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03.18.10

The '80s, Part II

We're about to live through one of the worst filmmaking decades all over again. Gina Piccalo on the coming invasion of worn plotlines and recycled movie franchises.

The 1980s were arguably one of the worst eras in film, when every year brought another Porky's or Police Academy, when Look Who's Talking was a bona fide blockbuster, when hilarity ensued with every inter-racial cop duo, every country-meets-city plot, and every fast-talking career gal brought down a peg by some manly man.

It was the dawn of the senseless sequel and the coming-of-age of movie merchandising, when the gonzo filmmaking of the 1970s gave way to unadulterated greed. With the exception of some rare gems from the likes of John Hughes, Terry Gilliam, and yes, Steven Spielberg, it's an entire decade of filmmaking worth forgetting.

Generation X is now middle-aged and ready to revisit its formative years. Or so studio marketers hope.

If only Hollywood would let us. This year alone, there are at least eight films hitting theaters that are remakes of 1980s movies: The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, Tron Legacy, Conan, Predators, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. There will be more next year with retreads (or, as some producers would have it, "re-imaginings") of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi hit Total Recall and of the 1982 remake (of the 1951 original) The Thing. By 2012, we'll likely see Lethal Weapon 5, Battleship, based on Milton Bradley's popular board game, another Muppet Movie, and maybe even a 21 Jump Street rehash starring Jonah Hill.

Then there are brand-new films with plots so stale they feel as if they've been unearthed from some jaundiced Reagan-era slush pile. Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Cop Out, and this week's The Bounty Hunter remind us that there's no expiration date on these old log lines: Fish-out-of-water Manhattanites milk cows, play rodeo clowns, save marriage! Salty white cop and goofy black cop trade one-liners, bumble their way into outrageous mishaps! Sassy girl reporter and ex-cop ex-husband trade sexy barbs, out-run bad guys, fall back in love!

Surely nostalgia is largely to blame for all this recycling. Generation X is now middle-aged and ready to revisit its formative years. Or so studio marketers hope. They're raising their own kids now, who—if this sales strategy is still credible—will eagerly consume their parents' preoccupations.

In the 1980s, it was the baby boomers' mid-century childhoods showing up in films like Diner, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Porky's, and even to some extent movies like Big and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Now, today's aging writers, producers, and directors are finding new life in canned romantic comedies, dusty stereotypes, and even outrageous teen sex romps like last year's Sex Drive.

Note Jennifer Aniston's reference to a 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin action-comedy, for instance, when she explains in a taped interview filmed for the studio why she chose to star in Bounty Hunter: "I loved the romance, the suspense, the action of it all, the kind of Midnight Run element it had to it." And then there's director Kevin Smith praising the Cop Out script because it was "exactly the kind of movie my dad would've taken me to see when I was 13."

Movie academics often have a reflexive answer to the remake phenomenon: It's the nature of the narrative! Human beings respond to certain archetypes. Or as one UCLA film professor put it, "These are all stock situations that are closer to 2,000 years old rather than 30." Which raises the obvious point: Maybe it's time to retire some of these tropes.

Leonard Maltin, a critic, says, "It's dispiriting. It's clear these are commercial products. They're not born of a passion for storytelling or desire to scale new heights. They're items of commerce."

It would be tough to find a studio executive who would dispute that point. Or even find fault with it. "Why do they do that?" asks veteran movie publicist Tony Angellotti, who has been an Oscar campaign consultant with Universal Pictures, Walt Disney, and Miramax Films. "They do it because the brand is there. It's just easier to sell the concept."

Which explains why three of this year's remakes have already been recycled so many times—four for The Karate Kid, four for Predator and eight for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Columbia Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and New Line Cinema deserve some sort of recognition for sheer tenacity if nothing else.

Naturally, that doesn't mean any of these films are guaranteed moneymakers. The most recent Karate Kid remake, in 1994, starring then-unknown Hilary Swank, earned just under $9 million. Though Disney's nostalgic re-boot of a theme-park ride with Pirates of the Caribbean earned $1 billion in worldwide box office, The Haunted Mansion bombed. Cop Out was savaged by critics and just barely earned back its $30 million budget. The Bounty Hunter has a better shot, thanks in large part to Aniston's presence.

"The joke, of course, is sometimes it has no benefit," says Angellotti. "You find some of the freshest ideas, The Hangover, for instance, are the most successful. It really is a crapshoot in every single way."

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More, and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.