Yesterday afternoon, the industry trade papers reported that Disney was mounting a remake of Splash, a 1984 romcom starring a young Tom Hanks smitten with part-time mermaid Daryl Hannah. Remaking a popular favorite — that’s not surprising. What was shocking, however, was the way Disney turned the tide on this announcement’s reception by swapping its leads’ genders, casting movie star/second-coming-of-Gene-Kelly Channing Tatum as the merman and hot-streak character actress Jillian Bell as the ordinary Hanks type. It could have easily been another soul-deadening studio plan to prop up a moldy premise Weekend at Bernie’s-style and market it to a new generation. Instead, Splash 2.0 sounds like it has the potential to be an interesting prospect.
Conjuring a massive payday used to be as simple as applying a new layer of grit to a property that audiences know and love, and sitting back as the brand familiarity pays for itself. Maybe folks have gotten wise, or maybe the people making movies are just having an off year, but either way, it’s not working as reliably as it used to. Think of the movie industry like a big children’s soccer game, with everyone chasing after the highly lucrative ball regardless of what positions they’ve been assigned to play. The Gritty Reboot has now officially rolled out of bounds, and it’s starting to look like the gender-flip movie is the trend du jour.
It’s been a long, rough summer for Hollywood. Every week seems to bring some new bloated flop, arriving with great fanfare before dying a noisy death at the cineplex. (Did you know that they made a sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland? Seriously!) With Tinseltown approaching DEFCON 1, everyone’s in search of a way back into the huge untapped reserves of money lying dormant in America’s pockets.
So Disney clearly borrowed a page from Sony’s playbook, modeling their bigger Splash after July’s woman-fronted, troll-angering Ghostbusters reboot. Though the film’s box-office returns have been lackluster (it’s barely made back its $144 million budget), it undoubtedly generated more conversation than any other studio picture in recent memory, not all of it positive. And while creating a cultural flash point that left a huge imprint on the year’s zeitgeist may not be a substitute for having a runaway blockbuster, it’s perfectly understandable that rival studios would want to capitalize on that potential free publicity. The Mouse House had already doubled down on this gamble, too, with a “sequel reboot” to The Rocketeer starring a young woman of color also now in the earliest developmental stages.
Many of Ghostbusters‘ most ardent critics charged the film with merely being shameless gimmickry, which, while not entirely incorrect, is still pretty rich. The ironic thing is that the trolls railing against the picture were the same culture-consumers that cleared the way for the most common Hollywood gimmick of the last decade: the Gritty Reboot. Jolted into action by Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly successful trilogy of grown-up Batman movies, studios rushed to exhume the graves of their most beloved creative properties and reanimate them for a younger, edgier crowd. Some of these efforts, it bears mentioning, have been solid — Nolan’s films connected because they were a little smarter and more well-structured than the average studio film, and the recent toughened-up Planet of the Apes franchise is worth a look too. But the majority of them have mistaken humorlessness for maturity. (The critical dogpile on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice currently stands as the Gritty Reboot’s nadir.)
A small subgenre emerged, unified by its corpse-tone color palette, close-up shots of intense staring, and standard-issue anguished protagonists coping with internal conflict. This method of rejuvenating old properties was simple and easy to reproduce, the essence of a good gimmick, and so naturally these Gritty Reboots started popping up everywhere in short order. Survey the movies hyped at San Diego Comic-Con last month: fresh coats of paint applied to the usual cast of superheroes, another Blair Witch, new Kings Arthur and Kong. (The latter of which is scheduled do battle with new Godzilla in a future project.) Universal has laid track for a whole interconnected universe of Gritty Reboots built around their classic roster of monsters, and DC’s slate of features to come stretches out years into the future. The process that we might call grit-ification became the default move for executives hoping to goose an aging franchise with some modern appeal.
Three movies in, the gender-flip still has a long way to go before reaching the ubiquity of the grit-wave, but they do share the quality of gimmickry — and that’s not necessarily a negative thing. A gimmick, by definition, is nothing more than a novel strategy designed to catch attention and increase mass appeal. The gender-flip could supplant the Gritty Reboot as the hot new gimmick, but until it overstays its welcome, this move could be a pretty solid strategy. Reversing the gender dynamic in a film like Splash changes the whole fabric of the movie, converting a familiar man-cultivates-naive-woman narrative into something new. If this is creative bankruptcy, at least this specific type leaves more room for little sparks of originality, and the sum total of its effects in the industry is undeniably positive. (Women getting work is women getting work, after all.)
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At our most cynical, we’re all guilty of grumbling about how Hollywood insists on making the same movies over and over again, but all gimmicks are not created equal. If the gender-flip movement grows at the same rate as the self-serious revivals currently sweeping cineplexes like a dark-grey plague, audiences will eventually grow tired. Studios will get wise and come up with a new conceptual twist for a change of pace, continuing the cycle that’s gotten the film industry this far. And by the time that happens, there’ll be a lot more women headlining major big-budget releases. Hollywood insists on picking through its 30-year-old leftovers, fine — they still have the ability make the industry a better place to work while they do it. And if that means giving Kristen Wiig a proton pack and slapping a fishtail on Channing Tatum, so be it.