Our Favorites: “Twin” Movies.
We look at famous cases of studios releasing nearly identical movies, and pick our favorite sibling.
Hollywood loves to copy a good idea. Why come up with your own idea when you can just pilfer what a rival studio is rumored to be working on? Lots of reasons exist for why suspiciously similar films will hit theaters in pairs in rapid succession. Sometimes somebody has a good idea, gets shot down by one studio, and shops the idea to somebody who does like it. Now the first studio wonders if the idea might have been solid gold, and quickly goes about cobbling together a clone. Perhaps something topical makes similar movies impossible to avoid. Everyone wants to make a big WW2 movie on the 50th anniversary of D-Day or rush an adaptation of a recent event into production. Sometimes it just boils down to good old fashioned insider espionage. Either way, the result is a “twin” movie – two (sometimes more!) movies released almost simultaneously that share so many elements you have to believe it’s not a coincidence.
This weekend we get a modern example of a twin movie. Abominable is the animated story of a Yeti separated from his tribe who enlists some plucky human friends to get him home. Sound familiar? It should, since we’ve already had two eerily identical animated flicks lately – Smallfoot and Hidden Link. That reminder of Hollywood’s copycat streak made us want to go through the most famous examples of twin flicks and pick which of the siblings did the concept best. Funny enough, it’s not always the “original” or first entry that really nails the material. Here is a list of our favorite twin movies.
1. Idea: Giant Space Rock is Coming to Kill Us All, Blow That Sunofabitch Up!
Twins: Deep Impact (May 1998); Armageddon (July 1998).
Favorite: Deep Impact.
This is probably the most recognizable pair of twin movies. Coming out two months apart, there’s not a lot of daylight between the plots. Giant rock headed towards Earth, government tries to blow it to bits to save the planet. Deep Impact definitely gets the edge in this race to extinction. First, the science is a tad better. Not great – I mean, if you nuke an asteroid headed towards Earth when it’s past the point where it can be deflected, you’re just going to get pulverized by smaller, IRRADIATED death rocks instead of just the one biggie. Unless you break it up substantially, you’re still dead. Deep Impact also has the better story, as it spends more time showing how humanity responds planet-side, with realistic depictions of both everyday heroism and “rats from a sinking ship” panic. There’s not too much of an edge either way between the casting. Armageddon offers the usual breathless explosion porn you expect from Jerry Bruckheimer, but Deep Impact is no slouch when it comes to visuals either. Deep Impact just winds up leaving a bigger…impact.
2. Idea: A Volcano Is About to Blow, Run Like Hell…Towards It!
Twins: Dante’s Peak (Feb 1997); Volcano (Apr 1997).
Favorite: Dante’s Peak.
This twin pairing feels almost farcical. While the 1990’s did feature some big natural blasts, it hardly seems that vulcanology was dominating the zeitgeist for US movie-goers. So when two movies with nearly identical plots about an oddly specific topic land in theaters months apart, the chicanery is obvious. As far as quality, neither film is a real prize winner. That being said, Volcano is such a shoddy creation that Dante’s Peak comes away looking like The Towering Inferno in comparison. The CG volcano looks horrendous, making the boasts of having a massively larger budget than Dante’s Peak ring hollow. Peirce Brosnan carries the leading man role in his disaster flick much better than Tommy Lee Jones does in Volcano. Jones seems even grumpier than he was in The Fugitive, like they woke him up out of a good nap to force this lousy project on him. In a battle for which eruption movie was less lousy, Dante takes the cake.
3. Idea: An Impetuous, Haughty Southern Bell Tries to Navigate the Civil War.
Twins: Jezebel (Mar 1938); Gone with the Wind (Dec 1939).
Favorite: Gone with the Wind.
While Gone with the Wind has not aged gracefully in some regards, it is still Gone with the Wind. The movie sports sumptuous costuming, set design, cinematography and music. It’s an institution, the adjusted-for-inflation all time biggest movie ever, and is likely to stay that way no matter how many times to re-release Star Wars. Jezebel was pretty much a speed bump Gone with the Wind rolled over on its way to the top. It does feature nice sets and costumes, and Bette Davis dominates her leading role with more tenacity than Vivien Leigh. That’s not surprising, as the whole project was rushed into works to placate Davis when she lost the role of Scarlet O’Hara to Leigh. It’s amazing that given the last-minute nature, they beat Gone with the Wind into theaters by more than a year. Perhaps if they’d taken their foot off the gas, they could have shored up some of the weaker story elements and the lousy ending.
4. Idea: Manly Man Biopic about Wyatt Earp.
Twins: Tombstone (Dec 1993); Wyatt Earp (Jun 1994).
This was a tough one to call…so I punted. I love Tombstone something fierce. Kurt Russell plays Earp with grit and charm, and has a great chemistry with Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. Kilmer turns in a career best performance here. The story manages the pacing masterfully, building to each action sequence crescendo before doing some deft character work and then galloping towards the next big piece. All of the smaller roles are well acquitted by genre regulars like Sam Elliot and Powers Booth. Michael Beighn (Terminator) really sinks his teeth into the villain’s role and plays off Kilmer perfectly. It’s a fantastic action film all around, with larger than life characters.
Wyatt Earp is a western biopic that never seems to get much love. I can see why: it’s three hours long, dead serious, and covers all of Earp’s life – not just the flashy gun-fighting bits. Kevin Costner can sometimes come across as ponderous. But…It’s still a pretty great western. The sweep and scope of both the story and the cinematography is grander than its rival. Earp has more depth and shading to him. Costner is surrounded by a less flashy cast, which works towards crafting a more realistic feel. Dennis Quaid does a solid job with his version of Doc Holliday that stands apart from Kilmer’s. Gene Hackman shows he’s an old hand at gritty westerns, and smaller roles featuring Michael Madsen, Bill Pullman, and Linden Ashby are solid. It doesn’t have the relentless action of Tombstone, but it does its own take on the character justice. I like ’em both.
5. Idea: Jesus Christ, Now with Music!
Twins: Godspell (Mar 1973); Jesus Christ Superstar (Jun 1973).
Favorite: Jesus Christ Superstar.
Both of these twins are based on dueling musicals that proved themselves on the stage. It seems logical that once studios got a hint that one of them was being adapted, the other was going to need to get snapped up as well. JCS trumps Godspell at pretty much every turn. The musical numbers are more memorable in JCS, the production value better, and the blending of modern and biblical elements less jarring. Godspell takes the Gospel of Matthew and places it in 1970’s New York and winds up feeling kitschy and cute instead of magisterial. Choosing to focus primarily on the passion of Christ also keeps the story tighter in JCS… or as tight as a flamboyant 1970’s musical could reasonably be anyway. It’s no surprise that Jesus Christ Superstar wound up on Broadway while Godspell played off-Broadway.
6. Idea: Teen Gangs of New York All-Out Warfare.
Twins: The Warriors (Feb 1979); The Wanderers (Jul 1979).
Favorite: The Warriors.
This was actually a close call, despite the fact that The Warriors has become a cult classic with much wider appeal popular than The Wanderers. That wasn’t always the case. Yes, The Warriors is phenomenal. It richly evokes an image of New York City that amplifies the dirty, neon soaked streets through a dystopian lens. It manages to embed enough of its wilder elements into recognizable stereotypes of the Big Apple in the 70’s to come across as fantastical and grounded at once. The story grabs you and drags you right down into the streets and alleys, building a frantic pace where we see our protagonists up against impossible odds as they are slowly whittled away through grim attrition. Each gang has a fantastic sense of identity. The dialogue is crisp and memorable. Top it all off with two really big performances that became instant classics – Roger Hill as the mesmerizing would-be king of the gangs, Cyrus and David Patrick Kelly as the psychopathic antagonist who frames The Warriors for Cyrus’ assassination – and this film easily earns its cult classic stripes.
The Wanderers actually premiered to a much better critical reception than The Warriors, which was mostly panned for its violence. Its look at street gangs in NYC in the 60’s leaned more heavily into Americana and nostalgia. While it tackles some thorny topics such as racial animosity, broken families, gang violence, and teen pregnancy, it feels a bit tame in retrospect. It’s closer in DNA structure to Grease than to The Warriors. It scratches a lot of the same itches as Grease, without all of the musical numbers and camp. Growing up, it got regular rotation on TV, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the trials and tribulations of the Wanderers…but they’re no match for The Warriors.
7. Idea: Strippers.
Twins: Showgirls (Sep 1995); Striptease (Jun 1996).
This one is not even a contest. Elizabeth Berkley can just take her tassels, wipe down her pole, and go home. While Striptease wasn’t exactly the Citizen Kane of strip club movies, it didn’t need to be. Showgirls was pretty much awful in every way. One of Paul Verhoven (Robocop) rare misfires, it seemed to think titillation was going to make up for a complex story or good acting. Saved by the Bell’s Berkley was clearly way over her head in this project, and didn’t get much help from the supporting cast. Kyle MacLachlan has lamp-shaded his part in this flop for years. Striptease at least featured ambition. Demi Moore saw it as a come-back vehicle to shake up her popular persona and sunk her teeth deep into the role. She attacked the physical dance sequences and threw off palpable energy. Burt Reynolds, also in need of a rebirth, hammed it up as a past-his-prime old gamecock to excellent effect. Movies like Magic Mike have since come along and blown open the genre, but Striptease showed enough flashes of vigor to handily trounce its sibling.
8. Idea: A One Man Army Returns to Re-Fight the War that Made Him.
Triplets: Missing in Action (Nov 1984); Rambo First Blood Part 2 (May 1985); Commando (Oct 1985).
