My position on remakes has always been that they are not inherently a bad idea. There have been some great remakes over the years, where filmmakers have put their own spin on old plots and characters to wonderful effect, sometimes even surpassing the originals. However, too often you get remakes that fail to deliver, where the material proves too outdated, where the filmmakers don't bring anything interesting to the table, or where the execution just falls short. Worst of all are the remakes that are little more than retreads of the originals, where everything plays out almost the same, except in a modern, local milieu that is easier for mainstream audiences to connect to. Sadly both the recent "Carrie" and "Oldboy" remakes fall into this category.
Both of these were projects that sounded like they had potential when they were first announced. "Carrie" was in the hands of Kimberly Pierce, who made the well-regarded "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss." The story had been revisited a few times already in recent years with a sequel and a TV remake, but this new project had attracted a stronger cast, including up-and-comer Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. "Oldboy" was a more high profile project that had been in development for years, at one point connected with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith before it ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Lee's track record hasn't been great lately, but he was coming off of the solid indie feature "Red Hook Summer," and had made very strong genre films in the past like "Inside Man."
Sadly, it's hard to think of two remakes with less justification for existing. They're both perfectly decent films, and even manage to do a few thing better than their predecessors. Some of the action scenes in the new "Carrie" are stronger, and the hotel sequence in the new "Oldboy" is a lot of fun. However, both clearly follow the templates of the prior movies, to the point where shots and dialogue are recycled verbatim. No attempt seems to have been made to go back to the source material, Stephen King's "Carrie" novel and Garon Tsuchiya's "Old Boy" manga. The influence of each director is fairly minimal, and what changes have been made are fairly cosmetic. It's hard to see Spike Lee's hand at work in "Old Boy" aside from the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role and some of the set decoration.
I found "Carrie" the more egregious offender because it's so utterly rote. Aside from the introduction of cel-phone videos and internet bullying, almost nothing has been updated from the 1970s version. Also, much of the content has been toned down and the characters undermined. Moretz's Carrie is more assertive, which makes her less pitiable. Moore's religious fanatic mother is more humane, which makes her less monstrous and much less entertaining. The film is rated R, but it's fairly tame, and none of the horror is properly horrific. Pierce's direction is disappointingly workmanlike, and I found myself missing De Palma's campiness. The remake is such a toothless, lifeless piece of work, that stinks of good intentions and a total lack of guts. The last thing we need is a kinder, gentler "Carrie."
Now Spike Lee at least got his "Oldboy" off to a good start, giving his protagonist a little more depth and delivering some good early sequences. However, the Korean "Oldboy" was a pulpy, over-the-top action film with a really haphazard story that only worked because Park Chan-wook and his star, Choi Min-Sik were so committed to the high octane style and escalating insanity. Lee never manages to hit the same level of no-holds-barred energetic mayhem, try as he may, so the narrative in the new "Oldboy" doesn't work at all. Brolin plays it way too sane. The female lead played by Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do anything that makes sense. Sharlto Copley's nutball villain seems to be operating at about the right level of crazy, but since no one else it, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Both films seem hampered by expectations and an unwillingness to depart from formula. They're both determined to give the audience what I guess the filmmakers and the executives thought the audience wanted. A new version of the hammer fight from "Old Boy." A new version of the bloody prom scene. Never mind that both end up feeling perfunctory and unsatisfying because they're so beholden to the originals. I would love to see what an uncompromised Spike Lee Joint version of "Oldboy" would look like, one where Samuel L. Jackson isn't just stuck playing a secondary tough guy with funny hair. Or a "Carrie" that really tackles modern high school bullying and religious fanaticism.
Because the remakes that Hollywood gave us are just a shameful waste of good material.