PLATOON (1986) AND FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
After enjoying rare commercial success with The Shining, legendarily enigmatic director, Stanley Kubrick, turned his attention to the horrors of Vietnam. Unfortunately, Oliver Stone, who at the time was enjoying a meteoric rise through Hollywood thanks to the success of Midnight Express, Scarface (both of which he wrote) and Salvador (which he wrote and directed), had the same idea. Stone had served in Vietnam during the late sixties, and approached his film with a sense of gritty realism. The strength of Stone’s semi-autobiographical Platoon is in the sense of kinship that it conveys between its central group of soldiers. Contrastingly, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (based on Gustav Hasford’s book, The Short-Timers) was less interested in conflict and warfare, and more compelled by the inherent evils of the military machine. Kubrick and Stone, meanwhile, appeared to have a polite, if somewhat ambivalent, attitude toward their “warring” war films. “I liked Platoon,” Kubrick told The Washington Post. “It’s very different. Platoon tries to ingratiate itself a little more with the audience. But then, I have enough faith in enough of the audience to think that they are able to appreciate something which doesn’t do that. At least you’re not bored.” Though Stone didn’t like The Short-Timers novel (“I didn’t think it was real”), he was, however, suitably in awe of Stanley Kubrick. “You don’t want your movie to be compared, if you can help it, to a Kubrick movie,” he said in the book, Oliver Stone: Interviews. Though both are revered today, Platoon had the greater immediate impact, picking up Oscars for Best Film and Best Director, and raking in millions at the box office.
TOMBSTONE (1993) AND WYATT EARP (1994)
In 1881, a thirty-second gunfight at The O.K. Corral impelled occasional lawman, Wyatt Earp, into the annals of Western legend. Hollywood has a rich history of embracing Earp’s myth, with the gunslinger having been portrayed by top-tier actors such as Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, and Jimmy Stewart. Earp’s cinematic lifespan continued into the early nineties, when Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp and George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone – both of which focus on the legendary lawman and his iconic gunfight – entered into a Western-style showdown. During production, Kasdan’s Kevin Costner-starring film was the perceived superior, thanks to the director’s previous critical darlings, Body Heat and The Big Chill. “A lot of people wished that Tombstone would just die,” the film’s star, Kurt Russell, said. “It would have been easier if we’d just gone away. But Tombstone had a lot of things going for it. First and foremost, it had me.” But the more fancied Wyatt Earp was plagued by a later release date, and went on to earn just $25 million on a budget of $63 million, as compared to Tombstone’s more favourable $57 million on a budget of $25 million. Wyatt Earp is intensely ambitious and meditative, whereas Tombstone favours sensationalism and bravado. But though Wyatt Earp was praised for its historical accuracy in contrast to the lenient attitude that Cosmatos’ film had towards the truth, the film was also criticised for its chaotic narrative, which was born out of Kasdan’s unbridled ambition. “Wyatt Earp plays as if they took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air,” critic, Roger Ebert, commented. Wyatt Earp certainly aims high, but Tombstone clearly hit its mark.
KUNDUN (1997) AND SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (1997)
In the nineties, increased awareness of Tibet’s contentious relationship with China – including the forced exile of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – resulted in a glut of films focusing on Tibet and Buddhism. There was Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic, The Little Buddha, and The Cup, which focused on two football-crazed novice monks in a remote Tibetan monastery. In 1997, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years In Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun were released just two months apart, with both exploring The Dalai Lama’s struggle with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. While Scorsese’s long-in-development film was directly focused on the life of Tenzin Gyatso himself, Seven Years In Tibet observed the man and his situation from the point of view of Austrian mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer, who befriended The Dalai Lama while living in Tibet in the late forties. “We had been working on Kundun for years before Seven Years In Tibet started up,” Kundun’s screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, told FilmInk in 1997. “We knew that they had Brad Pitt, and we assumed that they were taking a different route than we were.” As it turned out, Annaud’s film was encumbered by Brad Pitt’s high profile, while Kundun was received with the critical pedigree usually afforded a Martin Scorsese film. Ultimately, neither film was burdened by the presence of the other, with both performing solidly at the box office. Interestingly, Melissa Mathison had actually toyed with the idea of incorporating Heinrich Harrer into Scorsese’s film. “He got dropped in a couple of times as a vignette, but it didn’t work,” Mathison told FilmInk. “Heinrich was The Dalai Lama’s friend, but he didn’t alter the course of Tibetan history.”
