With the recent resurgence of black-and-white cinema, it has become increasingly popular for high-profile filmmakers to embark on distinguished pictures that use the medium to highlight the powerful stories they’re hoping to tell. Robert Eggers‘s The Lighthouse, David Fincher‘s Mank, and Joel Coen‘s solo debut The Tragedy of Macbeth all come quickly to mind, and we can hardly imagine any of these pictures in any other light. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten in on the action with their made-for-streaming special presentation of Werewolf by Night, invoking classic Universal Monster Movies such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf-Man in the process.
Yet, in the 21st century, a strange trend has developed regarding monochromatic pictures, primarily in the action and thriller genres, where previously released films–movies meant to be seen in color–were re-released in a black-and-white format. Though not the first to do this, the trend gained notoriety with the black-and-white re-release of George Miller‘s 2014 action spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road, an edition subtitled Black and Chrome. Others soon followed suit, and the trend has reached back into the annals of film history with the 2022 re-release of the 1995 Keanu Reeves-led cyberpunk picture Johnny Mnemonic.
When asked about the decision to re-release this long-forgotten picture without its trademark color schemes, director Richard Longo told Screen Slate that Johnny Mnemonic: In Black and White was closer to what he had envisioned years ago. “[It was] the most radical way of kind of imprinting how I really wanted it, because I wanted to make it in black-and-white originally.” He later elaborated that though the old colored graphics looked “retro,” in grayscale there’s a sort of unique quality to it that makes the film stand out. In a way, Longo’s monochrome re-release was even more retro.
How Can a Black-and-White Re-Release Reimagine a Director’s Vision
The director’s admission that Johnny Mnemonic: In Black and White is closer to his original vision for the dystopian sci-fi is, in many ways, reason enough to justify the black-and-white revival. Naturally, any filmmaker who was unsatisfied with their theatrical release has the right to update and re-cut their feature into something that better resembles what they had initially gone for. This is why director’s cuts, extended editions, special editions, etc. exist in the first place. George Lucas himself is the poster child for post-release manipulation, and though many prefer the theatrical cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy, there’s a case to be made that Lucas’ desire to “fix” the trilogy according to what he saw in his head is almost admirable.
In some sense, a black-and-white re-release may do something similar. Take Guillermo del Toro‘s Nightmare Alley for instance. A month after the film’s release, the film returned to theaters for a special black-and-white presentation dubbed Vision in Darkness and Light. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film’s re-release was directly tied to its poor box-office returns amidst a resurgence of COVID-19 in the winter of 2021-22. Released almost as a spectacle, Vision in Darkness and Light captures the film from an instinctively different point of view, highlighting the suspense and leaning heavily into the noir influences (its source material is a 1946 mystery novel after all). In fact, according to Vanity Fair, parts of the film – specifically the carnival at night sequences – were meant to look as if they were black-and-white in the first place, most likely in homage to the 1947 feature of the same name.
As one of few films in cinema history to be released theatrically in both color and black-and-white simultaneously (and look amazing either way), the different versions of Nightmare Alley, though identical twins in content, are clearly fraternal in look and feel. One introduces us to this almost painted world full of color and light, which almost helps lure us into a false sense of beautiful security and familiarity, while the other feels darker, forcing us to pay a bit more attention. “…the carnival in black-and-white looks infinitely grittier,” del Toro told the media outlet, emphasizing his love for both versions equally. “…and the city looks infinitely colder. We used to call the two versions Betty and Veronica — because Archie is never sure if he’s in love with Betty or he’s in love with Veronica.” But Nightmare Alley isn’t the only film with a successful black-and-white edition that changes the way we participate in the story.
Black and White Gives ‘Logan Noir’ Added Heaviness
When teasing audiences leading up to the release of 2017’s Logan, director James Mangold posted a series of black-and-white stills and publicity photos from the production. These pictures mostly consisted of Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine, but nevertheless set the stage and tone for what followed, invoking the covers of many of Johnny Cash‘s later American albums, which likewise influenced Mangold’s vision. This whetted the appetites of fans interested in a possible black-and-white edition, and it wasn’t long before Mangold announced Logan Noir‘s brief tenure in theaters. When questioned if the film was nothing more than a de-saturated take on the original, Mangold replied on his Twitter that “To make a great B&W version of a film, the whole thing’s gotta be regraded & timed shot by shot.”
Like Nightmare Alley, Logan Noir is fundamentally the same motion picture, even if the logos at the beginning are switched out for a more retro look. The character beats are the same, the score still tracks, and the camera work looks just as magnificent as ever. But there’s a heaviness to Logan Noir that supersedes that of the theatrical cut. In black-and-white, Logan somehow feels more intimate, more vulnerable. There’s a gravitas there that enhances the experience and makes Wolverine’s last hurrah feel more finite. Because of the film’s lack of color, we know that our time with the former X-Man, in this world anyway, is short, which informs how we view his final days. In monochrome, Hugh Jackman shows that his performance stands tall on its own, and if you were to swap out the black-and-white for a handheld Sony, he’d still as exceptional as ever.
