New and improved: 17 revamps that went much better than expected
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1. Battlestar Galactica
The original Battlestar Galactica TV series ran a scant 24 episodes, and spent as much time on weird little flights of fancy as it did showing its heroes trying to save the human race. The revamp, launched with a 2003 miniseries, got serious quickly: Earth's 12 colonies get vaporized, the Cylons are revealed as far more sophisticated than the old clunky metal 'bots, and the perils of dealing with the remaining humans on a few spaceships proves as difficult as fighting off those frakkin' toasters. The new series, which will come to a (hopefully glorious) end in early 2009, started with some of the original show's basic elements (humans looking for the lost colony of Earth, character and ship names) and charted entirely new emotional territory. The original is fun; the remake is excellent.
2. Batman/Batman Returns
In spite of Frank Miller's impact with 1986's The Dark Knight Returns, the general public of the '80s still associated Batman with the kitschy comedy, zany gizmos, campy sound effects, and wacky guest villains of the Adam West '60s TV series until Tim Burton revamped the iconic franchise with 1989's Batman. Burton's blockbuster introduced a darker, more neurotic Batman battling internal demons and a Gotham careening out of control, in addition to Jack Nicholson's cackling Joker. In 1992's gloriously overreaching Batman Returns, Burton plunged even deeper into his own private universe and fevered imagination, with a trippy homage to German Expressionism and a rogue's gallery of twisted villains: Danny DeVito's repulsive, biologically disturbing Penguin, Christopher Walken's evil businessman, and most spectacularly, Michelle Pfeiffer's lethally sexy Catwoman, the ultimate latex-clad goth dream girl. Alas, then Joel Schumacher came along, and the series had to be rebuilt from scratch all over again.
3. Batman Begins/The Dark Knight
Under Schumacher, the Batman franchise kept inching back toward camp. Jack Nicholson's Joker was the loose thread on the sweater, but the garment completely unraveled by the time Schumacher introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger's pun-slinging Mr. Freeze and the infamous Batsuit nipples. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight took the Caped Crusader back into the shadows, embracing the moral ambiguity of a man who appoints himself as a righteous avenger. Slick playboy by day, gravel-voiced enforcer by night, Christian Bale's Batman isn't an ingratiating hero by any stretch, and his mission to clean up Gotham City is tempered by self-doubt and a general feeling that he causes as much chaos as he controls. Nolan knows how to deliver the blockbuster setpieces audiences expect, but he also respects them enough to believe, rightly, that they could take a superhero seriously, without irony or frivolity. He fashioned a truly contemporary Batman who captures the tenor of these uneasy times.
4. Grand Theft Auto III
There's certainly nothing wrong with the first two installments of the Rockstar Games (then DMA Designs) videogame franchise. They're chaotic, crime-causing fun, and for fans of straight-up street-racing sims, they're even a little purer than the later editions. But starting in 2001, Rockstar expanded the playing field and caused a seismic shift in the way videogames are played. Ditching the top-down point of view of the 1997 and 1999 versions, Rockstar took the sandbox concept of an open-ended, free-roaming videogame reality as far as it was then possible to go. They also ramped up the violence, added megadoses of humor and mayhem, brought in an all-star voice cast, and essentially reinvented not just the franchise, but the whole public perception of the medium. It made them a mint, and the rest is history.
5. Justice League: The Animated Series
Fans were nervous when Warner Brothers' animation division announced plans to create a Justice League cartoon using the format and style of the much-loved Batman: The Animated Series. The similar Superman had its supporters, but many considered it a drop-off in quality from the original Batman: TAS series. Skepticism ran high that a "Timmverse" version of the JLA (named for overseer Bruce Timm) could succeed, with its brighter palette, more cosmic scale, and enormous cast. But doubts were largely allayed by the first two JLA seasons, which featured a solid voice cast, top-notch writing, a good sense of humor, and a multi-episode-arc storytelling style. Amazingly, the show got even better in its third season; the "Justice League Unlimited" concept brought in an even wider range of characters, satisfying comics geeks with appearances by favorite lesser-known characters, and pleasing fans of good TV with compelling season-long stories.
