With this weekend's The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hollywood continues its attempt to remake every remotely viable classic property it can get its hands on. (It also conjures up the perfect role for Keanu Reeves, but that's another post.) The science-fiction genre has been a particularly inviting target, which makes sense since the ability to use modern effects makes filmmakers think that they are improving on their source material regardless of whether that's actually true. But it hasn't been all bad. Hollywood still churns out some good sci-fi from time to time, and some of the remakes have hit their mark. Here's a list of seven that worked for me -- though I warn you that my tastes in genre films are somewhat idiosyncratic. I'm fond of some black sheep.
1. War of the Worlds (2005) - Some of you may want to get off the train right here. But I saw Spielberg's War of the Worlds before the bad buzz, and I found the first ninety minutes just ridiculously intense -- the realest alien invasion ever put on screen. This was Spielberg the wizard, the technician, in top form. Sure, he chose to play out his daddy issues instead of giving us a believable ending; everyone is right about that. But to me, that's barely a smudge on this movie's accomplishments.
2. The Fly (1986) - I put this on my "Best Horror Romances" list last month, where I wrote that it was my choice for Scariest Movie Ever -- which is true. But it's also the rare case of a first-class auteur putting his unmistakable stamp on science-fiction material. When people call something "Cronenbergian," they're talking about The Fly (though the likes of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch would later supplement the term).
3. Vanilla Sky (2001) - Just because I put something on a "Best Remakes" list, doesn't necessarily mean I think it improves on its predecessor. Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes is far superior to Vanilla Sky -- scarier, tighter, and less concerned with showing off its director's record collection. If you haven't seen either, go rent that one (which also stars Penelope Cruz, by the way). But the plot Vanilla Sky borrows is so strong, and the third-act about-face is so potent, that it belongs on this list anyway.
4. Solaris (2002) - Here, on the other hand, is a remake I find far more satisfying than the classic original. It's blasphemy, but I was bored by Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, which frankly didn't give a damn about the science-fiction premise it takes from Stanislaw Lem's novel. This one doesn't do too much with the sci-fi either, but it's less pretentious and more personal. Still, it's not for all tastes.
5. Planet of the Apes (2001) - Getting a chance to publicly defend this film is my secret reason for signing up to make this list. I like the Charleton Heston Planet just fine. Is the Burton version better? I don't know. Maybe not. But it's imaginative, exciting and well-made. It transplants a very '60s premise -- the original's working title was Monkey Planet, for pete's sake! -- into the 21st century without (in my view) making it seem completely ridiculous. And the ending is cryptic in a good way, hewing closer to the Pierre Boulle novel from which both films are ostensibly adapted. This movie gets a bum rap.
6. 12 Monkeys (1995) -- A.k.a. the most intelligent treatment of time paradoxes in cinema. It still doesn't quite hold up. But it's the smartest and it comes the closest.
7. Village of the Damned (1995) -- Okay, I actually don't think John Carpenter's Village of the Damned is that terrific a movie; based purely on quality, The Thing would handily win the John Carpenter Sci-Fi/Horror Remake Contest. But this is my list, and I'm going with a sentimental favorite. I saw Village of the Damned in 1996, at 12 years old, and it scared the crap out of me. I still almost invariably find implacable child villains scary, to be honest. See, for example, Dark City's "Mr. Sleep."