'Papillon' (2018) Movie Review

Updated on January 8, 2019
John Plocar profile image

We all aspire an escape from our own personal prison, I totally relate to this.

Another Title Added to the Growing List of Remakes

I find this movie somewhat difficult to judge objectively on its own merits since I have seen and truly love the 1973 original Papillon starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this remake of Papillon, it’s fine. However, that’s also the problem. It’s just fine. The direction is fine. The acting is fine. The writing is fine. The sets are fine. The makeup and effects work are fine. The cinematography is fine. Everything is fine. But when you stack up something that’s ‘fine’ against a masterpiece, it feels rather pointless even existing. Why watch this new adaptation that is simply ‘okay’ when I can watch the far superior version already? The original, I would categorize as one of the top one hundred greatest films I have ever seen; it has a grand scope quality to the writing with its world building and it’s unbelievable cinematography, the type of ambitious filmmaking that was abundantly present in that time during the ‘New Hollywood’ era of the 1970s. This modern take lacks that grand scope and ambition seen in its predecessor, which is sorely missed when someone has seen the ’73 classic.

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon (1973)
Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon (1973)

I’m Trying Here…

The story follows Henri Charriere, also known as Papillon, a skilled safecracker that is convicted of a murder that he did not commit and is sentenced to a penal colony on Devi’s Island in French Guiana. A brutal and totally uncompromising prison where no man has ever escaped. On the boat shipping the inmates to South America, Papillon meets a timid counterfeiter by the name of Louis Dega, making an agreement to keep Dega alive in prison so long as he returns the favor by aiding his attempts to escape. From there, our uneasy alliance ensues as they face against the unrelenting terrors within the prison walls as well as possibly fatal challenges that they face when trying to escape.

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in Papillon (2018)
Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in Papillon (2018)

In an attempt to critique this movie completely on its own without comparing it to the original, I will say that there is nothing glaringly bad about the Papillon remake. I wouldn’t even call this remake a bad movie in general. If someone who had no prior knowledge of the 1973 film went into the 2018 movie, they would probably not have much negatively to say about it. The remake has a good story, it has likable enough characters and it is well made. Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are solid in their roles, they have decent enough chemistry and Hunnam must surely be applauded for his efforts as he clearly goes through a substantial physical transformation here that I thought was impressively done. All around, the remake is competent and I thought it served a satisfactory enough sit.

I wouldn’t say that it is a great film if someone ignored the original, but it would probably grade significantly better than how I’m feeling about it right now. I don’t hate it by any means, I would still give it a passing grade, but if I were asked to recommend this exact same story to someone and therefore have to choose between the remake or the original then there would be no contest. Sadly, I don’t have a whole lot to say about the movie on its own. It’s just fine. Nothing rage inducing nor awe inspiring about it. Nothing incompetently crafted, nothing expertly executed. It lies somewhere in the middle of good and bad, that middle is called ‘just freaking fine’. If someone were curious to see it, I would say that it is harmless enough to give it a watch, but I would urge them to seek out the Steve McQueen film instead.

Shot By Shot

1973
1973
2018
2018

This is pretty much what one would call a ‘shot by shot’ remake. A remake of a movie that is basically taking the same storyline and doing it practically exactly the same as before. There is nothing that justifies this story being reinterpreted here because the story is literally completely untouched from the one portrayed in the 1973 film. Every plot point remains identical to the original, only this time it has been relatively sped up in its pace, eliminating approximately fifteen to twenty minutes of the script while wedging in a few action beats. However with the McQueen movie, I felt as though I were experiencing this hell along with the prisoners. It was an engaging descent into one man’s obsession for freedom as the years piled on with his whole life being kept behind bars. The Hunnam film feels as though it were a rushed version of the character piece previously seen while no one has as much of a personality either, making me rather uninvested in what went on with the characters.

Hunnam is so disappointed.
Hunnam is so disappointed.
There's better out there for you, buddy!
There's better out there for you, buddy!

When the action comes into the narrative it is a little awkwardly forced in since the story is exactly the same as before with a slow burn pace, but then a fight or gunfire would break out only to be resolved fairly quickly. The action itself is fine, it is shot well enough and the actors hold their own in the choreography. To me though, it felt slightly odd to see the filmmakers obviously try to shove in some action sequences in order to pump up the intensity when it never calls for it nor does it add much suspense to begin with. Unlike its successor that held sheer intense and heart pounding sequences that put me on the edge of my seat, this on the other hand, decides to take a more conventional approach with adding fights or chase scenes; they’re fine, but they’re nothing all that special.

Well... crap.
Well... crap.
That's okay little movie, you tried. Take a nap now.
That's okay little movie, you tried. Take a nap now.

Why Settle?

To bring this review around in a full circle, I find this movie rather difficult to recommend. It’s not terrible, it’s not even bad. But when someone could just as easily watch the 1973 Papillon instead then why settle for less? With the original, the story is better paced and fully realized. The characters are memorable, charismatic, and you route for them all the way. The cinematography is phenomenal to say the least. The acting is all incredible with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman giving some of the best performances of their careers. I simply don’t understand and cannot comprehend a reason for the remake to exist when it is taking the exact same plot line and doing nothing new with it. It is a recreation of a masterpiece, nothing more. There’s nothing to differentiate itself, there’s nothing original included, nothing added to supply a more faithful historical accuracy, there’s far less ambition interjected into the filmmaking aspects of it, there’s nothing that compels me to ever say, “Hey, check this out”. Aside from one specific scene that took a more cerebral method for showing Papillon’s breakdown in prison, I found myself kind of bored through most of it since it was only going through the motions without doing anything of its own. It relied on the structure of the original and simply rehashed the material all over again. If you want a cinematic epic spectacle that portrays a man’s obsession to escape, watch the 1973 Papillon. If you want to just pass the time for a couple hours, watch the 2018 Papillon. If you want a spiritual successor of the original Papillon, also starring Charlie Hunnam, containing all of the incredible ambition of the ‘New Hollywood’ era of filmmaking with a story spanning over several years centered on one man’s obsession then watch The Lost City of Z. That’s all I have to say on the subject; the original is great, the remake is subpar.

The superior film.
The superior film.

Do You Have A Preference?

Have you seen both adaptions of Papillon? Which is your favorite version?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2019 John Plocar

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