Two of the most telling recent artifacts from Hollywood include a trailer for the latest Star Wars film (“Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) and a news report describing a possible Warner Bros. remake of the 1984 Joe Dante-directed, Steven Spielberg-produced “Gremlins.” Sequels and reboots are pretty much what Hollywood is about these days, and these two April surprises show the range of what’s available: The Star Wars trailer looks great – especially the part where a graying Han Solo and a moaning Chewbacca show up at the end – and makes us wonder if director J.J. Abrams might recapture the magic of the first three films. And the “Gremlins” news is hard to take without getting a bit queasy: With all the scripts circulating in Hollywood, is there really someone – and a major studio – who thinks that the world needs a new “Gremlins?”
Apparently director Chris Columbus is talking about a likely Gremlins movie at CinemaCon in Vegas, telling HitFix that he’s inspired by Abrams’s ability to connect with the past and these properties’ original audiences. (“When you're in a room with writer, director and producer Chris Columbus, it's almost impossible not to ask about the developing reboots of two of his most beloved projects: 1984's ‘Gremlins’ and 1985's ‘The Goonies.’ So I did!”)
Vulture wrote about the possibility of a new “Gremlins” in 2013, reporting that “negotiations of this sort have happened several times over the years, but making Spielberg’s deal always proved too daunting a financial prospect.” So people gave spent years trying to make this “Gremlins” thing happen?
It’s hard to damn all reboots: The Abrams “Star Trek” films have certainly proved it’s possible to revive what seems like a dead property. And while sequels don’t inspire confidence (despite the enormous earnings for the “Fast and Furious” franchise), at least one of them – “Godfather II” – is surely one of the greatest films in history. That almost makes up for “The Phantom Menace.”
But reboots and the like are a pop-will-eat-itself process: At a certain point there will be nothing left. And we may be getting there sooner than we think. We’ve already had a “Tron” remake and a “21 Jump Street” franchise, and sequels of movies based on theme-park rides. And now we’re talking about “Gremlins.” What’s next – a rethinking of “Howard the Duck?” A new “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with Jonah Hill in the lead? A second try at some of the big, bloated Hollywood flops – a rebooted “Waterworld” or “Show Girls?” We’ve had six "Rocky" movies (with “Creed” on its way) – can we get Survivor back together to do the soundtrack for a reboot and have Shia LaBeouf beat up an Iraqi terrorist? And if the 21st century has shown us anything, it’s that nothing is beyond the reach of James Franco.
So, how did we get here? The cultural style sometimes called postmodernism, with its mix of recycling and pastiche and packaged nostalgia, really hit its stride in the ‘80s. (Esquire ran a perceptive story by Tom Shales, “The Re Decade,” in 1986.) It was a decade not only of corporate action movies and multiple sequels, but of the emergence of massive amounts of sampling in hip hop and a process by which fashion (besides the shoulder pads) seemed mostly to pull from previous eras, especially rockabilly and the psychedelic period. Could it be a coincidence that so many rebooted properties seem to overlap with the Reagan years? Maybe.
But much of what’s happened lately to make this the era of sequels and reboots has specifically 21st century roots.
Not long ago A.O. Scott wrote about the cultural causes of countless remaking and reframing of comic books and superhero material: “In my main line of work as a film critic,” he wrote in the New York Times, “I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.”
The major cause, though, is economic: The polarizing of film releases into big corporate spectacles on one hand and tiny micro-funded indies means that the big movies are so large the studios try to limit risk by using existing properties. And the expansion of the film audience into an international market – heavy on Russia and China and IMAX theaters – means that almost every movie is now a major corporate investment. “They can’t write, ‘I love this movie,’ on it,” producer Lynda Obst told me when her book “Sleepless in Hollywood” came out. “That’s not the way it works. These days, when every call is a $250 million call, they don’t want to hear, ‘I believe in this movie’ They want to hear, 'This will work in the international market, because…'" Much of the casting is designed to make a movie enormous with teenage Russian and China audiences. “They don’t want writing or nuance,” Obst says. “They don’t want our jokes; they want jokes that are specific to their own cultures.” They want “pre-awareness” – to already know a story or characters from a comic book or a theme park or a movie they saw last year.
Finally, a sequel or reboot, whatever its roots in the past, only gets made if people with money think it speaks to the present and its audience. That’s where it makes sense to think back to "Gremlins" for a second.
"Gremlins," let’s remember, was about nasty little creatures that attack the characters, sometimes with chainsaws and spear guns, in a classic Spielberg-ish small American town. The film, in Vincent Canby’s words, is “funniest when being most nasty.” Actually, now it’s starting to make sense as a film for the 2010s after all.