Ever notice two movies of similar subjects hitting theaters within a year of each other? It’s not coincidental. The studios are ever at one another’s throat for stories – and when one of them buys a good one, secrecy is attempted but often cannot be maintained. Then the almighty dollar drives other studios into a rip-off race to the box office.
The Road vs. The Book of Eli
Two post-acocalyptic feasts of visuals. The intriguing atmosphere of depression and loss, the drastic changes to familiar landscapes, has always been why we love these. In terms of realism, The Road is an easy winner, but only because Eli focuses on a blind man with superhuman hearing and martial arts prowess who has apparently received his abilities from God.
Realistically, however, The Road depicts a man protecting his young son, and the man avoids as many fights as he can, since he is no black belt and only has a revolver with only 1 bullet. He is more prepared to kill his son than fight against overwhelming numbers, since this will spare his son being eaten or tortured.
The Book of Eli is, on the surface, just another action movie with a nearly invulnerable protagonist. It also features cannibalism in one scene, and the hero being killed while protecting a companion. This one was a very good different take on the same subject, written by Gary Whitta in the literary wake of McCarthy’s novel winning the Pulitzer. Everyone knew it was superb film fodder, and Joel Silver quickly seized the opportunity to rip it off for a fun actioner, enlisting Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson of Alcon Entertainment, then Warner Brothers for most of the financing. Despite mostly terrible reviews, it nearly doubled its $80 million budget, while The Road, with glowing praise, barely made back its relatively low budget of $25 million.
Top Gun vs. Iron Eagle
One is a hunk vehicle that spawned dozens of pop-culture catchphrases. The other is a drama-less, half-hearted attempt at a storyline that spawned a dozen sequels. Top Gun is the film that launched Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer into super stardom (it’s the teeth) as the cockiest fighter aces in the Air Force. Standard storyline applies; you’ve seen it a thousand times. The recruits show up for training thinking they’ll take it all in stride, find a real tough instructor, overcome adversity, then beat all the bad guys in the end.
Iron Eagle is identical except that the damsel in distress is a man, the hero’s father. You can tell a hasty story when you see it. Sidney Furie pitched the idea to TriStar, who eagerly grabbed it to compete with Top Gun, and made their money back, but not much more. Lou Gosset, Jr. and David Suchet are the only class in this act, but then, in Air Force action movies, the planes and stuntflying take center stage.
Return of the Jedi vs. The Last Starfighter
Let’s just go ahead and call Return of the Jedi the winner of this one. It isn’t so much a duel, as Warner Brothers’ shameless attempt to capitalize on the space opera sci-fi craze with which George Lucas swept the whole world. Starfighter’s target audience is blatant: the hero gets into an intergalactic adventure after playing a video game. Craig Safan, with a 150-piece orchestra no less, does his level best to outdo John Williams, but melody has always counted more than orchestration.
As far as Return of the Jedi goes – well, it’s Return of the Jedi. It wins. It didn’t need two prequels backing it up, but it has them. The true value of Star Wars, and the one thing the three new movies sorely lack, is in the character archetypes. You’ve got the innately wise heroes of the Rebel Alliance versus the educated idiots that are stormtroopers; the damsel in distress; the magic weapon; black is evil, white is good; etc. The Last Starfighter is just like all the other rip-offs, academic and superficial.
Lincoln vs. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Everybody and his brother knows Spielberg has been planning a film on Honest Abe for 12 years. Finally, he found a book he liked and gave the green light. The hype was so great that Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the Vampire Hunter novel in only about a year, hoping to cash in on the Twilight craze and the last name suddenly on everyone’s lips again, at least in Hollywood. At that time, Liam Neeson, who is also 6 feet 4 inches, was Spielberg’s announced lead, but he left when the production delayed for a fourth time, considering himself to be too old.
The film appeared to be dead, until none other than Daniel Day-Lewis expressed interest. That was all Spielberg needed to hear. Vampire Hunter beat Lincoln to the release date, premiering on 22 June, but only because Spielberg wanted a date closer to Christmas. Is it an honest-to-Abe duel? Well, yes and no. Yes, Vampire Hunter used Spielberg’s long-gestating masterpiece as a cash cow, but the stories are so fundamentally different that they’re sort of like two galaxies spinning very near to each other. Their proximity makes them look like their fighting. Vampire Hunter won’t get too many Oscars, but Lincoln won’t get too many MTV Movie Awards.
Ben-Hur vs. Spartacus
Spartacus came about entirely because of Kirk Douglas, who desperately wanted the role of Judah Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur was a notoriously difficult role to cast, and the producers tried Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman, all of whom turned it down. They even tried Leslie Nielsen, who tested in several scenes. Douglas lobbied hard for the role, but director William Wyler thought he was too short and refused.
Charlton Heston, at 6 feet 3 inches, was finally cast, and this infuriated the 5’9″ Douglas, who rapidly set about looking for another epic script to show Sam Zimbalist and MGM the error of their ways. He chose Spartacus and pulled enough strings to get the ball rolling fast, but wasn’t able to get it made for the same Oscar race. Lucky him, really. Ben-Hur set an Oscar record that still stands. Spartacus is certainly a great film, all the same. Douglas assembled one of the most heavyweight casts the screen has ever seen. But Ben-Hur is religious, with a happy ending, and the critics liked it more largely because of this. Spartacus has zero religious influence, except for the coincidence of crucifixion.
Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano
When 20th Century Fox heard the rumors of a volcano action flick with the current James Bond on the page, they sent out the word for volcano disaster stories, paid Billy Ray and Jerome Armstrong for a quick one, and got to work. They needed star power, and Tommy Lee Jones agreed for a large salary. He actually did a good job, but Pierce Brosnan is his equal as a volcanologist trying to warn the titular town to evacuate.
Scientists universally agree that Dante’s Peak is more accurate, depicting the danger of the ashfall, the pyroclastic clouds, and the subductive blast, which is an exceptional sequence of special effects. Volcano seems to dumb down the science and give the audience lots and lots of lava. It’s also not based on any particular eruption, while Dante’s Peak is based mostly on Mount St. Helens. Dante’s Peak did better at the box office, mainly because it beat Volcano to the punch, premiering 2 months earlier – but both did well.
Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp
Kevin Costner was keen on the story of Wyatt Earp and agreed to play the lead in Kevin Jarre’s film, but wanted the story rewritten to center almost entirely on Earp. Jarre refused, and Costner left in a rage, swearing to make his own film and keep Jarre’s down. Jarre attracted the interest of Kurt Russell, who called on George Cosmatos for direction. Russell effectively directed Tombstone, telling Cosmatos how he wanted each scene. It is one of the more accurate Westerns in terms of all the minor details. Photographs of the historical figures were scrutinized for proper costumes, down to Ike Clanton’s ace of spades boots.
The film doesn’t dwell on Earp’s life, but focuses on the events leading up to the Gunfight at OK Corral, and the subsequent Vendetta Ride. Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is better than Dennis Quaid’s in Wyatt Earp, but the latter film’s only weak link is Costner’s cold, johnny-one-note portrayal of Earp. He almost acts manic depressive, a characterization brought on by the death of Earp’s first wife. Russell’s portrayal is much more multilayered. He smiles now and then. Costner did everything he could to destroy Tombstone at the box office, but when Wyatt Earp premiered, the public was effectively Earped out. Tombstone more than doubled its budget, while Wyatt Earp could not bring in even half of its own.
Deep Impact vs. Armageddon
Both of these films deal with giant meteors destroying Earth. Deep Impact hit theaters on 8 May 1998, well ahead of the July 4 weekend, because its producers, from Amblin Studio primarily, tried to counter the financial duel of Armageddon, and thus Armageddon’s release date was pushed back. Most respectable critics lambasted both films, but as is typical of such criticism, it only seems to draw more people to theaters.
They both did extremely well, with Armageddon taking in more money than any other film of the year. The first film mentioned in #1 was the second highest grossing. Science critics have since looked much more favorably on Deep Impact, which depicts the Almighty Nuke magically NOT succeeding until the very end, when the astronauts all sacrifice themselves. Meanwhile, they still don’t save the east coast of the United States, and the west coast of Europe and Africa.
Armageddon’s producers, mainly Jerry Bruckheimer, quickly added $3 million worth of computer generation to try to make it better, but unfortunately the story is a smelly thumbs-down. A single nuke successfully blows a stone asteroid (not an ice comet) the size of Texas perfectly in half in the nick of time. It would almost have been a good film if Ben Affleck had taken Bruce Willis’s place.
Braveheart vs. Rob Roy
This duel seems to have originated in a competition to see who could be more historically inaccurate. Braveheart at least has something of an excuse, since it’s based on a single source, and that’s poetry. Poetry isn’t all that factually reliable. Rob Roy had verifiable history to draw on and still changed the facts. Archibald Cunningham never existed.
Because Mel Gibson had only directed one film before, he did not run his production very efficiently and it went over budget. He used over 1 million feet of film for the Battle of Stirling. Michael Caton-Jones had more experience behind Rob Roy, and its not-quite-so-epic nature also made it easier. Randall Wallace (no relation to William) had been kicking his screenplay of Braveheart around Hollywood for years, so when Paramount and 20th Century Fox finally greenlighted it, it was no secret.
United Artists still needed to recuperate some of its losses from Heaven’s Gate 15 years earlier, and saw Scotland and its history as something new. They could tell Braveheart would be a cash cow if Gibson put his particular brand of violence on it, so they very quickly began producing Alan Sharp’s screenplay of Robert Roy MacGregor, and Caton-Jones opted for one outstanding swordfight instead of several thunderous hackfests. He was able to finish his first and get it into theaters one month earlier. Hard to say which is more entertaining.
Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line
When Spielberg makes a film, everyone in Tinsel Town knows about it – and reads all the news they can about the story, casting, and locations. This has been true ever since 1993, when he directed a fun blockbuster and a gritty and true drama mere months apart. So when he finally set out to make a WWII film to showcase its warfare, the rumors flew about how realistic it would be.
So 20th Century Fox recruited Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, and Phoenix Pictures, to produce its own WWII battle film – requiring a Pacific Front battle to counter Spielberg in Europe. Terrence Malick offered his directing service, since he’d had it in mind to turn James Jones’s titular novel into a film. He was smart not to focus on action, since he would probably never have passed the censors. Spielberg only did because he’s Spielberg, and he almost failed to persuade them.
Ryan’s theme is finding humanity “in the middle of this whole god-awful mess,” and its raison d’etre is showing the audience the most realistic depiction yet of warfare. Malick went in a different direction, with a theme of soldiers struggling to maintain their sanity. It’s one of the closest approaches film has made to poetry. Both did very well, with Red Line bringing back almost twice its $50 million budget. Ryan won outright, though, with five Oscars to Red Line’s zero (they were nominated in several of the same categories) and $481 million for a price of $70 million ($12 million of the former was spent on Omaha Beach alone).