by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I'd like to give a shout-out to Netflix, as well as the shattered remnants of my fragile brain, for their ongoing efforts to inspire me with ideas for the blog. There are few creative impulses as satisfying as sitting on the couch with my family, watching a movie, when suddenly that little light bulb goes off in my head, and I find myself inspired to thrill you, oh faithful reader, with my latest bit of useless trivia. (The best way to describe this feeling is like watching a fireworks display – it means, Yay! I've got something new to write about!)

To wit: Last week, Netfilx sent us 1995's Rob Roy from our DVD queue, a movie I'd been meaning (and neglecting) to show the wife for a good long while now. (Why Rob Roy? Well, you can never go wrong with an authentically romantic movie, as far as she's concerned. In this one, Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange have a palpable romantic chemistry that's always impressed me. Plus, there's swordfighting. So, you know – best of both worlds.) I told her the movie was a lot like Braveheart, just to put things in perspective – Scottish accents, grand gestures of love and honor, kilts, all that – and off into the player it went. Long story short, she liked the movie (though, admittedly, not as much as Braveheart). Her only question was, "How tall is Liam Neeson, anyway?" since the guy seemed to be towering over his co- stars (which, after some checking, I found out he's roughly 9'7" tall.)

Speaking of Braveheart, when Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning epic came out in May of 1995, I remember it drew a lot of comparisons to Rob Roy, which had just been released to theaters a month before. Looking at both movies, they share the same basic outline: They're both set in Scotland, centuries ago, they're based on real-life Scottish folk heroes, both protagonists launch a crusade against tyranny after they've been shamed in some way, the villains are primarily English, and there are plenty of violent clashes with swords (Rob Roy's battles, however, are mostly one-on-one). That's where the similarities end. Gibson's movie is much wider in scope, and it captured the hearts of audiences (grossing $75,609,945 in U.S. dollars) in a way that Rob Roy, for all its subtlety and menace, never quite did (box office: $31,596,911). Braveheart paints its themes with broad strokes, and features none other than King Edward I as its main antagonist, while Rob Roy tells a smaller, more personal story, with an enemy so vile (played with seething intensity by Tim Roth), he gets under your skin.

Both films have their merits, of course, but the timing of their theatrical releases is undeniably odd. Two period-piece adventures, practically identical in concept, playing in theaters at the same time? You have to wonder if Paramount (who distributed Braveheart) got wind of MGM's plans to produce Rob Roy and rushed their story of William Wallace into production. Or vice versa. Or was it pure coincidence – two studios simultaneously conjuring up the same idea, independent of each other? (As an added bit of coincidence/design, actor Brian Cox appears in both films.)

Either way, this idea of competing films with similar story structures is nothing new to Hollywood. It's a tradition that's existed long before 1995 and since, be it volcanoes, asteroids or vengeful cowboys. (The latest contenders: two concurrent projects based on Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, one starring Julia Roberts, and the other with Charlize Theron and Twilight's Kristen Stewart.) Opinions between films may differ to this day, but is it true that the first of these titles out of the gate always takes the box office crown? Here's a list of seven examples, in order of release (all box office numbers are unadjusted for U.S. inflation):

Box Office Battle: Nuclear Threat!

Contender #1: Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964); starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens

Contender #2: Fail-Safe (1964); starring Peter Fonda, Walter Matthau

Plot For Both: Miscommunication between Russian and United States powers inadvertently leads to nuclear war.

A Little Background: Irony alert: Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe were produced by the same studio. How's that for a conflict of interest? Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick forced Columbia Pictures to release Fail-Safe ten months after his own movie. Eugene Burdick's novel Fail-Safe (published in 1962) follows the plot of Peter George's 1958 Red Alert so closely that George sued Burdick for plagiarism (the case was later settled out of court). Coincidentally, George collaborated on the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove with Kubrick and Terry Southern.

How They Compare: Released in January of 1964, Dr. Strangelove is a scathing, irreverent satire on real-life Cold War tensions of the time. It's also got iconic performances (with Peter Sellers playing three separate roles) and classic one-liners quoted to this day ("Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"). Fail-Safe is more a straight-forward thriller with a palpable doomsday feel, and isn't funny at all. Pick your poison.

