Over the weekend, I watched two summer blockbusters that I skipped out on in the theaters for sake of eventual DVD rental: Batman Begins and Land of the Dead. While I still stick behind my reasons for not seeing them in the theater (annoying audience members, endless commercials and trailers, ticket cost being half the price of the movie on DVD, etc.), I'm glad I finally saw them in some form or another.
I had reservations about Batman Begins because in my mind, I had already seen a dark Batman movie: Tim Burton's Batman. Well, I realized after watching Batman Begins that you can go much darker than that. Without giving the movie away, Batman Begins focuses on the pathos and the drive of a young Bruce Wayne as he becomes Batman. This attention is more fleshed-out than anything I've ever seen or read on the character before. In the case of Land of the Dead, class and administration are put under the microscope as more zombies keep looking for human flesh. Yes, there is plenty of gruesome zombie munching in this, but this is probably the second best of Romero's "of the Dead" series (right behind Dawn of the Dead).
It occurred to me while watching these flicks how wayward they could have gone given to the wrong hands. The simple act of character development makes all the difference in the world. In the case of Batman Begins, I'm hard pressed to find a one-note character. Even the supporing roles are multi-faceted. One of best ones is Katie Holmes' character, Rachel Dawes. She could have been this lovestruck damsel in distress as her no-brainish ways get her into trouble. However, we see her as a strong, but likable friend of Bruce Wayne's since childhood who is now a district attorney trying to take down a crime warlord. Amazing how adding just a few extra layers draws more in.
With Land of the Dead, a premise of a zombie attack could have been perfect fodder for the splatter flick formula. One-note characters could have been slowly picked off because of one reason or another, but not if George Romero has anything to do with it. In his hands, the consequences of ignorance and greed happen mostly to the ones that revel in it. This isn't the kind of criticism that you usually get in a horror movie, but this isn't just a horror movie.
Big-budget mainstream flicks are often designed by smart businessmen thinking they can make something for a large, unsophisticated audience. Just like how the upper-crust residents of Fiddler's Green in Land of the Dead sit in their high-rise apartments, the sights of a movie becoming dulled down into emotionless drivel is ignoring the problem. If you want a large audience to keep coming back to something, you must make something that will draw people back to it after their first viewing. All kinds of research can give some ideas as to what might work and what might not work, but anything can happen.
As I've said before, the true success of anything is that it gets made and is released in some capacity. People too often confuse its business earnings with artistic success. It's funny how many of the most beloved movies of all time, like It's a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane, weren't instant box office smashes. Don't tell me how the industry is different now and how trying to make something new is tough. Seeing Batman Begins and Land of the Dead proves that adding more layers and giving a truly fresh take on something does work. Simply putting a fresh-faced actor or actress and a hot director in the hands of a remake doesn't guarantee that this will work. It just doesn't make any sense to me that a Xeroxed remake of something that has stood the test of time will be a big draw. I know that a lot of people often go to the movies just to see something new (whether it's good or not). If something like Spider-man 2 and the Lord of the Rings movies pull something strong out of a large audience, then what makes people think that a film version of Dukes of Hazzard will do the same?