Even the most complimentary reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens mention that the movie is for all intents and purposes a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Critics who loved the film tended to refer to the fact that it’s a remake as an aside; critics who disliked the film based their entire reviews around it. This is not automatically a strike against Force so much as a reality of moviemaking today.
Critics who want to complain about an overabundance of digital effects, or a reboot of a series that was itself rebooted less than ten years before, or a lack of new ideas, are never hurting for subject matter. And that perennial human refrain — “things are only going to get worse!” — seems to be true when it comes to movies. While every year brings a handful of memorable, original movies, it seems that the vast majority of films are turning themselves over to market-tested blandness, four-quadrant global blockbusters that have had all the voice sucked out of them. We’re seeing fewer truly terrible films every year, but mediocrity is on the rise, and we’re also seeing fewer truly surprising films. Who knows what the future of Hollywood will hold?
Twenty years ago, Connie Willis published a sci-fi novel titled Remake that imagined life in Hollywood in the future. Like pretty much all science fiction, Willis’s predictions turned out to be a mixed bag. Some of the predictions seem weirdly out-of-date two decades later, but others seem incredibly prescient.
The Hollywood of Remake is pretty much the modern film critic’s worst nightmare. Films are entirely made digitally, with no human actors at all. In fact, there are no actors anymore, or screenwriters, or directors. The big studios have digitized all the classic actors and now they insert Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood into an endless cycle of remakes. People don’t want to watch anything new, they just want the same classic elements slightly remixed to provide a whiff of novelty for atmosphere’s sake. (The most scathing reviews of Force pretty much make this exact argument.) There are problems with this setup: occasionally, an actor’s estate will argue with studios and entire filmographies will disappear from public consumption while lawsuits are settled, for instance. But in the end, the Hollywood cycle continues unabated: rich people do drugs, poor people prostitute themselves, and studios keep buying each other in an eternal game of cannibalism.
Our protagonist, Tom, is a manipulator of digital video. He’s good at his job, but he genuinely loves the movies and so he hates his job. Lately, he’s been tasked with removing all references to alcohol from classic films in order to match them to modern public health accords. It kills him a little every time he replaces the wine glass in a long-dead actor’s hand with a hot mug of tea, but he keeps himself numb most of the time, and, as the saying goes, it’s a living.
One day, Tom meets Alis, an aspiring dancer. She wants to dance in the movies. Tom, smitten, says he can do that no problem; he’ll just slap Alis’s face on Ginger Rogers, and all of a sudden she’s dancing with Fred Astaire. That’s not good enough for Alis. She wants to physically dance in the movies, not be virtually inserted into a classic. Tom can’t help her with that. Nobody makes movies anymore.
Willis constructed Remake as an homage to filmmaking. Each chapter begins with a snippet of dialogue from a classic film, or a series of film cliches that set the scene, or a camera direction. The only metaphors Tom is comfortable using are film metaphors; he’s never warily inserting himself into danger for the greater good, he’s Humphrey Bogart climbing down into the leech-infested swamp in the African Queen. In this way, Tom is a perfect citizen of this world he hates, the moviemaking culture that only understands and references other movies — never books, or plays, or visual art. It's a closed loop, an insular system that is only about the creation of movies for the sake of creating movies. It’s kind of like what the inside of Michael Bay’s head must look like.
It must be said that Remake is a relatively minor effort from Willis. Those looking for her best should turn to Doomsday Book, or To Say Nothing of the Dog, or the Blackout/All Clear dulology. Remake has the feel of a short story that got a little too bloated, and the central mystery of the story doesn’t find a conclusion that suits the greater themes of the work. But for certain people — book-lovers who adore movies, say, or anyone interested in what the culmination of remix culture might look like — Remake is a fascinating survey of the decline and fall of a culture where art is made by committee and billions of dollars are at stake.
While the specifics of her predictions were mixed, it must be said that twenty years ago Willis sketched the arc of Hollywood's artistic decline with astonishing accuracy. Is this world where people pay to make Clint Eastwood dance like a little puppet, where Casablanca has a choose-your-own-adventure ending, really that much different than a world where actors sign nine-film contracts to play comic book heroes in a series of never-ending blockbusters? Sure, the specifics are wrong, but the tone is exactly perfect.
Maybe somebody should remake Remake and crank the absurdity up to 2015 levels, dropping in references to modern intellectual properties, scenes set in China for no reason other than global box office revenue, and movie blogs that chew every casting decision to death like a pack of starving hyenas. I’d read the hell out of that book. Maybe it should be called Reboot.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant