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Mini-Rant: “Reboot” is a disingenuous misnomer.

Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

I HATE the term “reboot.” Hate it.

Everything is being rebooted these days. The 90210 TV series. The Spider-man movie franchise. Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The Batman franchise.

While there are described differences between remakes and reboots, these seem largely nuanced and semantic. Essentially, a reboot is when the franchise is started again from the ground up – former cinematic plot lines are eschewed and possibly any non-canonical characters. Thus, the franchise is ‘reboot’ and starts fresh without having to work new plot developments in around what’s happened before.

It can be effective when the previous version becomes to cluttered and confusing, but it often seems unnecessary in an industry where hundreds of thousands of original screenplays are trashed each year without being read. And how many great books can you think of that have never been made into a movie? You would think that A Confederacy of Dunces was akin to Don Quixote in how seemingly impossible it has been to push past the pre-production stage. (Good news is that a version is back on the slate, starring Zach Galifianakis).

Reboots often are more loyal to the source material than the original film adaptation. However, this does not always a better film make. Exhibit A: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory vs. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Charlie was more faithful to the book, yet more people seemed to think Willy Wonka is the superior film.

Of course, rebooted franchises can often be greeted with critical and box office acclaim. The Amazing Spider-man (Webb, Garfield & Stone) was closer to the source material (i.e. comics) than Spider-man (Raimi, Maguire & Dunst). However, in this case, the newer incarnation has been reviewed highly, and the disparity in ratings between the films is less than in the Chocolate Factory movies.

I hate to be a cynic, but production companies really love capitalizing on nostalgia. Has every Hasbro toy and Parker Bros. board game been made into a movie? Just how will a Tetris movie even work? (It probably won’t, I saw the trailer for Battleship). Preying off our nostalgic yearnings is a somewhat questionable activity.

Comic Phyllis Diller (Rest in Peace, dear lady) said on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1986 that setup string jokes are highly time-economical. You set up the premise (“Your dog’s so dumb that…”) and then the strings follow in a 1-2 punch (“She barks at her shadow. She chews on her own leg when she wants a bone. She licks her own butt” etc).

Production companies follow this same calculus in that they don’t have to introduce the premise to us. We get that Nightmare on Elm Street is a guy with a striped sweater with knives on his hands. We know that a Chocolate Factory film is going to be based on the Roald Dahl novel and star an eccentric chocolatier. No one needs to explain to us that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to be about a teenage girl fighting the un-dead denizens of the dark. With us in the know, less money needs to be spent on marketing; the concept is already part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Also, with the recent backlash against remakes, production companies can slyly insinuate that this new film is superior to a paltry remake because this is a reboot! The ego smog that is emitted from everyone who thinks they can do it better is simply stifling.

While differences (small, sometimes imperctible ones) may exist between remakes and reboots, the end result is still the same. Hollywood is trying to shove the same, recycled material down our throat while minimizing original ideas. Remember that when you purchase movie tickets or rent DVDs that you are voting with your dollars. Here’s to hoping we’ll have some original screenplays in 2013 (c’mon, Charlie Kaufman, where ya been?).

Let’s not even discuss re-imaginings!

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About filmbouillabaisse

I love balance and equilibrium. I shrink from all views/methods extremist, obsessive, and militant. Except when it comes to cinema.

4 responses to “Mini-Rant: “Reboot” is a disingenuous misnomer.

  1. L. Palmer

    I think the Phyllis Diller quote sums up the purpose clearly. From a business perspective, if you’ve already got a brand, all you have to say is the name, and people know what you’re talking about. It’s an easy pitch. A new brand is more likely to fail.
    That being said, it’s exhilarating when something original succeeds i.e. Inception, Star Wars when it originally came out. If only Hollywood would take intelligent risks.
    As a side note, I do enjoy the well-done reboots, remakes, and sequels. There’s something to be said about a good popcorn movie.

    • Thanks so much for your reply. I’ve been enjoying your blog today! Anyway, I like your last thoughts – I think it’s good that we look to the intrinsic value of a film and not be snobby for snobby sake and you’ve posited that thought well.

  2. James ⋅

    I was torn a bit by your poll. I think the term does have some legitimacy (so I voted for the top option), but also think you make some excellent points about studios being lazy and capitalising on back-knowledge and nostalgia.

    It\’s arguably a resurfacing of an old-school practice. In the black-and-white days many films seemed to have multiple versions in a short span of time. Sometimes the originals were not very good, but not always. How do you feel about Gaslight ( http://www.imdb.com/find?q=gaslight&s=tt )? If you don\’t think the 1940 version is good, the 1944 version could be classified as a reboot. On the other hand the 1940 version is foreign (if not foreign language) so it could merely be an indication of another trend we see a lot today: American remakes.

    • I think the Gaslight example is a remake. Remakes are nothing new; there was no dearth in the Classic Era. See Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, even Scarface as examples. A Star is Born as well. It’s probably easy to call Gaslight ’44 a reboot since its production was so proximate in time to Gaslight ’40 but I think it’s more akin to a remake. The characters and premise all stayed the same as well as 80% of the dialogue – this is inherently to me more of a remake. (I don’t think you could call a new version of Romeo & Juliet a reboot unless you were fundamentally changing the story, for instance).

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