Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Crazies - Original & Remake

I watched the original, 1973 version of The Crazies today and it was interesting to mentally compare it to the 2010 remake. Completely aside from the face that the 2010 remake features Timothy Olyphant (♥), I think it's one of the rare cases of a remake actually improving on the original.

(Spoilers beneath the cut)
What the remake creates—which is almost wholly lacking from the original—is a sense of suspense. The original (now: OC, Original Crazies) runs along two parallel tracks—the story of David (a fireman, rather than sheriff) and Judy (nurse, instead of doctor) trying to stay alive and flee the conflagration and the story of the military's efforts to contain and deal with the infection. By removing the military part of the plot, by focusing entirely on Sheriff David and Doctor Judy, and finding out only what they do, as they do, the movie creates a deeper, spookier sense of mystery and tension. Instead of being an omniscient observer, the audience is drawn more completely into the everyman characters of David and Judy, deepening the emotional resonance.

It's smarter writing, refined from another thirty years of movie making, but it's also a quasi-reflection of the changing times and climate; the military is presented facelessly, with no iconic character from that side for the audience to latch onto. The combination of protective bio-gear and riot gear makes the soldiers less human, interchangeable, verging on mechanical (something the remake exploits, when one of the soldiers is unmasked in ambush to reveal a young boy, barely out of high school). In the OC, though the soldiers are hidden behind the balloon-like HAZMAT suits of the time, it's more cartoonish, less storm trooper. Interestingly, the OC also has more(humanizing) banter and idle commentary between the soldiers, something a lot more conspicuously absent from the remake. As well, I think the remake did a better job delineating between infected and non-infected that wasn't nearly as clear in the OC, especially as the script took pains to tell you that the town's "redneck" inhabitants were resisting martial law, regardless of their state.

The remake also reflects thirty more years of movie—and police—violence, I think. First of all in the OC's idea that the inhabitants could cause as significant a resistance versus the remake's more impersonal brutality and impatience in the way the soldiers round up and imprison the town's inhabitants with Borg-like (resistance is futile) efficiency. Too, the remake shows multiple pogroms of men, women and children in (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to contain the contagion.

One of the movie's more chilling scenes is Radha Mitchell's Doctor Judy strapped down to a table and being wheeled through the corridors of the high school while she pleads with her faceless captors, insisting that she's pregnant. And then, later, still strapped down but abandoned as one of her fellow townsmen, now infected, goes through the plastic sheeted ward stabbing people at random with a pitchfork. In the OC, David and Judy escape the military's quarantine efforts nearly immediately and though there's a lot of skulking and hiding, none of those scenes are nearly as emotional (or horrifying) and though there is tension as to whether they'll be able to get away, the stakes are not nearly as clearly or scarily drawn. The effect is repeated, I think, when Judy and David escape the town and make it to the outlying rest stop that was supposed to be the rally point for the survivors…only to find that everyone there had also been put down.

Being from a later time in life, I found the OC's insistence on keeping infected individuals alive and inadequately confined in the same building as the scientist working on the cure to be beyond the realm of believability, though cinematically appropriate for the time. Though, on the other hand, the loss of the military storyline—however intrinsically smart I think it was—meant the loss of seeing how badly the military bungled the operation, hoist on a petard of urgency, lack of readiness and basic bungling and stupidity inherent in any bureaucratic operation. But, as I said, the movie was really only improved by the reduction of that story line, as it was at the removal of the weird incest storyline between Kathie and her father as they both became infected.

I did, however, find it interesting how there was some passing attempt to feminize the movie a little more. Judy of the OC is, as a nurse, in a much more subservient and less critical position than Judy of the remake. As well, OC Judy—and the other main female character they pick up along the way, Kathie—don't have much to do. They largely cower a lot and beg their menfolk to do this or that, hauled along like luggage. Though Radha Mitchell's Judy isn't given significantly more to do, she is given some more and comes through with greater grit and agency, imo, than her older counterpart. As well, I found it interesting that OC Judy ends up infected and dies in a crossfire between Crazies and soldiers, while remake Judy survives to fight on another day with her husband. I'm not sure what to conclude, or if there's anything to conclude about the fact that OC Judy and David were not married and remake Judy and David were married, though both Judys were pregnant.

As a story, I think The Crazies remake succeeds in a way that another movie, The Invasion, does not; if you're going to have a contagion movie, there are generally two ways you can tell the story: you can either go to the top, with the military and/or scientists who are fighting the contagion—and probably caused it in the first place—or you can go with the 'rat in a maze' story. The benefits of the top level story is that it gives the audience those all-important answers—how the contagion started, who's responsible, what's being done about it, the efforts toward a cure. Except that those answers are not necessarily as all important as they'd seem; the rat in a maze story has the benefit that events don't necessarily have to be explained at all. The tension comes from the terrible sense of not-knowing, of seeing what's happening all around you and not knowing what to do about it or how to extricate yourself from the situation. The Invasion fails because it tries to have it both ways; it tries to tell an everyman rat in a maze story and then counters it by bringing the everyman into the top level…but doing so sucks a lot of wind from the sails and makes it less interesting and less tense. The Crazies remake works precisely because of it's limited, unexplained point of view and the lack of answers only feeds into the overall emotional anxiety of the text. The trick of rat in a maze stories, however, is providing sufficient resolution to satisfy your audience, when neither the beginning or ultimate end of the story is or can be known.

The end of the remake of The Crazies is not unlike that of the recent Predators movie; the resolution is provided in the fact that our hero(ine)s have survived to face another day. I felt The Crazies was better at providing satisfying resolution from this simply because the narrative tension of the story as a whole was tighter and more vivid, where Predators unspooled in the middle. Which says to me that the (re)makers of The Crazies might not have been so crazy after all.

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