I occasionally hear people argue over whether Die Hard can truly be considered a Christmas movie.
It’s a funny indicator of how prolific the 1988 classic has become: people delving into such surreal levels of analysis. John McClain was one of my first childhood heroes, and to this day I still believe Home Alone is Die Hard for kids … now that I think of it, Speed is Die Hard on a bus!
Die Hard is one of those iconic films that has such a cult following, Hollywood feels it’s safe enough to repeatedly invest in, hoping the pre-built audience will always be there to buy a ticket at the box office. That’s the mantra in most studios these days: remakes, sequels, and formulas. Anything that’s got a proven track record gets a green light, and very few executives will bank on originality, unless it has famous actors and directors attached.
Hollywood has been going through an interesting financing transformation, and I think it goes beyond the crisis of '08. In the 1970s, every studio was making a full slate of films to appeal to diverse and varied demographics: thriller, teen comedy, horror, thoughtful drama, romance, gritty action, artsy independent, etc. Some would be hits, some wouldn’t, but all bases were covered as the movies took a roadshow tour of the country's film markets. Jaws and Star Wars changed the dynamic, by becoming monster-sized international hits. Studios started focusing on their “tent-pole” features, sinking $100 million into the production and marketing campaigns.
Financially, these movies were paying off. Creatively, however, the studio’s slates were diminishing in quality to those few franchises safe enough to invest in. This led to an explosion of sequels in the 80s, with executives eagerly doubling down on anything proven. Indie projects were popular for a short stint in the 90s, but the Lord of the Rings and new Star Wars trilogies — as well as the comic book boom — took over in the early millennium. And we're partly to blame! As an audience, we haven’t stayed loyal. We took every chance we could to download, torrent, stream or otherwise “borrow” films from the fruitful lands of the internet. Why wouldn't the studios invest in broad appeal, explosive visual candy that ‘can only really be enjoyed in theaters’… with 3D glasses and on IMAX screens.
So if we no longer demand wild experimentation and originality in our cinema, can we keep expecting conservative safe bets like Rocky 8 and Star Wars 14? Will the few studios investing in originality have their risks pay off? Who is responsible for reducing the remake saturation trend, filmmakers or fans? And it’s not just that these films are based on old ideas, it’s that with every iteration they lose meaningful character development, innovative story lines and experimental cinematography. Each progressive sequel leans more and more heavily on big set pieces, repeated plot devices and gimmicky quotable lines.
The original Die Hard came out in 1988, when divorce, corporate America, and feminism were hot topics of social debate. Those were the centerpieces of the film: a stubborn cop visiting his high-powered estranged wife, pursuing her career in a Japanese conglomerate. The tensions of their narrative were reflective of the tensions the audience felt in their lives, and John McClain was a grounded believable hero who suffered serious injuries throughout his determined journey.
Die Hard with a Vengeance came out in the mid-90s, amid high crime rates and huge racial tensions. The head-butting, argumentative dynamic between Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson embodied that conflict. The opening of the movie included a jaw-dropping scene where John McClain is forced to stand in the middle of Harlem with a sign that reads: “I Hate Ni**ers” leading to an incredibly tense confrontation.
By the time we’ve reached Die Hard 5, the movie’s substance has been dwindled down to it’s most basic pop-corn value: fast action, funny lines, loud explosions and a seemingly immortal hero who can never sustain more than a scratch on his face.
I’m not inherently against remakes, as they can be a great vehicle for taking simple stories and addressing complex modern issues. The Scarface, Heat, and Thomas Crown Affair remakes were all better than their originals. The whole James Bond franchise is built on the concept of rebirth and Shakespeare’s works have endured countless modern interpretations. I just feel like we’ve reached a saturation point that’s drowning out quality in noise. The new Dredd, for instance, was a surprisingly brutal, visually stunning take on the franchise, but couldn’t get out from under the albatross of being a ‘Stallone remake' amid a sea of sequels. I hope this promising looking Evil Dead (NSFW) remake doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Hollywood was founded by renegade independent film makers, who fled to California to escape Thomas Edison's restrictive film patents. It seems painfully ironic that they now spend their time suiing websites for copyright infringement and churning out repeated formulaic projects.
By only chasing built-in audiences, are the studios going to eventually bore and alienate film fans? Do we want to see all our childhood movies rehashed and repeated ad nauseum? Doesn't every generation deserve its own greats?