Upon re-watching Logan Noir, it’s obvious why fans wanted to see Mangold’s superhero western differently than before. The lack of color highlights the cinematography just as well as the performances, with frames that look as if they should be hung as prominently as portraits on a barren wall or a photography exhibit. Of course, Logan looked great before, but the Noir cut helps the audience to focus on what Mangold saw when he envisioned Logan’s final hour. He saw a man ultimately at war with himself, and that arguably comes across in a more compelling way in grayscale.
Black and White Can Make a Movie Better
Perhaps surprisingly, black-and-white re-releases can just make movies better. Besides simple fan requests or revisits of directorial vision (though those certainly still apply), sometimes movies are converted into a “colorless” spectacle because it’s just what’s best for the film. The Mist is a powerful example of this, and while the horror flick is exceptional on its own–faithfully adapting Stephen King‘s original story with a new gut-punch ending–its conversion is of note because it was the first American production in the 21st century to do it. No doubt, the black-and-white cut of The Mist inspired plenty of others, and it’s no wonder why. Featured as an extra upon the film’s Collector’s Edition DVD release, The Mist in black-and-white genuinely makes the movie better.
Since The Mist already feels like something out of a 1960s B-horror, the grayscale only adds to that “classic monster movie” vibe that Marvel Studios’ Werewolf by Night would later adopt as its own. Though in this case, it’s more reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead than Creature from the Black Lagoon. The lack of color boosts the film’s creep factor up to eleven, juxtaposing nicely with the gloomy and helpless atmosphere that closes out the production. Practically, the black-and-white cut also gives the film some longevity by making the aged CGI monsters look, well, not nearly as dated as most 2007 CGI looks these days. Many of them blend into the enhanced shadows, and those that don’t aren’t at all distracting.
In his introduction to the film’s alternate cut, director Frank Darabont explains that black-and-white “gives you a view of the world that really doesn’t exist in reality.” Continuing on, he reveals that he always wanted to do The Mist in black-and-white, deeming it his preferred version. Not unlike how Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light makes del Toro’s original theatrical cut spookier and arguably more intense, the monochromatic cut of The Mist does the same. This is especially true in the film’s ending sequence. To avoid some massive spoilers, let’s just say that Thomas Jane‘s final scene in the original colored version is hard enough to watch, but in black-and-white it feels even worse–and somehow, that’s actually a good thing. But despite the few successes, not every black-and-white re-release feels particularly necessary…
Are Black-and-White Remakes Really Necessary?
While there are some sequences that are genuinely interesting to see in grayscale, the alternate take on Mad Max: Fury Road strips the high-octane action film of one of its most valuable assets: color. The colors in Fury Road don’t just highlight the action but present a breathtaking backdrop that represents something more than just innate beauty. The setting of Fury Road, particularly outside the Citadel, is meant to be a direct contrast to the broken, slavish world of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). It symbolizes freedom and beauty and is contrasted by the brutal harshness of the elements and those who seek to overcome them. The film’s stylized colors are some of the most enjoyable parts of this hyperextended car chase, which makes removing them almost tragic.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a breathtaking picture on its own, and though the novelty of a Black and Chrome version is exciting upfront, it doesn’t hold up when you watch them side-by-side. Unlike Nightmare Alley, Logan, or The Mist, Blood and Chrome doesn’t really match the tone or the genre. Of course, Fury Road isn’t the only movie to suffer in this regard. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a superhero epic that delivers in terms of character arcs, outstanding visuals, and fascinating worldbuilding, trying (and succeeding) to echo the grand visual style of something like Peter Jackson‘s The Lord of the Rings. But, despite the profound scale, the film suffers when converted to black-and-white.
Though the Justice Is Grey cut of Snyder’s famed Justice League does everything right on paper, the grim-dark look is completely unnecessary when you consider how muted the colors of the Snyder Cut already are compared to the inferior Joss Whedon theatrical. Undoubtedly, Snyder’s director’s cut is loads better than Whedon’s, and his vision is more than enough to keep audiences interested and build a compelling DC Universe. But the black-and-white re-edit doesn’t do the League justice at all. The further muting of the already muted world takes one out of the experience, and while other comic book movies are built for the grayscale look and feel, the World’s Greatest Superheroes deserve a bit better.
There’s no doubt that monochrome versions of your favorite films can be an interesting and often enjoyable experience. By subtracting color, they add a different context to the world that the filmmakers are ushering you into, and make you think differently about the tone and theme. More than that, they can transport you into that world for a time while also reminding you that this is not reality. These conversions can be done poorly of course, but they can also be done exceedingly well. While it’s unclear what the future looks like for the black-and-white re-release, or if more features will explore this trend in the future, it’s clear that monochromatic movies aren’t going away any time soon, and that’s probably a good thing.