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Reboots: A Reflection

June 30, 2011

Reboots and reimaginings can be very tricky things. I’m not going to sit here and try to say that they’re all bad, or that I abhor them. Some of my favorite shows and films have been reboots or adaptations, but that doesn’t mean that all reboots are good or that all things need to be rebooted.

The Reboot has become popular over the past decade for several reasons.

Economically speaking, the turnaround on movies is becoming very quick, and thus you need to grab the audience with any name you can to get them into the theater with. People do respond better to something they’ve heard of before, and are more willing to trust it than they are something brand new. There’s also the fact that you might be able to get people to see a reboot just to see what was kept or what has changed.

We also have a yearning for nostalgia, because the current time period we’re living in is very uncertain. We’re in the throes of economic crisis, the power of world politics is starting to noticeably change, there are societal shifts going on, and the most recent generations are still searching for identity and purpose. These sorts of factors lead to a desire for a simpler time, or reminders of a past that was more certain and stable. As always, this is a lie since in our hyper-aware society we do know that the past wasn’t stable, but it is in the sense that we know what happened. Therefore, the media of that time is comforting; we know what things mean, and we can connect images, sound bites, etc., to feelings, memories, and stories. This is why the reboot has become popular, it gives us the chance to relive those moments, and feelings from the past. If a reboot is done well, it even gives us new revelations about our lives, and how these old works interact with our lives.

However, you can’t reboot everything. Successful reboots, by which I mean not merely monetary successes but ones that actually are able to convey old stories in new lights, and make us reflect on the old and the new, are successful because they tug at universal themes. The best reboots are ones that have at their core, ideas that are not necessarily tied to one time period but to humanity as a whole.

The best example of this is probably Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a character that people can connect to more than others because he’s the every man hero. As I remember once saying in a conversation, “Spider-Man has real problems.” Peter Parker has trouble holding on to his job, he’s unlucky with women, his iconic boss is an asshole, he lives in shit apartments, and as he’s grown into an adult he sometimes worries too much over his maternal figure who is growing perhaps too old to care for herself. These are all themes that many people have struggled with possibly since the dawn of time, but certainly over the past several decades, if not the past century. The Ultimate reboot took Spider-Man and was able to reflect these themes in the modern era, and also go deeper into some themes that we perhaps took for granted. They turned the original line of “With great power, comes great responsibility,” from something that appeared in a few pages, to a 144 page first arc where we see Peter Parker truly grow as a character and learn from his actions. It really did help the Spider-Man character as a whole to have this modern interpretation floating around.

Other successful reboots or seemingly too-late extensions also follow this. Ron D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica went to the roots of the original show: fleeing one’s home world, and the battle between man and machine, and then rebuilt the show from the ground up around these concepts with modern overtones. The result of which was a very good show (or at least a very good first couple of seasons) that was very tense, interesting, and particularly dark.

Forgive this somewhat tangential statement, but the darkness of that particular reboot existed because it had to. Issues like the destruction of civilizations, the struggle for survival, and the revelations that your enemy may be ever present, are not things people react to with hope. These are very dark subjects, and they’re not to be written lightly. The issue is that for some reason this has resulted in many reboots trying to be darker and edgier, rather than reflecting on the core issues of their original subject matter.

We can also look to the Star Trek franchise, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation. This was a show that distilled the values of the original but with the budget the original never had. TNG (as it is often abbreviated) was a show that was allowed to be more cerebral and scientific, while the original had to be somewhat action-y and campy. The new Star Trek film also latches on to the more universal aspects of the original via the character dynamics of Spock and Kirk, and while it is a shame that they dropped McCoy from the equation it doesn’t change the fact that meditation on subjects like the hero, friendship, rivalry, and so on, are subjects worth perhaps taking a second or one millionth look at.

The major issue with reboots however is that not everyhing is written in a vacuum, and some things are much more a result of the times they were written in than others. A prime example of this could be Sherlock Holmes, who is a very Victorian character. There are very good modern interpretations of the character, in fact the recent BBC series Sherlock is brilliant and does a wonderful job in placing the character in a modern setting without it feeling strange. Yet, there is still something beautiful that Sherlock lacks that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes or even Young Sherlock Holmes possesses because these films are entrenched in the Victorian era where Holmes is at his best. The essences of Victorian futurism and empiricism are not vital but they add an extra layer of authenticity to the character that can be sorely missed in modern adaptations.

Two upcoming reboots that I feel are making this huge misstep of trying to lift something from out of its natural state, are Red Dawn and the very recently announced reboot of WarGames. These are two films that are intrinsically tied to the early ’80s culture that was a direct result of generations being raised during the Cold War. Red Dawn was the result of what I can only describe as the military blue balls that were caused by the Cold War. It was that yearning to actually see what this war of ideology was really all about, and if democracy could triumph over communism. The film also possesses the yearning of a generation who’s parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents had all fought in wars for democracy, to actually show that they too care for this, and can fight to defend their homelands. Finally, we have this sort of final reflection on the very nature of a long-term enemy, and the notion of a worthy opponent and why perhaps in some sense, the Cold War should never really go hot.

On the other side of the spectrum, WarGames was the result of a generation that was raised in a world of mutually assured destruction. The ever present fear of one nuclear launch that would set off a chain reaction that would destroy the world was very real then. On top of this, it looked at how the ever increasing power of technology could bring this nuanced, and in some ways silly, Cold War to an end. It grapples with the fear of man creating his own undoing, perhaps in not as spectacular or serious of a way as Dr. Strangelove, but it was the ’80s, and everything was sort of worse in the ’80s.

Neither of these feelings resonates with today’s audiences. Today’s youth does have their own wars of democracy to fight, as well as defending their homeland and their people from a very different sort of faceless enemy. Also, there is no more worthy opponent in the same sense that we had the Russians in the Cold War, and any attempt to construe other nations into one is generally more laughable than it is reflective or interesting. With WarGames, there are similar glaring issues. People today don’t fear what could happen if technology goes awry, since technology is so integrated into our society and homes. Nowadays people fear technology on a much more grand and dystopic scale, looking more towards issues presented in Asimov’s I, Robot, the film Blade Runner, and novels like Huxley’s Brave New World. Finally, with the continual push toward nuclear disarmament, and the lack of a “worthy opponent”, the fear of mutually assured destruction no longer holds the same resonance it once did.

These sorts of films are where reboots start to become dangerous. There’s nothing inherently wrong with recreating characters and scenarios outside of a trundled continuity to make them more accessible and more real to modern audiences. There’s also nothing wrong with looking at different but still worthy aspects of a work, and rebuilding it to reflect this new focus. However, you start to go wrong when you recreate something that is still accessible, and made more intriguing by its original setting than a modern reinterpration.

If there’s one thing Zack Snyder ever did right, it’s recognizing that Alan Moore’s Watchmen could not be done outside of the year 1985, because you can’t do a story that’s about the Cold War on some level, without the Cold War.

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