Film Remakes, Sequels, Prequels and the True Nature of Capitalism

Have you ever wondered why mainstream movie-making in the last twenty years has gravitated towards remakes, sequels and prequels of previously successful movies? Why do movie studios keep on making newer version of old hits? What is purpose of making progressively inferior sequels or prequels of questionable quality? Now there are some who would say that all literature, theater and cinema is derivative (cleverly plagiarized and recycled) and there is some truth to that. But that is not what I am talking about. Let me explain my point with a few examples.

The original Star Wars and lords of the rings franchises are indeed clever rehashes of epics centered around reluctant hero trope. Furthermore, such epic stories are found across diverse cultures and eras. However reading the Odyssey, Scandinavian sagas or even the much earlier Epic of Gilgamesh does not diminish the enjoyment of watching the original star wars films or the LOTR trilogy because while they all have the same basic story structure, each one takes great effort to create and populate its own unique and self-consistent universe. Similarly modern superhero characters have more than a passing resemblance to the trans-human/semi-divine characters that populate ancient myths and stories. Yet once again, the creators of most modern superhero characters took considerable effort to make them and the worlds they inhabit as unique and richly detailed as possible.

Now contrast this level of creativity and effort to that seen (or not seen) in the Star Wars and LOTR “prequels”. Or take movie remakes- Why do most modern movie remakes and sequels suck so badly? Compare the original Robocop movie to its recent remake. Or compare the remake of Total recall to its far more innovative original version. This is not to say that every remake, prequel or sequel sucks. There are examples where the reboot was as good or better than the original such as Scarface (1983 vs 1932) or the Mummy (1999 vs 1932). Note that both examples of successful remakes mentioned in the previous sentence were quite different from the original versions. Having said that movies in which the remake, sequel or prequel are better than the original are exceptions and not the rule.

But why is that so and what does it have to do with the true nature of capitalism?

The short answer to that question is as follows- trying to relentlessly increase and optimize monetary profits from any new source of income will always kill the proverbial golden egg laying goose. The somewhat longer answer to that question requires us to first take an honest look at what capitalism (or any other materialism based -ism) is really about.

In the preceding paragraph, I hinted that the tendency of capitalism to kill golden egg laying geese is shared by other material-based ideologies (such as state communism). But why would that be so? Aren’t materialism based ideologies more “scientific” and therefore superior to other ways of looking at the world? Well.. it depends and here is why.

Materialism based (reductionist) models work best when the systems are small in size, fundamental in nature and/or tractable. So materialism based models are perfect for doing things such as predicting the motion of planets, understanding the physical nature of matter, launching artificial satellites, synthesizing some new chemical compound or designing a new engine or vehicle. Their predictive value starts to decrease as the systems become more complex or chaotic- yet they are still quite useful for understanding phenomena as diverse as biological evolution, speciation or weather systems. Reductionist models however reach the end of their usefulness when we enter the realms of complex, fundamentally unstable and adaptive systems such as human societies.

Models based in reductionism work well only as long as the fundamental components of the system and interactions between are constant, predictable and measurable. We simply cannot do that with human societies of even basic complexity. This is where reductionist thinkers make two fundamental errors.

Firstly, they try to use an external and artificial standard unit (money) to keep track of exchanges in the system. While the amounts of money exchanged might initially have some correlation to the actual value of most interactions in the system- it always reaches a point where the amounts exchanged between components in the system has little (or no) correlation to the actual value of the interactions. However the quantity and flow of money in the system are now increasingly seen as the only legitimate measure of value of anything or any person in the system. Money becomes a proxy measure for something it can no longer be accurately used to measure.

The triumph of money as the only way to measure the worth of anything results in the second type of reductionist error. The quest for more money results in the ever-increasing use of reductionist models (and thinking) to optimize interactions and actions. It is this mindset that leads to mediocre, insipid or just plain shitty movie remakes, sequels and prequels- while simultaneously starving truly innovative ideas and concepts. The people who make decisions about movie funding therefore have little interest in the quality or craft of the final product. They are principally motivated by the predicted monetary returns on their ill-gained money.

