, it’s purpose nothing more than musical rape. In any case, would anyone deny The Big Sleep any plaudits because it was originally a novel – no. Nowadays, the book, the novella, the comic, the graphic novel and probably kids’ pop-up’s are just a scapegoat for a lack of ideas. Where’s that spark of creative brilliance that will stop cinemagoers in their tracks? Let’s see more books based on movies because the movies themselves and the writers of those movies had the ideas in the first place. I don’t read any of the Alien comic books or novels but I rest easy knowing Ridley Scott gave us something unique and groundbreaking, and that it first appeared through an anamorphic Panavision lens on 35mm Kodak film.

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Without dwelling on psychoanalytical introspection, I’m sure all elements of creativity are based on some form of past events shaping the creator’s ideas and therefore, recognising elements of other films within new works is going to occur, but today it’s a frigid reoccurrence and infuriatingly common. On the one hand we have Wes Craven’s Scream, which you’d be forgiven for thinking borrowed far too heavily from a whole host of films preceding it. But I’d argue that it merely draws attention to its roots – a homage to early slasher films – showing a whole new generation how fun it was to have a good scare at the cinema. Essentially, opening the door for the genre to blossom once again. Writer Kevin Williamson infused it with pop-culture references and used post-modern tactics to give life to a genre of films believed to be dead. Here Hollywood was recycling in principle, but at least some hearty breaths of fresh air were still prevailing. Then what finds its way to my desk but a review copy of Bad News Bears, a remake of the Walter Matthau fronted 1978 original, this time with Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role. Basically, it’s a like for like remake but what really disappoints (disregarding the worth in remaking it in the first place) is the fact the new version makes no attempt to improve upon the flaws of the 1978 film, merely duplicating the same things that were wrong in the first place. It’s like someone who can’t be bothered to write their school essay, going on the internet copying one that was originally graded an ‘F’, and handing it in thinking how clever they have been. 2005’s Bad News Bears stinks of laziness on the part of talented filmmaker Richard Linklater; jumping on the remake bandwagon to make a buck. Just because we’re recycling glass bottles to save the earth, doesn’t mean Hollywood’s idea machine has to follow suit.

At the end of the day is it a bad thing since we clearly like our fit of sequels and remakes – I certainly can’t deny I enjoyed Tim Burton’s version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Scary Movie 3 was a great improvement over the terrible first sequel. Yet the ‘awe’ factor is diminished with this constant recycling of ideas. Peter Jackson had the best of intentions with his King Kong remake but the predictable Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has little effect on audiences compared to what they felt when they first saw Kong in 1933. Personally, animatronics, stop-motion, models and costume work are so much more appealing than watching what amount to computer games being played for us by the director. In many respects, the lack of CGI in James Cameron’s The Terminator from 1984, is one of the reasons it’s a better film than its sequel. Like the films themselves, such CGI is just recycled computer code patched into whatever generic narrative and clichd plot some Hollywood big-shot comes up with. Hollywood won’t disappear like the signal in Independence Day but like Jeff Goldblum says in the film, it’s reducing itself every time it recycles and in doing so big studio product is becoming less and less attractive.

I wrote this article for the BBC in 2006. Nearly a decade on it still feels very relevant.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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