The best remakes of all time
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The best remakes of all time

Luca Fontana
Zurich, on 12.08.2020
Remakes have a questionable reputation. And rightly so. They’re mostly rubbish. And yet, there are remakes out there that are better than the original.

In the history of movies, remakes of existing films haven’t had it easy. This is often because remakes are made for the wrong reasons.

To make money? That’s not it. Making money is part of our economy. Keeps it running. Allows us to bring home the bacon and pay our bills. No, the problem here is the lack of imagination. A lack of imagination paired with the increasingly high financial risk of a box-office bomb. After all, the competition in and around cinemas is growing. These days, it’s almost only big blockbuster events with huge marketing campaigns that get attention.

*«Mulan»** will be exclusive to Disney+: the end of cinema?
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«Mulan» will be exclusive to Disney+: the end of cinema?

That's why major Hollywood productions are becoming more and more complex and expensive. But the higher the costs, the higher the risk. And the louder the competition, the fiercer the wooing for moviegoers. What has Hollywood learned from this? That remakes and sequels are successful because viewers already know and appreciate the «brand». «Jurassic World» doesn’t require any explanation. «Jupiter Ascending» does.

The consequence: Hollywood doesn’t do remakes to improve the original, but to avoid the much higher risk that comes with a new brand. At least that’s mostly the case. Because they do exist. Those remakes that actually outshine the original thanks to the right people in the right positions who pushed the right buttons in Hollywood.

In 5th place: Ocean's Eleven

The year is 1960. The Rat Pack, a gang of musicians headed by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, is one of the hottest things the 1960s have to offer. Hollywood wants in on this. They strive to deliver something that will do the wild performances, world-famous songs, alcohol excesses and jokes justice. Such as a hustler comedy, for example.

Voilà: «Ocean’s 11».

Fast forward 41 years. Steven Soderbergh does the remake that’s destined to surpass the original: «Ocean’s Eleven». After all, the first «Ocean’s 11» isn’t a good movie. It’s more of an excuse to bring the Rat Pack to the big screen. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is a perfectionist. He sets out to put together a top-class cast that’s on par with the Rat Pack and finds George Clooney and Brad Pitt. He replaces the dry, almost boring original with humour, clever camera angles and a visual style with a nimble groove to it – like an improvised jazz song.

But the premise remains the same: a group of crooks simultaneously rob several casinos in Las Vegas. Only that the robbery itself is no longer a straightforward «smash and grab job» like in the original.

Cinema release: 7 December 2001
Total gross: $450.7 million

In 4th place: King Kong

Back in 1933, moviegoers in the US are amazed. A massive monkey, which also happens to be the first monster in movie history not based on literature, kidnaps a woman, drags her through the jungle of an island shrouded in legend, protects her from dinosaurs and monsters but crushes dozens of people who try to save her.

According to its makers, «King Kong» is a milestone in the history of cinema. Remember that the world at the time was still unfamiliar with special effects and film scores.

Since then, there have always been remakes. Some good, some bad. But it’s director Peter Jackson who nails a new interpretation of an old movie back in 2005. For him, it was a childhood dream he was only able to make true after his success with «Lord of the Rings».

And it shows in every shot that he had his heart in the «King Kong» project. Some of those shots are a carbon copy of the original.

In fact, Jackson's «King Kong» is both a super scary tribute as well as a meaningful extension of the original. Especially when it comes to the weird and wonderful yet touching relationship between Ann Darrow, the «white woman» and Kong, the monkey.

James Newton Howard's terrific film music and great actors, including Jack Black, Naomi Watts or Andy Serkis as Kong, make us all wish for a happy ending right the way through – fully knowing that it’s not going to happen.

Cinema release: 14 December 2005
Total gross: $562.4 million

In 3rd place: Scarface

There was already a «Scarface» before Brian De Palma's legendary «Scarface». The film was released in 1932, is set in 1920s Chicago and is about Tony «Scarface» Camonte. He works as a bodyguard and contract killer for mafia boss Louis Costillo, who wants to become top dog of Chicago’s mob during the prohibition. During the course of the movie, Tony works his way up to gangster-boss level and briefly lives the high life before the police catch and shoot him.

In 1983, director De Palma sets the story in Miami at that time. A time in which Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has just opened the ports to the US in an attempt to reunite Cuban and American family members. The story is of an ex-convict who travels from Cuba to Miami. The man is impoverished Antonio «Tony» Montana.