Favorite: Rambo First Blood Part 2.
These triplets represent only the biggest names all shoving at the same teat. In the mid 80’s every two-bit action star clamored to get in on the Rambo action, and people seemed desperate to revise the history of American adventures in South Asia and Latin America. The Hollywood solution was to have a greased up stud with a machine gun head back to the sites of our recent military debacles and blow the high holy shit out of everything that moved. Missing in Action has the distinction of being the first – Rambo First Blood was certainly no jingoistic varnishing of the Vietnam war – but has little else to recommend it. While all three traded in stereotypes, MIA wallowed in them. It would go on to spawn tons of sequels and cement Chuck Norris as the top of the B-list action heroes, but does little else worth revisiting.
Commando will always have a place in my heart; the part that just cannot get enough of Arnie spitting ludicrous one liners at baddies while murdering them with no facial expression. Commando is not a good movie, nor even the best Schwarzenegger groan-fest from the era (that would be The Running Man, you heathens). The story is disjointed. The villain is a joke. The action sequences get tedious with how easily Arnold mops the floor with squads of goons. But it does have probably the best sizzle reel of dynamite zingers. For that, it has my gratitude.
We’ve chewed the fat off of the Rambo rack of ribs recently, so not much to add. The action is tighter. The baddies are more threatening and meaningful. The big set pieces have become things of legend that get ripped off constantly to this day. Stallone kept a low boil to his performance the whole time which made each of his guttural pronouncements shiver-inducing. Among the copycats and would-be’s, Rambo First Blood 2 stands tall (on a mountain of bodies, but hey, it is what it is.)
9. Idea: Terrorists Attack the White House.
Twins: Olympus has Fallen (Mar 2013); White House Down (Jun 2013).
It seems that action films about historical conflicts tend to evolve the same way. After a big military event, we first get the tragically heroic renditions. Five or six years pass, and we get the scathing indictments that look past the “salute the flag” sentiments. A decade after the events, we get to the populist whitewashing and fantasy revisions. These two films are firmly in the latter category. A decade past 9-11, we get a guts and glory action fest. All of the stereotypes are ossified into archetypes – our guys are steely-eyed badasses, powered by sheer patriotism. The baddies are baby-kicking, dog-shooting sacks of evil. The power dynamic is completely reversed to make the home team the underdog (see Rocky V, where we somehow managed to pretend that its was the USSR that had all of the money and machines while Rocky had to go chop logs to get tough.) Despite all that, the hero crushes the completely villainous and numerically superior cardboard cut-out baddies utterly. There’s always a complicit turncoat on our side, giving us an out for why we were ever losing in the first place. That scumbag politician or general…he didn’t love ‘Murica and nearly cost GI Joe the victory!
Both of these films wrap themselves in the flag so tightly it’s a wonder they don’t pass out. If I had to pick a winner, which I won’t, I’d give the slight edge to White House Down. While Channing Tatum doesn’t pull off being a super soldier nearly as well as Gerard Butler, it actually works in the movie’s favor. I’d rather see a John McClane type use pluck and grit to eek out a victory than some glowering power fantasy brutalize the enemy all film long. Unfortunately, none of the action or ideas in White House Down are terribly interesting. It’s not as mean-spirited as Olympus has Fallen, but it’s kinda boring. I’d pass on either of these entries.
10. Idea: We Create Artificial Intelligence. Big Mistake.
Triplets: Transcendence (Apr 2014); Uncanny (Jan 2015); Ex Machina (Apr 2015).
Favorite: Ex Machina.
This is another concept that had a half dozen piglets wrestling in the mud. Wikepedia has at least six films that came out at this time with similar elements…though most of them are tangential at best. It’s the curse of the twin movie trend, that once two movies do something, a lot of people riffing on aspects of it get lumped into the same category. I’d say the true clones here are Uncanny and Ex Machina. Transcendence does deal with A.I. and its tend to turn on its wielder, but that’s not terribly novel at this point. It also happens to star Johnny Depp, who is dead to us here. And it sucks. Not just for Depp, either…though he certainly doesn’t help.
Both of these movies were minor releases at the time of launch. Both come at the central idea of A.I. developing independently of its creator and using the emotional nature of us meat-bags against us. In Uncanny, the A.I. develops jealousy when its creator starts a romance with another human. In Ex Machina, the A.I. befriends and seduces the man brought in to test her, gaining her freedom by weaponizing his affection. They’re both interesting concepts, but Uncanny never really dives down into the futurism, instead lingering on the surface with a Fatal Attraction style plot. On the other hand, Ex Machina is perfect in nearly every way. The acting is phenomenal. The set design, cinematography, and sound work deliver Kubrick-esque chills. It actually drills down into some of its hard science premises in addition to building a strong psychological base for its tension. Far and away the better brother of these three science fiction siblings.