Final Tally: Kubrick's movie grossed $9,164,370 in U.S. theaters. After a couple of hours of scouring the Internet, I couldn't find final numbers for Fail-Safe – though pretty much everyone agrees it was a box office bomb (pun not intended). Why no documented box office tally? I smell a cover up...

Box Office Battle: Body Swap!

Contender #1: Like Father, Like Son (1987); starring Dudley Moore, Kirk Cameron

Contender #2: Vice Versa (1988); starring Judge Reinhold, Fred Savage

Contender #3: 18 Again! (1988); starring George Burns, Charlie Schlatter

Plot For All Three: A boy magically switches bodies with his father/grandfather/parental figure; valuable life lessons ensue.

A Little Background: Call it the Freaky Friday syndrome: No less than three competing studios simultaneously decided that audiences were just aching for that old Barbara Harris/Jodie Foster Disney magic.

How They Compare: All three don't really count as "movies" in the conventional sense, if by "movie" you mean a series of artistic shots competently edited together into a cohesive whole. Both Like Father, Like Son and 18 Again! feature grating, ham-handed performances masquerading as comedy; Vice Versa, while certainly no masterpiece, is at least semi-tolerable.

Final Tally: Like Father, Like Son: $34,377,585. Vice Versa: $13,664,060. 18 Again!: $2,567,099. A classic case of diminishing returns, though I can't believe the one with Dudley Moore actually took in $34 million in ticket sales. That's got to be a typo...

Box Office Battle: Underwater Terror!

Contender #1: DeepStar Six (1989); starring Greg Evigan, Nancy Everard, Miguel Ferrer

Contender #2: Leviathan (1989); starring Peter Weller, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson

Contender #3: The Abyss (1989); starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

Plot For All Three: Undersea workers encounter Something Horrifying deep beneath the earth's surface.

A Little Background: Leviathan, strangely enough, boasts a screenplay credit by David Webb Peoples (who wrote Blade Runner, and later, Unforgiven) and Jeb Stuart (who would go on to co-script The Fugitive), plus creature effects from the late, great Stan Winston. The connection between the other two is a bit more personal: Writer Lewis Abernathy sold his DeepStar screenplay just as buddy James Cameron was prepping The Abyss for production.

How They Compare: DeepStar Six and Leviathan offer Z-grade shocks with B-grade actors. The Abyss is at once more ambitious and well-made, with a surprisingly potent love story at the center of its extra-terrestrial shenanigans. (Watch Cameron's 171-minute "Special Edition" for a more well- rounded version of his alien subplot.)

Final Tally: DeepStar Six – $8,143,225, Leviathan – $15,704,614, The Abyss – $54,222,000. Proof that the race to theaters doesn't always guarantee success – but it helps if your movie is actually good.

Box Office Battle: Nina! Pinta! Santa Maria!

Contender #1: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992); starring Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, Georges Corraface

Contender #2: 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992); starring Gerard Depardieu, Sigourney Weaver

Plot For Both: In the year 1942, Columbus sailed the ocean blue...

A Little Background: For the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America, Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures launched two rival adventures chronicling his historic voyage. Producer Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Superman) chose director Ridley Scott to spearhead The Discovery, but Scott turned down their offer to work on his own Columbus project, later titled 1492.

How They Compare: Directed by James Bond veteran John Glen, The Discovery is a serviceable picture that plays like a live-action textbook. Ridley Scott's Conquest Of Paradise boasts richer production design and photography (plus Vangelis' memorable, majestic music score), but it moves at a snail's pace.

Final Tally: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery – $8,251,071, 1492: Conquest Of Paradise – $7,191,399. Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue, but his cinematic journeys clearly failed to yield much green.

Box Office Battle: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral!

Contender #1: Tombstone (1993); starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott

Contender #2: Wyatt Earp (1994); starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman

Plot For Both: Frontier marshal Wyatt Earp battles evil-doers in Tombstone, Arizona.

