We know Hollywood is basically bankrupt when it comes to genuinely original ideas and telling a story that hasn’t already proven to turn a profit… even a minor one. Every year critics and audiences alike complain about the staggering amount of remakes, reboots, sequels, re-imaginings, rebootquels, and se-boots. But here they are anyway. Entertain us.
I’ll give most remakes a chance because, without them, we wouldn’t have John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly or HBO’s Westworld. There’s room for improvement a lot of the time because Hollywood still tends to be smart enough not to remake the stone-cold classics. Papillon is the perfect choice for a re-tooling since the original wouldn’t be thought of so highly if it wasn’t led by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Papillon follows the autobiography of Henri Charrière, nicknamed “Papillon,” a safecracker wrongly given a life sentence in a horrific prison in French Guiana. As he plots his escape, he meets meek millionaire Louis Degas, a rich forger who will underwrite Papillon’s escape if the safecracker protects him while in prison.
As iconic as McQueen and Hoffman are in the original, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Franklin J. Schaffner was one hell of a director (as he was also responsible for Patton and the original Planet of the Apes) but the script by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. didn’t take the time to get into the heads of Papi and Louis. Their escape attempts were underwhelming because we never really cared about the characters.
The remake is written by Aaron Guzikowski, who penned the underrated Prisoners, and he smartly spends most of the script making us empathize with Louis and Papillon so we’re invested in their epic adventure. If the remake had played a little more loosely with the (historically debated) story, then the film would have some intensity, but it’s so similar to the original that it never builds up its own head of steam.
As it stands, the remake of Papillon doesn’t really convince the audience that it needs to exist. Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are both fine as Papillon and Louis, respectively, and their chemistry gives the film more thematic depth than the original, but the film still plays like two hours of déjà vu.
Again, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but it’s a little too safe for a prison adventure based on a true story. If a film is going to be this underwhelming while recounting a true story, then sell me some lies if it’ll buy me some excitement.