The Sunday Magazine: How to Turn the Past into the Future

When it comes to anything artistic I tend to approach anything which is a remake with skepticism. I think it comes from my high school days when we did a production of MASH in 1975 for the Drama Club. It was one of those magical personal moments for me as the group of people doing this play bonded in ways that have lasted in some cases to the present day. After we all graduated I heard not even five years after we did it they were doing MASH again. Those people were trying to recapture the camaraderie we all felt. I am pretty sure they didn’t. Magic moments are just that; because they can’t be manufactured on one’s whim.

This is also true with remakes or sequels of movies. The reason these projects get approved is because of the magic that happened on screen. I think movie studios know how rare it is but they just can’t keep from trying to put all the same ingredients up there and hope for something special. Most of the time it fails. Except 2015 has three amazing examples of when lightning does strike twice and three of my favorite movie going experiences of 2015 are sequels nearly forty years on after their inspirations. Those movies are Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars The Force Awakens. Each has a lesson on how not to remake but to reimagine the stories being told.

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Mad Max: Fury Road brought back the director of the original Mad Max, as well as both sequels, George Miller. Mr. Miller had become a maker of family movies in two different series, “Babe” and “Happy Feet”. The original Mad Max movies were his first movies and those had the hallmarks of a director with nothing to lose in doing something different. Those movies carried with them what I called a “casual anarchy” that I thought only a hungry young man could effectively elicit on screen. Fury Road carried that same “casual anarchy” throughout and it is what ties all of the movies together. What sets it apart is the character of Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron. This is a character that only comes with that nearly forty years of time. Furiosa is a seeker of the Paradise she was removed from as a child still out there in the wasted rest of the world. The journey along the road beset by those trying to keep that from happening is pure “casual anarchy”. The cathartic moment which leads to the final act of the movie is heart-wrenching and unique in the series.

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Creed should also be titled Rocky VII. It was the original Rocky in 1976 which was made by Sylvester Stallone on a $1 million budget which spawned the new template for sports movies where winning the match isn’t everything. Creed takes everything which made Rocky work and spin it around. The illegitimate son of Rocky’s opponent in that first movie turns to Rocky to train him. Once they start to work towards the climactic fight there are similarities but again it comes down to a single performance which makes Creed so good. It is Michael B. Jordan as Donnie Johnson. He has become a successful business man when he walks away to try and become a professional boxer. This is not the story of a man who needs the fight to make his life. This is the story of a man who needs the fight to complete his life. Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky for the seventh time is the best he has been since the original. There is a moment in the movie when Donnie and Rocky find themselves at the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a moment of joy that left me sobbing.

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I’ve already written a lot on Star Wars The Force Awakens but for the purposes of my thesis here the choice of cast is what makes this so successful. Yes the plot is a remix of many of the beats from the original trilogy. The characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are not. The first female starring heroine, the first black hero, and the first latino hero in the galaxy far, far away. What struck me about Star Wars now is it has the power to allow any child to dream and see themselves up on the screen. I goth the biggest kick after walking out of a recent screening watching a young girl holding her 3-D glasses like a lightsaber saying, “I’m a Jedi.”

The point I want to make here was each filmmaker created a singular character or characters for each of these remakes which made them feel different enough to not feel like we were watching the same thing all over again. Ms. Theron, Mr. Jordan, Ms. Ridley, Mr. Boyega, and Mr. Isaac have brought these characters so much to life that each of these movies feels like the beginning instead of the end. When looking to the past makes something relevant for the future.

Mark Behnke

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