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Script Review: The Highlander Remake – There Can Be Only One, and This Ain’t It

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

In this SPOILER FILLED review, we lament over the script intended to reboot the Highlander franchise.

ImageHighlander was a solid fantasy/action film released in 1986 that told the tale of Conner MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert), a Scotsman born in the year 1518 “in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel,” who violently discovers that he is a member of a group of immortals who move silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives until the time of The Gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last, each hoping to win The Prize.  Though it told a complete, self-contained narrative – at the film’s climax MacLeod battles and kills the penultimate immortal, his arch-nemesis The Kurgan (played by Clancy Brown) and wins The Prize – its success demanded more.  Despite the difficulty of building a franchise upon a story that essentially left no room for one, several sequels and television series spin-offs were developed with varying success.  But since Hollywood has a memory of a 12-year-old with ADHD and the financial philosophy of Gordan Gekko, it’s time to slap a new coat of paint on the Highlander franchise and take it out for another spin, i.e. it’s reboot time!

I’ll admit that my geek-fueled gut reaction is to shout, “But wait!  There’s no need to remake Highlander!  It’s a great movie!”  But if I really stop and think about it, from reading the script it’s obvious that producers so badly want to build a new, more successful Highlander franchise that a remake is inevitable.  Trying to build more story on the foundation of the original film is, well, problematic to put it mildly.  You can pretend that the ending of the movie didn’t really happen, that wasn’t The Gathering, and Macleod didn’t win The Prize (basically what the Highlander TV show did), or you can go the WTF? route and decide that the immortals are really aliens from a planet called Zeist along with some other crazy shit, like what they did in Highlander 2: The Quickening.  However you go about it, the other big problem is that all of the original actors are too old now, so you’ve got to find fresh, bankable faces upon which to build the new Highlander franchise.  So now that we’ve reconciled ourselves with the fact that a remake is going to happen (and is due out ~2010, according to IMDB), let’s get right to the point.  What can we discern about the new film based on the script?

Well, let me put it this way.  If the original film is Windows XP – it’s been around for awhile, it may have a few problems, but all around it’s solid; people are happy with it – then this reboot is Windows Vista.  It’s an updated version of what we already had, made for no other discernible reason than to make more money, and while it’s fundamentally different on multiple levels, it’s most assuredly not a good kind of different.  It’s the bad kind of different that induces hair pulling and audible cursing and brand switching.  If this is where the Highlander franchise is going, I think I’ll be seeing something else at the cineplex on opening weekend, thank you very much.

What’s so bad about it?  Well, a while back I wrote a review of Joss Whedon’s original script for Alien: Resurrection and how it compared to the film.  In doing some research for that article I found a quote by Whedon in which he said “it wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong.”  I recalled this quote as I was reading the script for the Highlander remake.  Yes, they change a few things, including the ending, but mostly this is the same story with the same characters that we remember from the original.  It isn’t so much that the screenwriters (Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) are telling a different story, but that they are telling the same story in the wrong way.

For example, in the original film it is implied, though never clearly stated, that the immortals live by a certain code and that part of that code is to only use an edged weapon of choice (usually a sword) in their duels.  You never see an immortal pull a shotgun or AK-47 and unload on their opponent, then calmly walk over to take their head.  Yet in the remake the use of firearms is not only allowed, it is welcomed.  At one point in the script while Ramirez (MacLeod’s mentor, played by Sean Connery in the original) is teaching MacLeod how to fight, he tells him to always become proficient with the weapons of the time, and use whatever is necessary to gain an edge.  Later we see MacLeod employ a sniper rifle in the hope of catching The Kurgan unawares and dispatching him from a safe distance.  This all might be practical, but by including this element much of the charm of the original film is lost.

Additionally, while all of the major characters from the original are included in the remake mostly as they were, they’ve been changed in seemingly minor, but truly significant ways that render them all lesser characters.  Take The Kurgan.  He’s not unlike Hannibal Lecter.  Both villains are at their best when they’re left mysteries.  When little to no explanation is given as to WHY they are evil.  Remember Hannibal Rising?  Of course you don’t, because no one saw that film because it sucked.  I didn’t see it either, but apparently it explored how a young Hannibal Lecter became a serial killer.  Whatever the explanation was, I’m sure it was unsatisfying.  Just as unsatisfying as it was to learn the reason George Lucas came up with for why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in Episode III.  In much the same way, in the original we were not given any reason for WHY The Kurgan is evil, beyond some mutterings by Ramirez along the lines of Kurgan coming from a barbaric people that throw children to starving dogs for entertainment, or something like that.  However, in the remake Kurgan is infused with angst that comes in the form of resentment and a feeling of betrayal toward his father, who had the audacity to judge and sentence him to death for some heinous crimes he committed.  So apparently he’s evil and wants to plunge the world into darkness because he’s got daddy issues.  Sheesh.  And let’s not forget MacLeod. 