6. Casino Royale
Like most successful franchises, the Bond series is no stranger to revamps. Whenever a new actor takes on the title role, the movies that follow struggle to find the balance between playing to that actor's strengths, and holding on to what made the series so popular in the first place. Casino Royale hit theaters in 2006 with yet another hero and yet another promise of "re-imagining," but for once, that promise was largely fulfilled, with some relatively down-to-earth plotting, Daniel Craig as a James Bond who hasn't found his sea-legs, and some of the best action setpieces of the whole series. It's too soon to tell whether the new Bond will fall into the same traps as his predecessors, but it's good to know the character has some life in him yet.
7. The country-rock Byrds
Maybe "improved" is the wrong word to use to describe the new version of The Byrds that debuted in 1968. The Byrds' earlier incarnations produced some of the best folk-rock of the mid-'60s, and the countrified lineup mainly built on the C&W exercises the band had been dabbling in from the beginning. Still, once David Crosby and Michael Clarke left The Byrds, to be replaced by Gram Parsons and Kevin Kelley, the remaining original members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, embraced country in a way that confused even their most ardent, roots-music-loving fans. Recording in Nashville with veteran Music Row sidemen, The Byrds—spurred on in large part by the upstart Parsons—came up with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a set of standards, Bob Dylan covers, and twangy originals that sold poorly and irritated many in the Music City establishment. The record withstood the test of time, though, inspiring legions of rockers to pick up mandolins (and hire fiddle players) in order to re-connect with Americana. Sweetheart has become as much a part of The Byrds' legacy as "Eight Miles High."
8. Star Trek: The Next Generation
These days, the Trek-verse is an established part of pop culture, what with all the spin-offs, movies, and tie-in novels, plus the new big-screen adventure hitting theaters this year. But when The Next Generation hit TV screens in 1987, it represented a huge risk, in that for the first time, the Enterprise would tour the universe with a brand-new crew. Patrick Stewart helmed a cast of mostly unknowns, in a re-designed Enterprise with shiny (for the time) special effects and a horde of new aliens to tamper with. Next Gen got off to a clunky start (kids, ask your parents to tell you about the Joe Piscopo episode), but it eventually found its groove, giving the world Q, the Borg, and a captain who approached the Prime Directive as philosophical necessity instead of halfhearted suggestion.
9. Charlie's Angels
Funny-named director McG launched his career with a full-speed remake of the '70s T&A TV show Charlie's Angels, but he and the writers knew better than to try and capture (or even parody) that era. Instead, McG kept the original show's cheekiness and added Cameron Diaz's ass cheeks (plus Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu). Also in the mix: a killer supporting cast (Crispin Glover, Bill Murray, Sam Rockwell, Tom Green) and a plot that isn't entirely stupid. Maybe it was a fluke, because the sequel (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) was bad in pretty much every way, but just once, McG nailed it. Hopefully he can do the same for Terminator: Salvation.
10. Friday Night Lights
Yes, the 2004 Friday Night Lights film—based on the 1990 non-fiction book about an Odessa, Texas high-school football team—was pretty good. But when its director, Peter Berg, adapted it to TV, he tackled much of the social commentary that wound up on the film's cutting-room floor. Tension erupts among the fictional Dillon Panthers after an assistant coach makes a racist remark to the press; Coach and Mrs. Coach weather typical marital storms; Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen struggle to keep going in spite of broken families; Smash Williams, too poor to attend college without a football scholarship, risks everything to keep his edge. And, oh, there's a game this Friday. The show celebrates football and the endurance of the human spirit, every single freakin' week. Now that's a hell of a victory.
11. Metroid Prime
Even before Nintendo's 2002 addition to the Metroid franchise was released (eight years after the previous game), it was controversial. Metroid Prime traded the series' popular platformer format for a first-person shooter perspective, akin to Duke Nukem's. Fan outcry was swift: How dare they? That is, until those fans booted up their GameCubes and had at it. The winding caves, freakish creatures, and dusty artifacts of Metroid's foreign planetscapes now enveloped Samus—and those following along at home—in the richest world to date. But the developers didn't stop there: Metroid Prime also packed in a beefed-up weapons arsenal, a flurry of new bad guys, and what remains one of the most intuitive control schemes available. Now, after two Prime sequels, those late, great platformers feel like a thing of the past.
