This week we get the glorious release of Observe and Report. While I’m looking forward to it, the film reminds me of another movie of recent memory–one Paul Blart: Mall Cop. This isn’t the first time this has happened.
In the advertising campaign for Observe, Warner Bros. has gone way out of their way to make sure you don’t remember Paul Blart at all. You’ll never hear mention of the word “cop” in the trailer, and Seth Rogen’s film is played more for quirky dark comedy than the bumbling farce that came before. I don’t doubt they are very different movies, but I have to stop and ask myself, “what are the chances that two different studios came up with the same basic concept (making a movie about mall cops) at exactly the same time?” Answer: slim to none.
I don’t claim to have any inside information. I’d like to think that a spy from Sony Pictures snuck into Warner Studios (or vise versa) and got secret spy photos of Kevin James’ headshot and a synopsis of the film, but I doubt it was that dramatic. Most likely, one producer heard about the idea through the grape vine or through the trades and thought of a new spin on the pitch. They then went into a mad race to write, cast, shoot, edit, and release their dueling films. Release dates were carefully considered, and the two warring factions began doing everything in their power to distance themselves from the “other” mall cop movie.
It seems kind of ridiculous. You’d think Hollywood producers could steal an idea, lock it in a lockbox and pull it out in two or three years. But Hollywood is a world of NOW, and if an idea is hot, it must be made immediately. So much for originality.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, though. I mean, it’s not like this happens all the time, right? Think again. There is a whole slew of dueling movies of every genre that found themselves being shot and released at roundabout the same time. Don’t believe me? Well here we go..
I’m just going to look at two years of big-budget filmmaking–the two years that seemed most rife with dueling pictures. So I’m going to ask you to throw the switch on your mental flux-capacitor and reach way back to the year…1997.
The first, Volcano, got straight to the point with its title. Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, the movie explored a “what-if” scenario of a silent volcano erupting under a major city–Los Angeles, of course.
Dante’s Peak, on the other hand, took a more straightforward approach. Starring Pierce Brosnan as a researcher that discovers that a previously inactive volcano is now active (nobody wants to believe him, of course), the movie becomes a race through a maze of obstacles and perilous hot-stuff more akin to Twister (1996).
So while both films involve Volcanos, they have very different approaches. Volcano is about dealing with a disaster in a heavily populated urban area, while Peak focuses on a small-town, intimate “escape plot.”
And in Volcano, the lava moves really slow. Whoodathunk.
Let’s move forward a year to 1998 and take a look at another couple of action movies: Armageddon and Deep Impact. Both films involve “global killers” (that’s an asteroid or space-rock for all you uninitiated) threatening to crash into earth and end the reign of humanity. They both even involve the same save-the-world plot of landing on the rock, digging deep, and setting off nukes, but only one film says NASA astronauts aren’t smart enough to operate a drill.
Michael Bay’s Armageddon is, not surprisingly, a very goofy action movie that plays fast and loose with its science (as Michael Bay says glibly on the DVD commentary “I know there’s no fire in space, but it’s a movie, and most people don’t know that). It’s a hackneyed story of a bunch of roughnecks showing all us uppity intellectuals how it’s done. Impact, though, is an ensemble more interested in emotional reactions to the news of the earth’s destruction. It tries to be at least plausible with its plot and follows the heroism of individuals of every walk of life as they work together toward the salvation of the world.
Maybe the biggest difference between these movies is that in one, the space rock doesn’t hit. In the other, it does. But the waters receded.
Oddly enough, Deep Impact (the better movie, I’d argue) has disappeared into obscurity while Armageddon still gets rented by dim teenagers pissing away their weekends in boring small towns. I guess that’s because, in the end, it is a whole lot of fun.
“Is that all you got?” I hear you murmur through the internets. ”I couple of dumb action films?” No, sir or madame, there’s more. Because the dueling movie phenomenon reaches through all genres and mediums. It even extends to animated fare.
Remember when Pixar made their second feature, A Bug’s Life, and everyone liked it? I mean, it was no Toy Story, but a company could have done far worse with their sophomore effort. Well, that year (1998), there was another bug movie in town. It was called “Antz,” and it starred Woody Allen as a (wouldn’t you guess it) neurotic ant.
Both movies are about an ant who is unhappy with his place in the rigid ant heirarchy. Both involve the main character becoming a reluctant hero. But in one, Woody Allen does his Woody Allen thing, making it a much more “adult” affair.
Dreamworks released Antz, and it was one of the first attempts to replicate the 3D animated success of Pixar. It didn’t do great, taking in just over $90 million. Based on its $60 million budget (and not factoring in advertising costs which were substantial), you can see how this was a disappointment. A Bug’s Life on the other hand, was made for $45 million and made almost $163 million.
Today, people still remember Bug (usually in relation to other Pixar efforts) while Antz has decidedly faded into obscurity.
There are other more recent examples, (The Prestige and The Illusionist anyone?) but I won’t keep you much longer. I just have one more point to make…
You’d think that these movies are made by bitter enemies who are at war. That one studio makes a ripoff movie to steal the first’s thunder, but that isn’t always the case. Take, for example, the long gestating Pancho Villa biopics that were a hot topic for oh-so-many months. It seemed there was going to be a race to get these movies in theaters, but neither movie really panned out.
Who was attached to these movies, though? None other than one Ridley Scott on one side, and his brother, Tony, on the other.
The brothers made statements that the two films were very different, focusing on different aspects of Villa’s life, but I have this weird feeling these movies didn’t crop up totally separately. Talk about sibling rivalry! (insert cheesy rimshot here).
So there you have it, folks. Hollywood ain’t always original. Some of these movies are good, some are bad, but almost all of them came from some producer being entirely bankrupt of ideas.
So I’m rooting for Observe and Report even though I didn’t bother with Paul Blart. See, this movie is geared toward my indie/dark comedy sensibility whereas the Kevin James extravaganza was not. I guess that’s how it works, in general. One movie is usually a popcorn flick of dumb entertainment while the other is attempting to be more thoughtful/emotional/adult (or at least pretending to).
When it comes to Dante’s Peak and Volcano, though, I’m not sure which is which. But that’s a whole other article.