I've been watching a lot of old sci-fi movies lately. (Actually, that's not strictly true. I watch a lot of old sci-fi movies more or less all the time.) For a while now time I've been watching reakes of old classics from the '50s--The Thing From Another World (1951) remade as The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) remade in 1978 and 1993 and 2007, It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) remade as Alien (1979), Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) remade as Independence Day (1996), and The Fly (1958) remade in 1986. There are plenty of others--The Blob, attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Cat People, War of the Worlds, and on and on.
Now they've redone one of the absolute landmarks, The Day the Earth Stood Still, from 1951. It's due out in December and stars--agggghhh!--Keanue Reeves, of all people.
I'm not opposed to remakes on principle--astute readers will notice that, for my first three books, remakes are pretty much what I did. But when watching the new movies, a number of ideas come to mind. Apart from obvious improvements in technology and technique, it's interesting to see how the conception of characters has advanced. For example, the role of women in most of the 1950s versions was laughable, and non-whites was nonexistent. Women were, in general, wives and secretaries and not much else; blacks and other minorities were absent. In the remakes, you would think, things would have gotten somewhat more interesting. Right?...
Well, for non-whites, the answer is yes, at least some of the time. Alien featured a black ship's engineer, Independence Day has Will Smith as a fighter pilot who saves humanity, The Thing features a couple of black characters who are as integral to the plot as anyone else. The outlook for women, though, is more problematic. Yes, Ripley in Alien is the classic icon of a powerful woman who overcomes odds, keeps a cool head, uses her brains to outwit a threat that kills everyone else. Fine. But Independence Day features three women, one of whom is a stripper who stands by her man, while another fails to stand by her man and dies, and the third has left her man but returns to him (and so doesn't die). The men, meanwhile, solve the mystery of the alien ships, figure out their weakness, destroy them and save humanity, while the girls look on. It's a lot like the 1950s.
1982's Cat People is, if anything, even worse than the original, in which the central female character dies because she can't control her animal nature; in the newer version, Nastassia Kinski is tied up and ravished, then locked in a cage as a panther and patted on the head by the guy who put her there. Ouch. The remake of The Thing eliminated women from the story altogether (there was a fairly interesting character in the 1951 version), and Spielberg's War of the Worlds did virtually the same (women are onscreen for something like 6 minutes of a 110-minute film).
I haven't seen the 2007 version of Body Snatchers yet (called The Invasion), but I'm curious to see what they've done with it. The 1978 version had a couple of reasonably interesting and thoughtful women characters, although Donald Sutherland was pretty much the center of the movie. The new version stars Nicole Kidman, who's been trying to be taken seriously as an actress ever since The Hours. So let's see what this one looks like.
And Keanu? As Klaatu? We'll see. The earth standing still indeed...