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RoboCop and Total Recall Show the Perils of Remaking Good Movies

By Daniel B. Kline – Feb 18, 2014 at 11:50AM

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Hollywood loves its remakes, but remaking well-liked films that haven't become dated seems like a recipe for failure.

Let the "RoboFlop" jokes fly -- MGM and Sony's (SNY 0.78%) Columbia Pictures remake of 1987's "RoboCop" looks to be a dud at the United States box office. The film, which cost a reported $100 million to make, opened in third place domestically, taking in $21 million over its first weekend, according to Deadline.com.

The release of the updated "RoboCop" follows 2012's box office failure "Total Recall," which shows that American audiences aren't overly interested in remakes of sci-fi films from the near-past that still hold up relatively well. Why pay theater prices for a slightly shinier RoboCop, when the original can be seen on Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) for essentially free?

The remakes aren't very good

The first "Total Recall" was funny, daring, and felt like something special. Critics did not feel the same way about last year's remake.

"Since the new 'Recall' is totally witless, don't expect laughs. Originality and coherence are also notably MIA," Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote. "This 'Total Recall' will make you feel robbed as well. It's two hours you'll never get back and every minute is a bad memory."

According to Rotten Tomatoes, a website that tracks critic and audience opinion of movies, only 30% of critics gave the remake a positive review. The original was liked by 84% of critics, according to the site.

Travers was equally dismissive of the new "RoboCop," writing, "This Robo-reboot tries fiercely to update the satirical punch and stylistic perversity Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original. It's a futile gesture."

"RoboCop" had a similar Rotten Tomatoes disparity with 49% of critics liking the 2014 version while 88% enjoyed the original.

Stop remaking good movies

If you consider the sci-fi/fantasy remakes that have worked in recent years -- the obvious examples are 2009's "Star Trek," (from Viacom's (NASDAQ: VIA) Paramount Pictures), which took in $257 million in domestic box office, and 2010's "Clash of the Titans" (from Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Bros., which made $163 million in the U.S. -- is that the originals, while beloved, weren't very good. "Star Trek," which rebooted the brand more than specifically remaking a movie, updated a series that was famous for being a little hammy and overacted. "Titans," a direct remake, updated a film with cheesy special effects and a laughably bad robot owl as a key figure.

It's easy to improve upon something that was well-liked but not very good in the first place (well, not easy if you've seen the "Dark Shadows" remake, but at least possible). Another example is the television "Battlestar Galactica" reboot  -- arguably the best sci-fi series of all time -- which was based on a TV show with '70s production values and terrible special effects.

You can update a good story that connects with people by giving it a modern spin and up-to-date effects. But taking movies that have aged as well as "Total Recall" and "RoboCop" and remaking them with better effects but way less charm gives you a shinier package with rotten insides that nobody wants to see.

Why are so many remakes made?

Hollywood loves a sure thing. Even though history shows us that remakes are in no way a sure thing, working on a reboot of a known quantity seems especially alluring to studio heads. Essentially, if something worked once, why wouldn't it work again?

"Studios are comfortable with titles that already have built-in brand recognition. However, that doesn't mean that everything should get a remake," Deadline.com's Anita Busch told the Fool via email.  "There have been some wonderful remakes like 'A Star Is Born,' 'Heaven Can Wait,' 'La Cage Aux Folles' (made into 'The Birdcage'), '3:10 To Yuma,' 'Superman,' and some that were remade badly like 'The Wizard of Oz' (made into 'The Wiz'), 'Sabrina,' 'Fame,' 'Psycho,' 'The Lone Ranger,' and 'Carrie.' On paper, often it looks good but it doesn't mean it will be executed properly."

Busch, who covers the film industry for Deadline.com, also believes that some films should be untouchable.

"There are some that you also hope will never be remade and can't even imagine it, like 'To Kill A Mockingbird' or 'North By Northwest,'" she wrote.

Foreign box office is huge

Part of the reason sci-fi films get remade so quickly now is international box office has become as important -- if not more important -- than domestic grosses. Sci-fi and action films, which don't rely on dialogue, do better globally than word-dependent comedies.

"RoboCop" will be a huge money loser in the U.S., but it's doing much better in the rest of the world. Busch wrote on Deadline.com that the film would take "the No. 1 spot in 15 out of 24 markets that it opened in this weekend." She predicted that the movie would gross $200 million internationally. Take that $200 million, add perhaps $60 million in the U.S., and divide by half (a very rough example of the cut theaters take) and the movie, which cost $100 million to make, will bring in around $130 million. Of course, when you add in marketing costs, it's still a money loser. But without the international grosses, the film would be an epic bomb, instead of a minor failure.

Will Hollywood ever learn?

Maybe.

The list of upcoming remakes includes 1994's "The Crow," a film more famous because Brandon Lee died while making it than because it was good, and 1997's "Starship Troopers," which botched a book by sci-fi master Robert Heinlein. These films, which are both only in the development stage, according to IMDB, are perfect remake candidates as both titles have audience goodwill, but they weren't actually good. 

Of course, Hollywood never entirely learns anything as a remake of the well-liked (and very good) "War Games" from 1983 is also planned.

It seems that even though remaking a past hit does not guarantee future success, movie studios can't resist the lure of what seems like easy money.

Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Netflix. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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