That is why capitalism, communism and all other reductionist -isms, which use artificial gameable proxy units, to model the real world ultimately end up destroying the very things that make their existence possible.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. kd@lang.org
    March 2, 2014 at 1:05 am

    Nah, I don’t know about these short posts. Newcomers need a long post where you outline your basic worldview in full. Instead of feeling pressure to write these short posts I think you should come back in a couple of weeks with a whopper of a post that makes clear what you think about economics and science, I can’t glean a complete understanding at all from reading the last two months of posts, what post would recommend?

  2. Webe
    March 2, 2014 at 6:12 am

    It could be argued that killing the golden goose is the opposite of capitalism which is predicated on using retained earnings not for consumption but for capital formation. In our age in needs to be emphasized that “capital” is not money but real stuff, like land, forests, minerals, buildings, infrastructure, tools, plants, equipment, skills and knowledge. This is what “progress” is based on, especially if the economic surplus (retained earnings) is not spent on temples or pyramids (or conquest or hoarding to enable renteniering) but on capital projects to improve/expand the means of production.
    The perversion of capitalism (ironically, a term coined and explicated by Karl Marx) into financialization is the rot in the body politic and culture to which you point out. By the way, I am a fan neither of capitalism nor financialization, but capitalism has a much better pedigree than financialization.
    A lot of economic theory and business wisdom does indeed look at the social world as though money and finance are the atoms and molecules of reality which allows us to explain all other phenomena. In fact, substituting such a reductionistic approach for others implies that one is missing the bigger picture in the most literal way possible.
    The problem with such abstractions is that people soon confuse reality and the representation, and say things such as: “The money is not there,” or “The government will run out of money” when the reality is that there is always money for some things (war), but not for others — there are always allocation choices hiding behind such accounting truisms. In basic science this same confusion surfaces time and again: Even though theories are officially no more than working models of various phenomena, most people (and scientists) soon use the model not as a useful analogy that incorporates various observations but as if it itself is the most fundamental underlying reality.

  3. March 2, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    remake this you misogynist!

  4. March 2, 2014 at 9:41 pm

  5. Ted
    March 5, 2014 at 7:14 am

    One of the reasons that newer reboots are not as good as the two examples you cite Scarface & The Mummy, is that the people who saw those originals are dead. There is no audience to say, “Oh, this is not as good as the original.” OTOH, I saw both Robocop and Total Recall as a teenager, thought they were awesome, and have not seen the reboots. I saw Spiderman in the theaters in 2002 as a 29 year old man, but had no desire to see the reboot that came out in 2013. Partly because the newer actor, Andrew Garfield, seems to appeal more to teen girl audience, whereas Tobey Maguire fit the Peter Parker mold – introverted and awkward. One reviewer found Garfield looks more like a character out of the Twilight movies.

    Some reboots do work – Batman would be the obvious example. After the mess of the last two Batman films in the 1990s, it was decided to dump the campiness and comic factor, and delve into some darker territory. What if Bruce Wayne, instead of just being a dashing playboy, was instead a mentally damaged man? “Man of Steel” was far better than the 2006 “Superman Returns” – but it helped that Michael Shannon was an excellent villain as General Zod.

    Another issue is that thanks to CGI, movies look faker than ever. The Star Wars prequels were particularly bad at this. Compare the aerial combat scenes of “Top Gun”, the car chases on Paris freeways in “Ronin”, or the speeding motorcycle through the streets of Tangier in “The Bourne Ultimatum” to any Michael Bay dreck.

  6. March 9, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Innovation comes from surplus.

  7. The Prince That Was Promised
    March 12, 2014 at 2:22 am

    People are usually required to pay for a movie before they can enjoy it. The successful investors, knowing that people have to pay before seeing it, have incentive to find all variables that influence the decision to buy a ticket. In the past that meant you could simply be a great marketer and be successful even if you kept on putting out inferior products. You still have word of mouth but by then enough people were required to see it for it to be an effective measure of quality. So what do you do if you want to see a movie you would enjoy but haven’t seen yet? You watch a remake, an adaptation of the successful book, the sequel of your favorite movie.

    Also the Procrustean bed that a movie should be 1-3 hours long restricts it from meaningful depth and character development that other mediums like tv series, books, and comics can express. I absolutely love the way that Game of Thrones was not made a movie but a cable tv series that did the books a great justice. Seeing Ender’s Game not becoming a tv series but a horrible movie made me cringe but I had to buy a movie ticket to find that out and all the people fooled by the familiar title put money in investor pockets giving them more incentive to bait and switch the entire movie industry into oblivion.

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