Like in the original, it’s a rags to riches story for Tony. But instead of alcohol, this movie’s about cocaine trafficking; instead of becoming a mobster, Tony turns into a drug lord. The main difference, however, lies in the undertone of the film. While the original depicts violence as the greatest evil, 1983's «Scarface» downright glorifies it.

Nevertheless, the film is great and made Al Pacino an international star. What’s more, the topic was hotter than the world could have anticipated. Because in 1983, the same time the movie hit theatres and viewers sympathised with Tony Montana, there was a real-life impoverished former smuggler who was dealing cocaine on an unfathomable scale. And that's not all. We’re talking about a scale that’s hard to grasp today. Even decades later, historians are puzzled by it.

Ever heard of Pablo Escobar?

Cinema release: 9 December 1983
Total gross: $66.02 million

In 2nd place: The Thing

«The Thing» is deemed one of the best and creepiest horror movies of all time. But this wasn’t always the case. Rewind to 1982 and John Carpenter is one of the world’s hottest horror directors. Movies including «Halloween» or «Escape from New York» have his name on it.

When «The Thing» is released featuring a young Kurt Russell, it’s not an immediate success. It’s deemed too brutal. A horror movie. Go figure. But to be honest, I kind of get it.

Not that I’d classify the film as too brutal, not even by horror movie standards. But jeez, this movie is hard to digest – which speaks for the outstanding special effects that totally outshine any CGI by a long mile. Indeed, director John Carpenter considers the film one of his best creations: «This is my favourite movie; yes, I showed true horror.»

What many people don't know: «The Thing» is a remake of the 1951 flick «Who Goes There?», which in turn is a literary film adaptation of the Sci-Fi novel of the same name published in 1948.

The black and white movie from back in the day isn’t particularly scary. It’s about an American research station in the Antarctic, which is infected by an alien virus. The virus turns people into monsters and makes them change shape. While the 1951 version reveals the identity of the alien far too early, Carpenter's «The Thing» waits until the end. This creates a paranoid environment in which nobody knows who can be trusted.

Fun fact: the soundtrack is by Ennio Morricone. Originally, Carpenter wanted to write the music himself, as it’s something he enjoys. Morricone didn't really get why he should write the score when Carpenter was good at it, too. That’s why he ended up writing a Carpenter-esque score.

Cinema release: 25 June 1982
Total gross: $19.6 million

In 1st place: Ben-Hur

First place can't go to any other movie but the one that won the same record number of Oscars as «Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King». A grand total of eleven golden statues went to: «Ben-Hur».

The story of Judah Ben-Hur has been turned into a movie so many times that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a story from the Bible.

Like me, for example.

When I was a kid.

But in actual fact, it was written by US-American author Lew Wallace, who wrote it back in 1880 after he had served as a general in the American Civil War.

But the first really sensational film adaptation was only made in 1925 by MGM. It was a silent movie. And the way this silent film was advertised at the time, I would’ve been first in line to see it.

By 1925 standards, the film was groundbreaking: thrilling, romantic, action-packed and much more opulent than anyone could have imagined a movie could be. Keep in mind that movies were still a very young medium. The naval battle alone raised the bar. And during the chariot race, numerous Hollywood greats made brief cameo appearances as members of the audience.

It was also MGM that brought the remake to cinemas in 1959 together with the director William Wyler – and a certain Sergio Leone as assistant director. And the studio pulled out all the stops: 50 000 for extras, over a million props and 40 000 tons of Mediterranean sand.

The production budget was over 15 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this is 135 million dollars. Wow. To add another layer to this, Charlton Charles Heston, a megastar, played the leading role. And the chariot race still has it. Even compared to today's movies.

Ironically, MGM considered its very own original version to be competitive. Even too competitive. That’s why the studio tried to seek out and destroy all remaining copies of the 1925 version of «Ben-Hur». They didn’t manage.

Cinema release: 18 November 1959
Total gross: $74.4 million

There are so many more remakes that should have made this list. One of them only shows the downward facing mouth of a grumpy but righteous man. The whole thing takes place in a post-apocalyptic world.

Any idea which movie I’m talking about?

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Luca Fontana
Luca Fontana

Editor, Zurich

I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»

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