A Little Background: Kevin Costner and screenwriter Kevin Jarre had originally set out to restore the legendary gunfight to full 90's glory, until Costner left to work on Wyatt Earp with director Lawrence Kasdan instead. Costner then convinced almost every major Hollywood studio to refuse distribution of Tombstone (Disney/Buena Vista eventually picked up the tab). It's also rumored that Costner bought up every Western costume in the U.S., forcing the makers of Tombstone to rent their clothing from Europe.

How They Compare: If that last bit of trivia is indeed true, that would explain a lot: Wyatt Earp looks and feels like an authentic, down-and-dirty Western, while Tombstone looks like some foreigner's dandy-fied, movie-fed version of the same period. Costner is way too dour (as usual) as the legendary lawman, and his movie makes the same points over and over again just to pad out its three-hour running time; Tombstone moves at a friskier pace but its filmmaking is often too goofy for its own good. The two movies can best be summed up by their Doc Hollidays: For Earp, Dennis Quaid shed over 30 pounds to play the tubercular role, and his performance is a method-acting marvel. For Tombstone, Val Kilmer isn't quite so devoted, but he's sure a lot more fun.

Final Tally: Tombstone – $56,505,065, Wyatt Earp – $25,052,000. All hail the power of a less-epic, less-bloated running time.

Box Office Battle: Asteroids!

Contender #1: Deep Impact (1998); starring Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman

Contender #2: Armageddon (1998); starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton

Plot For Both: Astronauts embark on a perilous mission to stop a massive asteroid headed towards Earth.

A Little Background: Because nothing says "blockbuster summer entertainment" like the total destruction of everyone on the planet. Paramount/DreamWorks and Touchstone Pictures' multi-character, multi-plotline disaster epics exploded in theaters within two months of each other. Coincidence? Not so, says Deep Impact co-writer Bruce Joel Rubin, who claims that a "president at Disney" stole his ideas for the movie during a business lunch.

How They Compare: Ugh – do I have to pick one over the other? Deep Impact is a somber, syrupy character study about courage and redemption in the face of worldwide annihilation... and I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Armageddon, courtesy director Michael Bay, is the exact opposite of somber, with an average shot length of 2.8 seconds and explosions every ten minutes for audiences suffering from ADD. Either way, they each gave me a headache I still can't shake off.

Final Tally: Deep Impact: $140,464,664. Armageddon: $201,578,182. Clearly audiences in 1998 had absolutely nothing better to do with their time.

Box Office Battle: When Zoo Animals Attack!

Contender #1: Madagascar (2005); starring Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer

Contender #2: The Wild (2006); starring Kiefer Sutherland, James Belushi, William Shatner

Plot For Both: Animals from New York's Central Park Zoo venture out into the wild to rescue one of their own.

A Little Background: Though Disney's movie came after Madagascar, screenplay ideas for The Wild actually began to circulate in 1991. No telling how DreamWorks got their hands on the exact same plot, but again, the timing is odd – especially when you consider DreamWorks had pulled this kind of thing before, rushing their 1998 debut animated feature, Antz, into theaters a full two months before A Bug's Life.

How They Compare: Madagascar follows DreamWorks' tired old formula of in-jokes and pop culture references first, plot and character development a distant second. The Wild suffers by comparison, with characters (lions, giraffes and penguins – oh my!) and story beats which are virtually the same. I also wouldn't think it possible, but the animation in The Wild is actually less charming than anything in Madagascar – and the jokes a lot less funny, too.

Final Tally: Madagascar – $193,595,521, The Wild – $37,384,046. Proving that, sometimes, no matter who wins, we all lose.


Also of note (but a lot less fun to write about): Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again (both 1983), K-9 vs. Turner & Hooch (1989), Gordy vs. Babe (1995), Dante's Peak vs. Volcano (1997), The Truman Show (1998) vs. EdTV (1999), The Illusionist vs. The Prestige (both 2006), Paul Blart: Mall Cop vs. Observe And Report (2009).

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