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Q: What Is The Difference Between A Remake & A Reboot?

I’m at the VERY LAST Guerilla Filmmaker Masterclass this weekend (sob)!! So if you see me, do come and say hello … I’m the shouty small one with flowers in her hair, who’s sitting down the front somewhere.

On this historic two days then, I thought I’d take a look at audiences and how what they expect / want can change over time.

This is never more obvious than with remakes and reboots. I talk a lot with Bang2writers about movie franchises and one question I get asked fairly frequently is, “What is the difference between a remake and a reboot?”

It’s not surprising there’s confusion over which is which, since they’re frequently used interchangeably, especially online and in magazines. I’m going to have a go at defining each of the terms.


Here’s a definition of “remake”:

In film or television, a remake is a motion picture based on a film or television series produced earlier. The term remake can refer to everything on the spectrum of reused material: both an allusion or a line-by-line change retake of a film. However, the term generally pertains to a new version of an old film (from Wikipedia)

Here is how I understand it: a remake is when filmmakers UPDATE the original film because it has dated — as they’ve done recently with the new remake of Poltergeist (2015).

This new version of the movie is more or less the same story-wise, but with updates *of* the time NOW – ie. CGI ghosts & ghoulies, plus the actual technology the characters use (ie. no mobile phones in the original back in 1982, obviously).

The CGI in particular offers some real up-to-the-minute improvements to the original movie here. The original had to rely on stuff like white noise and puppets, which were scary *then*, but not now. In contrast, I think there is some very strong imagery in the 2015 version, not least the “underworld” Maddy (aka Carol Anne) vanishes into, which if you look, is actually the family home – but a terrifying version. I thought this was really effective.

In addition, there are some updates to characters so they don’t seem so cheesy since their first incarnation etc (ie. the new medium is a Derek “Most Haunted”-type character, instead of the Spooky Woman which has been overused to hell in recent years).

Lastly, there are some witty homages to the original, especially with reference to the “Indian burial ground” and the Psychic Dude’s show even has its own hashtag, #ThisHouseIsClear.

There’s been some surprise at this remake, not least because the tone has changed considerably. Interestingly, though the original movie was out-and-out Horror, this one is much more of a “kids’ movie”, as decribed by one of its stars Sam Rockwell.

I would agree with this. The new Poltergeist is not scary per se; rather it is an interesting allegory for the tribulations of family life, especially being a male within a family and what it means to be a “protector”. There is a very strong moment when the father is afraid of calling of the police, because he feels he will automatically get the blame for the little girl’s disappearance. There’s also some interesting accusations that perhaps it’s all a hoax, because the family have money problems and they want their own reality show.

I think it’s a shame the mother is no longer the protagonist of Poltergeist, especially given the Haunted guy also replaces the Spooky Woman. However, that said, I feel there is some strong characterisation in the father character (Sam Rockwell) as well as the little boy Kyle, who is the new protagonist.

I was particularly struck by one scene in which the father feels emasculated by his inability to provide for his family, so he buys a stack of gifts for everyone on a credit card. What’s more, though the little boy and the mother clash, it is the father who is the peace-maker. When representation of toxic masculinity abounds on the silver screen, this sort of characterisation is unusual in this type of movie, so interested me.

Overall, I thought it was an effective remake, if not a flamboyant one, but I definitely enjoyed it.


Here then, is the definition for “reboot”:

Reboots remove any non-essential elements associated with a franchise by starting the franchise’s continuity over and distilling it down to the core elements and concepts. For consumers, reboots allow easier entry for newcomers unfamiliar with earlier titles in a series. (from Wikipedia)

In comparison to a remake then, I would venture a reboot is a REIMAGINING. Reboots are most obvious with superhero franchises (ie. X Men; Nolan’s Batman versus Tim Burton’s; or Raimi’s Spiderman versus the new ones).

However, I would go one further and say reboots-as-reimaginings  pertain not just to franchises but actual retold stories generally, even if there is just one. 

Let’s consider Total Recall now, which I believe to be a reboot. The 2012 version starring Colin Farrell was a wholly different beast to the 1990 one starring Arnie. The reboot doe not even take place on Mars, plus it includes story elements like “The Fall” (a kind of elevator that goes through the centre of the earth from the UK to “the colony” aka Australia) that are not present in the original. 

In addition, the original had a different tone: as with most Arnie films, there is a jokey element, played for laughs. By 1990 standards, there is also some considerable gore as well. Arnie shooting Sharon Stone – a woman!! – in the face back then would have been considered rather risqué, as would Arnie cross-dressing; plus there is an alien brothel, complete with Martian sex workers.

There are also some moments when bystanders are murdered horribly (remember the guy on the escalator whose body Arnie uses as a shield??). By that logic then, Total Recall (1990) could be nothing but an “18” (or R, by American standards).

Fastforward 22 years and audience palates and tolerances have changed considerably. Arguably the 1990 version would probably be a 15, maximum … and probably only because of the addition of sex workers, rather than any gore present.

In comparison, the 2012 Total Recall is much tamer and probably a 12A (PG13 by American standards). There’s a greater sense of movement and space (whereas the 1990 version was hampered by having to be in a studio, without real CGI). In the 2012 version, lots of people die, but as is customary nowadays, most of Colin Farrell’s foes are faceless and disposable, disappearing out of his way quickly, almost like a video game (which have obviously changed a great deal too over the last two decades).

There are no scenes inside the alien brothel to speak of (I think Farrell walks past it at some point), though there is a homage with the three-breasted sex worker. In fact there are several witty homages to the original, not least “Two weeks”, the famous moment when Arnie reveals he is dressed as a woman … Only for the woman who says this in the 2012 version to actually be a female, with Colin Farrell standing disguised behind her instead.

In the Arnie version, Lori dies fairly early on, but she is Douglas Quaid’s main pursuer in the new version, no doubt an update for more demanding female action fans (who probably would have watched the original with their Dads as girls, like I did). This would be a welcome change had she not been played by Kate Beckinsale (meh). Melina is no longer a WoC in the 2012 version and seems rather wet in comparison to her original incarnation, which feels like a missed opportunity on both counts.

There are some strong set pieces in Total Recall (2012): I adored the sideways moving elevator sequence. I also love the science fiction ideas present: The Fall as mentioned is ingenius, plus I love the idea of having your phone embedded in your hand, so you can make video calls by simply pressing a glass window.

There’s also a very strong moment when Douglas’ (pretend) best friend tries to persuade Douglas he is still under hypnosis at Recall and to get out of the trance, our hero needs to shoot Melina in the face. Yikes!

So again, overall I found the movie enjoyable enough and certainly not rage-inducing. I (inevitably) prefer the original, but I can see how dated that looks now. Plus I can understand why they would redo it because Philip K. Dick is a don and Sci Fi Aficionados always go for his adaptations.

Concluding then:

Basically, existing properties get remade and rebooted to UPDATE them, so they can attract NEW audiences and also attract the curiosity of old ones – double whammy.

So, regardless of whether you think a remake or a reboot of one of your favourites is “needed”, it will ALWAYS get made if there’s the chance of $$$ involved (which there nearly always is!).

But next time, if you’re ever stuck on whether you’re watching a remake or reboot, think:

Remake – REDO


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