In the past month, two of Yul Brynner’s classic films (The Magnificent 7 and WestWorld) have been remade into modernized retellings, more fitted for today’s standards of storytelling. Ironically they’re both Westerns, so theoretically, the story shouldn’t be all that different, because the time and setting are exactly the same. Essentially, the only change assumed, is how the story is told. It becomes an interesting practice in revisionism to witness a change in cultural mores as time goes by. A story can be retold to meet the demands and expectations of newer less familiar audiences. But as techniques change and technologies improves, the gap between classical and modern filmmaking generates a broader and broader gap, and possibly builds something completely new altogether. Something that was mired in a once traditional style, can morph into something completely it’s own. Sci-Fi did this, Spy Films did this, and Westerns have subtly been doing this under the radar for years.
‘The Magnificent 7’ remake is a giant spectacle of a film with shootouts and fun charismatic characters that soak up applause on digital celluloid. Although I wouldn’t give the movie a high rating due to it’s lack of originality and through-lines, the movie makes a Saturday afternoon go by faster; especially if you’ve never seen a Western before. The movie does it’s best to push today’s racial politics forward, as it ends with (SPOILERS) all the white men killed and a African American, Native American, and a Mexican riding into the sunset. So even though from a technical standard point, the film has been updated, a topically racial and political driven amendment has helped achieve this too.
What then jumps out, is the overt implications and subtext a film may exude by having plot points that co-align with current news stories and contemporary issues. It’s difficult to watch ‘The Magnificent 7’ remake and not see a direct correlation to the North Dakota Pipeline protests. Similarly to the movie, reports of unwarranted attacks and police brutality of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been reported. The protests reached a win of sorts when the U.S. Court of Appeals delegated partial land to the tribe, but it’s far from the victory they were hoping for, and in today’s modern spin-machine, a true triumph for the protesters seems stymied. Meaning, that when art imitates life, it’s done with the best of intentions, but often daftly and without the same resolve. No one is riding into the sunset in North Dakota.
Last Sunday HBO premiered it’s new show, ‘WestWorld’. A remake and precursor to ‘Jurassic Park’ by Michael Crichton, it tells the story of a theme park gone wrong as the park suffers from a systemic failure, resulting in the attractions turning on it’s guests. Essentially, a trumped-up version of the first day at DisneyLand in 1955. The first ‘WestWorld’ film was groundbreaking for it’s day and acted as a cautionary tale to the then latent technophobia that would later engulf and plague scientists and futurists for years to come. It inspired movies like ‘The Terminator’ and started a dialogue about self aware A.I. and the ramifications that may have. Apart from obvious technical feats, how do you remake a movie that already predicted the future, and do it in a fresh unseen way? You mimic today’s hesitant cyber based fears and sullied scientific predictions.
Elon Musk, multibillionaire inventor and real life Tony Stark, recently put forth a theory, (that many have considered since the induction of ‘The Matrix’) that society as we know it may all be a giant simulation. Without going into the particulars, Elon and others in his camp suggest the possibility that all of our interactions may be that of an incredibly advanced video-game. One that we tap into and live out the lives and memories we generate for ourselves. The new ‘WestWorld’ raises similar questions as it plays with the concept of “memories as existence”. We are only as alive as we are informed to be. Consciousness can not exist without self reflection. We see these parallels with the A.I. built for the theme park in the show, and how they struggle to exist amongst those who follow a different set of rules. “If he can’t be hurt, why can I?” becomes the cogitative deliberation of the newly established sentient life roaming the makeshift dust bowl.
And so, what initially was once thought to be an old and outdated genre, has had life sprung into it via the altering climate of today’s ever changing and aptly defined classification of cinema. Film’s of yesteryear (including Westerns) can be reborn when the subject still resonates and remains relevant with it’s audiences. Whether it’s a schlock action flick or the more heady interpretation of the age old question: “why are we here?”, a setting doesn’t have to define a film or it’s contents. Rather it can be used to reinvent ways to convey messages to it’s omnivorous popcorn hungry crowd; in a way that permeates through culture in a concealed, and somewhat diluted way.
Every so often we hear a phrase emanate from HollyWood about the “modern western”. ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Dances with Wolves’ are some of the earliest in these entries to top that list, but after shows like ‘DeadWood’ and ‘Hell on Wheels’ altered the genre further into something obscure, they only really referenced what a true Western used to be. ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Hateful 8’ would then introduce a slapstick element and mutated it into something unrecognizable. But maybe that’s the point of film. You can’t remake something the way it used to be, because that time doesn’t exist anymore. Although films can be viewed outside of time, they still exist within it; as a collective assortment of ideals and reflections of who we are. Even if that means watching Ian McShane say “cocksucker” over 300 times in 36 episodes.