It’s common for Hollywood, in a never-ending quest to save money, to turn toward recycled plot ideas. Until recently, that meant print adaptations or remakes, but then came the reboot, which provided the advantages of a built-in audience and free artistic reign to change the story. To sci-fi purists, this is a verboten practice: you just don’t mess with sacred property. Look at the uproar over Will Smith’s I, Robot, which had, at best, tenuous ties to Isaac Asimov’s short-story collection. But a deeper look at the reboot phenomenon shows that, despite the backlash reboots initially receive, they do well with fans and critics alike, often clearing out the stench of an otherwise dead franchise.
Reboots: The Final Frontier
Want recent proof of success? The most recent high-profile sci-fi reboot happened in 2009, with the release of Star Trek, helmed by J.J. Abrams. The original franchise ran for eleven films and began with the cast of the original television series from the sixties, eventually transitioning to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While the series has had its hits and misses, it was generally well received until withering after 2002’s lackluster Star Trek: Nemesis.
Along came Abrams, who boldly went where no one had gone before. Abrams reimagined the sacred original Trek story line at the risk of upsetting fans. And upset them he did, as details about the film emerged prior to its release. Abrams needed to walk that fine line between maintaining the fan base and creating a successful mainstream film. To my eyes, he succeeded. Star Trek — if any one single film can be — is proof that a reboot can be financially successful without upsetting diehards.
Holy Reboot, Batman!
The first major sci-fi series reboot to hit the theaters was Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan, hot off the success of Memento, reinvented the franchise started by Tim Burton (and ruined by Joel Schumacher). Burton’s Batman was dark and the films a bit overstylized. When Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t stealing the show, the scenery was. This continued — with progressively diminishing results — until everyone rightfully reached a breaking point with Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. I mean, come on: Bat-suit nipples?
Nolan’s Batman is also dark (as the character should be) but has a real-world sensibility. Batman Begins received critical acclaim and its sequel, The Dark Knight (2008), even more so. It wasn’t just a good superhero movie but a good film. In essence, the Batman franchise got a Bat do-over. And this one is still going: the next film in the series, The Dark Knight Rises, is scheduled for a 2012 release.
Up, Up, and Away
Following on the heels of the smashing success of the Batman reboot, it was time to give the Superman franchise the same treatment. In the late seventies, Richard Donner simultaneously filmed Superman and Superman II, casting Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Donner’s filmmaking talent shined in the first two flicks, creating a likable hero with good storytelling. The two sequels? Not so much. Not even Richard Pryor and Gene Hackman could save the train wrecks that were Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
After a few failed attempts at rebooting the Superman franchise (one even involving Nic Cage), he finally saw the light of day again in 2006, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Although much of the Superman mythos remains intact, enough details were changed to evoke the feeling that this wasn’t Donner’s movie. Reactions were mixed — but not as mixed as you might think. Audiences loved it to the tune of about $391 million worldwide.
What the Future Brings
Reboots have proved their mettle. They have built-in audiences, and they allow freedom of artistic movement on the part of both writers and directors. There are already a few more science-fiction reboots in the works, for Spider-Man, RoboCop, and the Highlander. Time will tell whether these films are successful or duds. The odds are in their favor.