In the original movie it is implied that MacLeod has been living the last 500 years as both a lover and fighter.  Though never clearly stated, you get the impression that he’s had several great loves, and taken many a head of other immortals.  Like the others he lives to see The Gathering and gain revenge on Kurgan.  On her deathbed, his first wife Heather simply asks that MacLeod remember her by lighting a candle on her birthday.  Yet in the remake, MacLeod comes off as a pacifist.  Heather continually countermands Ramirez’s teaching by entreating MacLeod to not take up the violent life of an immortal.  Instead she implores him to live a peaceful life, even in her last moments.  When we meet him in present day New York, instead of an antique dealer we find that MacLeod is a history professor at a private college.  It’s made clear that MacLeod has chosen this career in part because of the protection it offers him.  Since he teaches at a Christian university, much of the campus is on what the immortals consider “holy ground.”  Another tenant of their common code is to never fight on any ground considered sacred to any religion, lest they offend that religion’s deity.  Additionally he’s been living something of a monastic lifestyle, refusing to let himself develop feelings for any other woman after the death of Heather.  The script even goes so far as to have MacLeod drop his sword in the climactic battle with Kurgan at the end and attempt to reason with him!  These are not the characters that made the original movie so much fun!  Or more precisely, these are the same characters, just wrong.  It’s like they’re Bizzarro versions of the originals, and we’re left wondering what happened to the real characters.

All that’s not to say that there aren’t some cool new things in this script.  For example, here when an immortal takes another’s head (the only way to kill them), by absorbing their Quickening (their essence/spirit), they gain some of their knowledge, memories, and personality ticks.  Early in the film MacLeod faces off against an immortal who habitually and individually pops the knuckles of his left hand.  After MacLeod kills him, we see that he now does the same thing.  The geek in me finds this incredibly cool, and while a minor detail (we geeks just LOVE details), I applaud the screenwriters for expanding on the Highlander mythos in ways big and small.  Regrettably, there’s too little of this exploration, and too much adherence to the original film.  To wit: 

Regarding the new ending of the remake (I did issue that SPOILER WARNING remember) I find it wholly unsatisfying.  As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, the original movie left little to no room for a sequel.  That movie encompassed the beginning, middle, and end.  There was no more story to tell.  Now, if someone wants to take that mythos and develop it into a franchise of multiple films, by all means, please do so.  Those are movies I would be interested in seeing, provided the storytelling is done properly, which I’m disappointed to say is not the case with this script.

The problem is that instead of taking the essential story of the original movie, and expanding upon it to allow for additional films, the screenwriters instead decide to tell almost exactly the same story, and simply pull a fast twist at the end to make room for more.  The Gathering takes place.  Instead of the 3 or 4 immortals that have survived long enough to show up in the original film, we get 20 or so.  In order to conform to a newly introduced tenant of their code, they all have to gather in the same church before The Gathering officially begins.  Kurgan, being the evil bastard that he is, decides to take advantage of this in a way that feels like he’s exploiting a cheap, barely legal loophole.  It makes me think of that kid you played tag with who was constantly changing the rules and improvising new ones to ensure he never lost.  Kurgan coerces the church chaplain into de-commissioning the church all of the immortals have gathered in.  This now means they’re not on holy ground, which frees Kurgan to start lopping off heads like a overly enthusiastic executioner.

The problem I have with this is, well I’m pretty sure that a priest can’t simply snuff out a candle and tell God to please vacate the premises, and that “de-sanctifies” the place.  My understanding is, if the immortals were standing on the grounds of an ancient temple belonging to a defunct religion, they’d still respect that space as holy ground.  I suppose the screenwriters are free to change the rules as they go, but this just doesn’t sit right wth me.

Addiitionally, after MacLeod and Kurgan finish their battle, which instead of taking place on that rooftop in the original now takes place through the streets on New York and ends in Central Park, we’re given every indication that, just like in the original, MacLeod has won The Prize.  But I told you that it is clear this remake is being setup as the first film in a franchise.  And I also told you that the screenwriters pull a fast one at the end.  Here’s how it goes down.

MacLeod and new love Brenda (also in the original) end up in a pub in Edinbourgh.  There MacLeod senses the presence of another immortal (oh yeah, they have this sort of radar that let’s them sense other immortals in the vicinity).  But who could this be?  MacLeod killed the only other remaining immortal when he slew Kurgan, didn’t he?  Lo and behold, it’s Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (of Spain), drunk and hitting on a woman at the bar.  If you don’t find this odd, that’s only because I forgot to mention that, just like in the original film, the remake gives us every indication that Kurgan kills Ramirez midway through the film at a point shortly after Ramirez finishes training MacLeod.  What pisses me off about this development is that it is only slightly less stupid than the stunt they pulled to bring Ramirez back in Highlander 2.  It also raises inconsistencies as well as questions.

When MacLeod asks basically, “What about The Gathering?”  Ramirez gives him a patronizing look like he’s a child arguing the existence of Santa Claus with “what about the eaten cookies and empty glass of milk?” and ends the movie by replying “This is only the beginning.”  So wait, if that wasn’t The Gathering, how did Ramirez know it wasn’t?  Why did the rest of the immortals think that it was?  Did Kurgan trick them all?  How the hell did he manage that?  And what about The Prize?  MacLeod thought he won it.  Shouldn’t he have known with certainty whether he had won it or not?  And if he indeed didn’t win it, than he should have known that and the surprise he felt at discovering Ramirez shouldn’t have occured.  And why the hell would Ramirez let his supposed friend think him dead for 500 years?  What an ass!

I suppose we’ll never know.  I would venture a guess that some of this will giet addressed in the sequel sure to follow this remake, but that would imply that the screenwriters are operating with some degree of intelligence.  After reading this script, I’m just not sure I believe that.