Kurt Russell in 'The Thing'

The immiment release of the intense modern-day family drama Brothers may not make you think instantly of science fiction, but Jim Sheridan's film, starring Jake Gyllenhall, Tobey Maguire, and Natalie Portman, is a remake of Susanne Bier's original from just five years ago, and that got me to thinking about sci-fi remakes, which have mostly had the good sense to wait a longer period of time before cashing in on the original visions.

With all due respect to my friend and colleague Eugene Novikov, who compiled a list of his favorite sci-fi remakes for Cinematical last year, around the time that the cringe-inducing remake The Day the Earth Stood Still came out, my Top Ten is much better (or, at least, different, though we overlap on a couple of picks). To make things more interesting, I've included a few unofficial remakes to round out the list.

1. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter's remake, still based on a novella by John W. Campbell Jr., cuts to the bone. The 1951 original, credited to Christian Nyby but popularly understood to be under the control of producer Howard Hawks, is visually striking and narratively propulsive, but Carpenter's version, with a precisely-written script by Bill Lancaster and featuring a superb musical score by Ennio Morricone, creates a moody, nerve-jangling atmosphere from the outset, and slowly sets out to dismantle the very idea of uber-macho men crumbling -- and occasionally persevering -- under the crushing weight of fear. Kurt Russell, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Wilford Brumley, and Donald Moffat stand out among the uniformly strong cast. With each viewing, Carpenter's remake reveals more layers, while the original remains firmly lodged in its time and place.
Jeff Goldblum in 'The Fly'2. The Fly (1986)

While the 1958 original, directed by Kurt Neumann, boasts the indelible "fly vision" of a woman screaming in horror, plus the unforgettable giant insect-head, the rest of the picture doesn't hold up, despite the best efforts of Vincent Price. David Cronenberg, already a master at crafting works that explored "body horror" (Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome) infused his remake with a crystal clear sense of the emotional havoc wrecked from the resultant fear and revulsion. And he spliced that enticing cocktail to the rollercoaster of tension that were hallmarks of Scanners and The Dead Zone, along with a touch of the humor that graced Fast Company. Add to that the performances of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, and you end up with a grueling picture that (excuse me) flies by.

Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Don Siegel's 1956 original is a terrific picture, revving up a story by Jack Finney with verve, imagination, and a timely yet enduring warning message against forced conformity (among other things). Philip Kaufman takes things in a different direction, adapting the message to the horrors of anonymity in the big city (among other things) without becoming preachy or strident. His version percolates like the mud baths owned by Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright, as Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams try to figure out what's happening -- no thanks to arrogant, clueless Leonard Nimoy. And if you think it's easy to remake a very good movie, try and watch the other attempts (1993's Body Snatchers and 2007's The Invasion).

The Blob in 'The Blob'4. The Blob (1988)

Undoubtedly, Steve McQueen makes the 1958 original a kitschy treat, elevating every scene in which he appears. Chuck Russell's remake reverses that equation, as poor Matt Kevin Dillon labors hard to keep up with Shawnee Smith and a much more realistic (if that's the right word for it) Blob. Filled with blood, gore, and general violence and mayhem, The Blob tramples on all ideas that remakes need to be respectful of their source material. God bless you, Chuck Russell.

Charlton Heston in 'The Omega Man'5. The Omega Man (1971)

Admittedly, special effects and great staging helped Francis Lawrence capture the devastating effects of an apocalyptic disease upon a major city in I Am Legend in 2007. But Boris Sagal's underappreciated version has a raw grittiness that the Lawrence edition, tailored for Will Smith, lacks. Maybe it was because screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington had a better understanding of the genre, or maybe because nobody does noble suffering like Charlton Heston. Plus, Rosalind Cash is waay lovely and brash. Or maybe it's just my preference for Los Angeles over New York as a post-apocalyptic setting. Sorry again, Vincent Price, Last Man on Earth.

Steven Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds'6. War of the Worlds (2005)

While the 1953 George Pal production added a decided religious slant on top of H.G. Well's novel, Steven Spielberg ended up succumbing to sentimentality in the penultimate scene of his remake. Up until that point, though, the movie rocks hard visually, to the extent that it's easy to overlook the one-note performances by Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and Justin Chatwin (honest, I wanted to shoot them all). The stunning set pieces win the day.

'Star Wars'7. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Now we get to the "unofficial" portion of the list. Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress has long been cited as one of the inspirations for George Lucas' film, with R2D2 and C3PO standing in for the two funny, bumbling peasant thieves at the heart of the Japanese flick. Motivated by greed, they serve as escorts for a couple, not realizing the man and woman are a general and a princess. Lucas has said that he was more interested in Kurosawa's idea of telling the story through the eyes of two minor characters.

'The Terminator'8. The Terminator (1984)

James Cameron recently told 60 Minutes that the idea of a metal skeleton emerging from flames simply flashed into his head one day, but visionary writer Harlan Ellison sued because of the similarities to two episodes of The Outer Limits that he wrote: Soldier and Demon with a Glass Hand, the former about a soldier from the future transported to the present and pursued by another soldier from the future, the latter about a man from the future who is hunted in the present. Ellison ended up getting an acknowledgment deep in the credits.

Sean Connery in 'Outland'9. Outland (1981)

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Sean Connery plays a Marshall who uncovers criminal activity. Assassins are hired to kill him, and none of the locals want to lend a hand, or even cover his back. Give up? Of course not: you know this sounds like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Despite the outright theft of the plot superficial resemblance, Hyams manages to make this an energetic and fun flick, though I kinda wish he had acknowledged his inspiration by naming the outpost on a Jupiter moon after the town in Fred Zinneman's 1952 original.

10. The Island (2005)

Borrowing a basic plot outline is one thing, but Michael Bay's big budget, rambunctiously entertaining film appears to be very similar to 1979's Parts: The Clonus Horror on many points, while similarities to Logan's Run have also been cited. You think the screenwriters figured nobody watched old movies any more and hoped no one would notice? Sheesh. Well, you can't clone Scarlett Johansson, right guys? Oops, hope that wasn't a spoiler for you.

Scarlett Johansson in 'The Island'
categories Sci-Fi