12. The Fly
The original The Fly, based on a short story by George Langelaan, is a perfectly acceptable piece of '50s sci-fi hokum. It contains a solid hook, moderately credible tech-talk, and two indelible images: Al Hedison bumping around with an oversized fly head, and a mini-Hedison caught in a spiderweb, begging for his life. The movie was successful enough to inspire two sequels, but the series didn't hit its peak until David Cronenberg's 1986 remake gave tragic, haunting depths to the already-creepy original concept of a scientist who merges with an insect while studying teleportation. Critics called Jeff Goldblum's transformation from super-scientist to rotting, acid-vomiting wreck a metaphor for the horrors of AIDS, but whatever the subtext, the real horror derived from the weakness of the flesh, and the damage a broken body can do to the ones it loves the most.
13. Doctor Who
The Guinness Book Of World Records lists Doctor Who as the longest-running science-fiction TV show in the world, but in 2005, it had been off the air for more than 15 years. So how do you bring back an icon who was last popular around the time Pac-Man was a big deal? You make him hip, in a way that doesn't mean "painfully stupid." The new Who introduced a Doctor alone, on the run from his past (which gets tricky, since he owns a time machine), and with a new kind of closeness to his Companions that gave the show more emotional intimacy. It isn't perfect—the attempts to shoehorn in pop-culture nods date the show in all the wrong ways—but the current series has attracted thousands of new viewers, and at its best, it's a high-concept adventure featuring one of the best heroes in the genre.
14. Alan Moore's Miracleman
Alan Moore's reinterpretations of pre-existing comic-book characters don't so much revamp them as draw them out into a larger world, with greater depth than they'd ever shown before. He's done this for everyone from DC's Swamp Thing to classic fictional characters like the Invisible Man and Mr. Hyde (in his League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books) to real-world figures like Jack the Ripper in From Hell. But one of Moore's earliest deconstructions was also one of his best; in 1982, Moore took Marvelman (later renamed Miracleman for the litigious American comics market), a British knock-off of Fawcett's Captain Marvel, and reimagined him into perhaps the most astonishing superhero story of all time—even taking Moore's famed Watchmen into account. Violent, difficult, philosophically dense, and psychologically deep, Moore's run on Miracleman used one of the most childlike, whimsical superheroes as a starting point for a story that asked us to consider the terrible implications of such a being.
15. high-definition video
The impending switch of U.S. television broadcast signals from analog to digital has sent a lot of consumers scrambling to upgrade their TV sets (followed closely by their video players, their cable boxes, etc.). The unconverted may grumble that they can't see the point of all this fuss over cleaner pictures, richer colors, and clearer sound, but few people who've made the switch are clamoring to go back. Most hi-def converts are overflowing with stories about watching travel shows and NASCAR, just because "they look great in HD." The improvement in video technology hasn't just improved the way TV looks and sounds; it's also had a significant impact on movies. The jury is still out on whether the preponderance of movies shot on video is a boon or a curse, but compared to the murky-looking documentaries and art films that uglied up film festivals barely half a decade ago, the recent spate of low-budget shot-on-video indies look like Barry Lyndon.
16. The Ring
The vast majority of American remakes of foreign horror films plug in pretty English-speaking actors, loud bangs, and big "Boo!" moments without really understanding what made the original films scary in the first place. Gore Verbinski's 2002 reworking of the hit Japanese horror film Ringu added the first three things on that list, but it managed them effectively, and didn't try to make them stand in for real scares. It also retooled the original for American cultural expectations—for instance, letting the protagonists uncovering their enemy's creepy backstory via journalistic footwork rather than via Ringu's unexplained psychic powers, which are a fairly standard trope in Japanese horror films. Add in taut editing and gorgeous cinematography, and The Ring actually wound up as that rarest of things, a remake that's actually better than its source material.
17. TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The 1992 film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a modest box-office success (especially on home video), but aside from a few devotees, hardly anyone thought screenwriter Joss Whedon needed to expand his world of high-school cliques and horrific night-stalkers. Yet by the end of the first season of the Buffy TV series, it was clear that Whedon had found the right medium to spin stories about the burdens of a teenager chosen by fate to fight vampires. The show had an almost terminal case of the cutes in the early going, but it developed into a complex, often heart-rending study of growing up and taking responsibility—without losing its sense of humor or creepy thrills. As a movie, Buffy is just a one-note idea. As a series, it's an epic.