If you’ve seen the promo pictures for Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show remake — groaningly subtitled Let’s Do the Time Warp Again — it probably won’t come as a surprise that the movie is an over-produced throwback that neuters the spirit of the 1975 cult classic. The original Rocky evokes the cheap thrills of the sci-fi B-movies from which it took its inspiration; the remake evokes Rocky itself. The result feels less like a creative reimagining of a classic for a new generation and more like your mom threw you a Rocky-themed birthday party. Why, Fox? Why?
The opening sequence illustrates the remake’s failure to capture Rocky’s magic: It reimagines the iconic red lips that mouth “Science Fiction/Double Feature” as an old-fashioned usherette (a character included in the stage version but not the 1975 film) with her jacket unbuttoned to reveal a lacy red bra underneath. As she sings, the usherette (Ivy Levan) takes tickets and shows people to their seats in a scene that would not be out of place at the beginning of a porno. When the camera closes in on her lips for the final line of the song, her creamy red lipstick is expertly applied, her teeth perfectly white and square. It all looks so polished and rehearsed, with none of the janky charm of the original.
There are several nods to the film’s source material: Director Kenny Ortega frames the movie as a show-within-a-show, periodically cutting back to the theater from the opening sequence to show audience members watching the same film we’re watching — including the rituals that grew out of midnight screenings in New York following the film’s initial release. Tim Curry offers an implicit endorsement by appearing in the role of the narrator/criminologist.
Broadway’s Reeve Carney delivers an irritatingly overblown performance as Riff-Raff, with a speaking voice that sounds like a decent imitation of Richard O’Brien’s low, throaty drawl. And yet every time he sings, his glossy vibrato takes him out of the character. In fact, most of the singers sound like they’re on American Idol, and they basically are.
Victoria Justice and Ryan McCartan are a solid Brad-‘n’-Janet — the irony of the characters’ aw-shucks earnestness works just as well now as it did in the 1970s. Christina Milian overdoes Magenta. Adam Lambert is a serviceable Eddie. As Columbia, Tony-winning Annaleigh Ashford steals every scene she’s in; she has a vaudevillian flair the others lack, and she brings something new to the character, giving her a voice like a weary Jersey stripper.
As Frank N. Furter, Laverne Cox gamely takes on one of independent cinema’s most iconic roles. She nails the character’s signature bemused, sing-song speaking voice, but she’s not much of a singer, and her version of Frank feels too benign, with none of the menacing overtones Tim Curry brought to the role. She never convinces you her Frank is as monstrous as the other characters make him out to be. It all feels so soft and gummy; my high-school production of Rocky had more bite than this.
Fox has taken this beautiful, tawdry rag of a film and ran it through the wash until it came out sparkling clean. The laboratory set resembles the antechamber to Laser Quest. Frank’s costumes look like something you’d get pre-packaged at a pop-up Halloween store. The actors’ makeup looks airbrushed instead of caked on thick and goopy and grotesque. The Transylvanians who act as the chorus in “Time Warp” look like professional backup dancers, not the extraterrestrial, slightly misshapen weirdos they’re meant to be.
In a way, this solemn if inadvertent lowering of the original film’s freak flag is a sign of progress. Casting a trans woman as Frank instead of a man dressed in women’s clothing — and airing the thing on network TV at primetime, not in a scuzzy Times Square theater at midnight — is a marker of how far we’ve come: It’s not so queer anymore to be queer. The most powerful moment in the film comes at the end, during “Fanfare/Don’t Dream It,” when Frank sings of Fay Wray’s “delicate, satin draped frame”: “As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry/ ‘Cause I wanted to be dressed just the same.”
The lines take on special resonance coming from Cox — the only time I felt the remake’s impact outside the context of nostalgia. In the end, Riff-Raff and Magenta leave Earth for “the planet Transsexual, in the galaxy Transylvania,” but in the decades spanning the original Rocky and Fox’s remake, we’ve realized that that planet was Earth all along.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again airs Thursday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. on Fox.