Yikes, the women's clothes in 1980s films were huge. I mean, shirts the size of bedsheets, shoulders as wide as barn doors, earrings like lily pads. Even Demi Moore is swaddled like one of those Prairie-dress-wearing polygamous women. But let me back up.
About last weekend. A trio of remakes of eighties movies debuted: Endless Love, RoboCop and About Last Night. So I decided to watch the new films alongside their originals, to see what had changed – both in the stories themselves, and in what they revealed about their respective eras. After all, I thought, there must be a reason these particular films are being re-examined now. It can't be simply that Hollywood is filled with minions who sift busily through old releases and recommend a revamp for anything that was successful 30 years ago, in the cynical belief that (a) the new generation will be ignorant of the original and (b) hey, if it sold once, it'll sell again.
Besides lamenting that I spent my (effortlessly thin) 20s enrobed in more fabric than a shy Amish woman, here's what I discovered: Films were racier 30 years ago, bolder in a way I didn't expect. Focus groups hadn't yet smoothed every edge to its safest common denominator, and some of the swing of the 1970s survived into the eighties. But wow, the remakes look tepid.
Take Endless Love. The 1981 original was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and stars Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt; the remake was directed by Shana Feste and stars Gabriella Wilde and Alex Pettyfer. In both, the passionate love of model-pretty teenagers Jade and David is challenged by parents who think they're too young to feel so much. But the differences are notable.
In the current version, Jade and David are 18, freshly graduated from high school. Though they share one night of tasteful, fire-lit deflowering, their passion is mainly conveyed by romping through fields. The issue that divides them is class. She's rich. He's not. And her dad (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't want some loser sapping the only lust that matters: her lust to succeed. Crises include a car accident, though no one is seriously hurt; and some bruised feelings, which provide an opportunity for the stars, both former models, to pout fetchingly.
The 1981 version, by contrast, is about sex, pure and simple – those intoxicating spells when lovers spend whole weekends in bed. Here, Jade is only 15, yet no parent bats an eye at that. In fact, on the night of Jade's deflowering, her mother spies them, watches silently for a moment, then wanders off smiling, lost in memories of her own lusty youth. No way would you see that in a movie today; they'd all be arrested.
These progressive parents let their kids drink, smoke, party, and even have sex-overs in the safety of their own homes. The couplings are frequent and naked; Zeffirelli, a specialist in gauzy love, doesn't shy away from showing Jade's nubile breasts or David's narrow buttocks. Only when the action escalates to the point where the kids neglect their schoolwork does anyone begin to mind. The crises, when they finally occur, are serious: A house burns down, someone is locked up in a mental institution for years, and someone dies.
So in 1981 we cared about sex and madness and death, while in 2014 our sole concerns are shiny hair and bank accounts? Today's iteration ventures nothing new about love in the 21st century; it wastes any opportunity to explore the effects of Internet porn or social media, or the fact that kids today rank their parents among their friends. The only reason I can see for remaking it is that someone figured out that if it cost $20-million (U.S., which it did), it could break even on Valentine's weekend (which it did).
Moving on to RoboCop. The 1987 original was directed by Paul Verhoeven and stars Peter Weller. The remake was directed by Jose Padilha and stars Joel Kinnaman. In both versions, ruthless capitalists exploit the public's fear that civil society is collapsing in order to introduce a cyborg law enforcer that they hope will make them billions.
The 1987 version is a satire about soulless corporations, machines taking precedence over humans, and large cities (in this case, Detroit) being left to rot. ("Old Detroit" is a relentless collection of abandoned factories full of vats marked "nuclear waste.") Since all of those issues are bigger issues today – soulless corporations are now global, humans willingly devote themselves to their devices 24/7, and Detroit and large swaths of the industrial northeastern U.S. are bankrupt – I thought the updaters would have lots of opportunities to make the crises, ideas and technology current.
I thought wrong. Aside from a leaden poke at how right-wing TV hosts influence public opinion, there are no new ideas in the current RoboCop; in fact, it dilutes the old ones. In 1987, the violence was pointedly brutal and shameless – limbs are shot off or melted, machine guns blast holes in chests, and the blood is plentiful and liver-dark. In 2014, we get a full half-hour devoted to Kinnaman's character's feelings. When he finally does shoot, he wields a stun gun, and the graphics go digital, like a video game rated T for Teen.
My guess is, that was the mission: Keep the violence PG so that adolescents can go, hauling their wheelbarrows full of dollars. The remake earned $30-million domestic and $70-million international in its opening week, and it needed to because it cost $100-million to make. What's truly amazing is, $100-million and 27 years later, Padilha didn't even bother to invent a new, cool sound for the RoboCop armour to make. It still creaks and groans like something out of an Abbott and Costello movie.
Finally, About Last Night. The 1986 version was directed by Edward Zwick. It stars Moore and Rob Lowe as a couple who fall in, then out, then back in love, and features Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins as their lusty, cynical pals. The current version was directed by Steve Pink and stars Joy Bryant and Michael Ealy as the lovers, and Regina Hall and Kevin Hart as the sidekicks.
Here at last, the update feels updated. Whereas the original provided a pretty package for members of the then-popular Brat Pack, the new film taps into a burgeoning market all its own: buppie – i.e. black yuppie – films. While the original focuses on the leads, with a sprinkling of off-camera sex for their pals, the remake moves the sidekicks' bedroom front and centre. Hill and Hart's raunchy, mock-porn romps are the best thing about the movie. They provide a bracing slap on the bottom to the tedious angst of Bryant and Ealy's so-called grown-up relationship. Put down the paint chips, this movie says, and get into the sack. Opening-weekend audiences agreed: The new About Last Night was No. 2 last weekend, earning $29-million, recouping its $12.5-million budget twice over.
Of course, it didn't knock out the No. 1 film, one that has held that slot for weeks, The Lego Movie. And that only proves my point. People keep going to The Lego Movie because it takes something familiar and makes it fresh. In the film business, money-making strategies and marketing ploys are fine and necessary. But underneath, you need to have an actual movie to sell.