ANTZ (1998) AND A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
The startling similarities between Antz and A Bug’s Life, both establishing entries into the medium of computer animation, were far from coincidental. During the lengthy production of A Bug’s Life, a bitter and very public feud erupted between former Disney executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Pixar heads, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. After leaving Disney on sour terms, Katzenberg formed the studio, DreamWorks, with the intention of producing animation that would rival that of his former employer. Lasseter, a friend of Katzenberg’s from Disney, and one of the directors on A Bug’s Life, was dismayed to hear the news that DreamWorks’ inaugural film would focus on impossibly related ideas. “We had been working on our film for about a year and a half when we found out that they were starting theirs,” Lasseter said. “We were disappointed, but we concentrated on making our own film.” Then it struck Lasseter that he had involved Katzenberg early on in the creative process of A Bug’s Life, often bouncing ideas off his friend, whose opinion he respected. He called Katzenberg and challenged him about the striking similarities between both films. Katzenberg denied stealing the idea, claiming that a development director had pitched him the idea for Antz long before he’d even become aware of A Bug’s Life. The two parties entered into a release date war, with Katzenberg attempting to use the quicker production turnaround on Antz to strong-arm Pixar into pushing A Bug’s Life to a release date more beneficial for DreamWorks. Neither side relented. Ultimately, both films were met with commercial and critical success, despite being released within just two months of one another.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) AND THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
During the summer of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s WW2 opus, Saving Private Ryan, was released in the US to incredible success, both critically and commercially. A few months later, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line – also exploring the horrors of WW2, albeit in The South Pacific rather than Europe – hit cinemas. Spielberg was one of the most established figures in Hollywood, and Malick’s significance as a filmmaker was also widely accepted, though before he had begun production on The Thin Red Line back in 1997, he had been on a mysterious self-imposed twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking after his first two films, Badlands and Days Of Heaven, had been met with enormous critical praise. On the surface, the coincidence of two colossal filmmakers both releasing a film focusing on WW2 was enormous, but the films were about as dissimilar as it gets. Saving Private Ryan approached the conflict from a more conventional and sentimental avenue, while Malick’s adopted an elegiac attitude toward the disunion between humanity and war. “Where Spielberg thunders, Malick insinuates,” critic, Peter Travers, said in Rolling Stone. Ultimately, Malick’s more poetic film was completely dwarfed by Spielberg’s bloodbath. Spielberg would eventually win his second Best Director Oscar, and his film would gross nearly $500 million compared to The Thin Red Line’s $100 million. But according to The Thin Red Line star, Elias Koteas, the films almost function as companion pieces. “America learned a lot about warfare during Guadalcanal, as depicted in The Thin Red Line,” he told Inside Film. “The troops were green and inexperienced. In Saving Private Ryan, what we learned in warfare in that vicious South Pacific battle is taken into D-Day.”
DANTE’S PEAK (1997) AND VOLCANO (1997)
A weathered hero is responsible for saving a city, a love interest, a child, and a dog when a volcano eruption threatens to destroy everything around it. The significant rarity of volcano films emphasises the astonishing fluke that was the close proximity of the release dates of Dante’s Peak and Volcano. In 1997, there hadn’t been a high profile volcano film for almost seventeen years, and even then, it was Paul Newman’s decidedly lacklustre When Time Ran Out, which was released at the tail end of the seventies Golden Era of disaster films. Then, within the space of two short months, two Hollywood volcano films hit American cinemas. Dante’s Peak starred a Bond-era Pierce Brosnan as a volcanologist who predicts the deadly eruption of a dormant volcano neighbouring a quiet country town. Volcano, on the other hand, was headed by Tommy Lee Jones, and focused on the almost inconceivable event of a volcano forming fresh in downtown Los Angeles. Both films involved the narrow escape from the deadly force of the volcano by a dog. Genuine volcanologists were outraged by the films, due to the poor logic and science behind the eruptions. The films were shot at around the same time, and were well and truly aware of each other. “Volcano is a more traditional disaster movie,” Dante’s Peak producer, Gale Anne Hurd, told People Magazine. “Ours is more of a scientific adventure film.” Volcano director, Mick Jackson, meanwhile, claimed that he “wasn’t conscious of any direct rivalry.” Upon release, the US Geological Survey niggled that the movies were “unrealistic.” Audiences and critics shared the volcanologists’ dim view, with both films underperforming.
THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) AND EDTV (1999)
In the late nineties, two Hollywood productions focused on the rapid rise of reality television: Peter Weir’s reflective, philosophical The Truman Show (in which an entire community and TV show is constructed around Jim Carrey’s unknowing everyman and international celebrity) and Ron Howard’s more light-hearted EDtv (in which a very knowing Matthew McConaughey has his every move documented by a TV crew). For Howard – who came to fame as a child star on The Andy Griffith Show – EDtv had a profoundly personal edge. “This is something that I can relate to. It’s about the notion of volunteering to become a celebrity, and how you can get caught up with it,” Howard told The New York Times. “But it deals with these issues without copping to a ‘poor-me’ attitude.” Both films examine the obsession that often swirls around reality television, and the peculiar fame that it can generate for its subjects. “It used to be that you became famous because you were special,” a character in EDtv comments. “Now you become special because you’re famous. Fame itself has become a moral good.” While both strong films, The Truman Show unquestionably achieved the greater traction of the two. “People asked me if I thought that the film’s scenario was actually possible,” Peter Weir told FilmInk in 2010. “I always said probably not, and that it was more of a cautionary tale or a satire. In fact, one reviewer said that the trouble with this movie was the implausible plot – there’s no way that people would sit at home and watch such a boring, everyday life. Yet a couple of years later, it was happening for real!”
THE ILLUSIONIST (2006) AND THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Two separate period dramas surveying the world of magic and illusions hit cinemas in 2006: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige followed the bitter and deadly rivalry between two determined magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman), while Neil Burger’s The Illusionist concentrated on Edward Norton’s turn-of-the-century trickster. The films were met with almost indistinguishable critical reception. The Prestige, benefitting from Nolan’s post-Batman Begins glow, fared marginally better at the box office, although The Illusionist was also a success, especially considering its minimal budget. The films’ tricky release dates, however, makes picking a “winner” between the two films decidedly difficult. “We made The Illusionist quite a bit before The Prestige actually,” Edward Norton told Indie London. “In the states, it came out quite a bit before that film. In the UK, it’s flipped. I’m not quite sure why they held it here for so long in the UK, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt either one. The Illusionist did incredibly well in the US. The Prestige did its thing, and the two films didn’t seem to interfere with each other. If I had to choose, it would be better to come out first, but I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, was decidedly philosophical about the nature of the duelling projects. “There’s always something else out there,” he said at The Hero Complex Film Festival. “Certainly, when we were doing Batman Begins, there was no shortage of superhero movies that may be too close to you. You just have to take a leap of faith and say, ‘We’re going to do this, and hope that we can find our space in the marketplace.’”
CAPOTE (2005) AND INFAMOUS (2006)
Reportedly, neither Capote director, Bennett Miller, nor Infamous writer/director, Douglas McGrath, knew of the existence of their twin film as shooting began. So confusing was the fact that duelling Truman Capote biopics (with the famous author played by, respectively, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones) were simultaneously in production that during an alleged phone conversation between McGrath and producer, Bingham Ray, the veteran Hollywood player famously got McGrath’s screenplay confused with Dan Futterman’s script for Capote. “People have asked me how to explain this coincidence,” McGrath has commented, “as if I could explain it.” While McGrath’s film used George Plimpton’s book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances And Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, as a primary source, Capote was far more interested in the author’s creation of the seminal “non-fiction novel”, In Cold Blood. “If Capote is a shot of bourbon, this is a glass of champagne,” Infamous co-star, Sigourney Weaver, commented to FilmInk of the differences between the ultimately extremely similar films. The more bubbly Infamous, however, was the unfortunate runner-up in its scuffle with the more highly publicised and regarded Capote. By the time that Infamous was well into its marketing campaign, Capote had scored five Oscar nominations, with the late and sadly lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman eventually picking up a Best Actor gong. Over time, Infamous has developed a strong support base, with many critics believing it to be the superior of the two. “Poor Toby Jones,” critic, Michael Dequina, commented. “In any other year, his work would be in immediate awards contention, but coming right after Philip Seymour Hoffman, it will be seen as a ‘been there, done that’ kind of thing.”
ARMAGEDDON (1998) AND DEEP IMPACT (1998)
The onslaught of disaster films during the nineties was brought to an abrupt close with the duel release of Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact. Nowadays, Michael Bay may be known as an overly stylised, minimal substance variety of filmmaker with a penchant for explosions, but back during the late nineties, he was known as an overly stylised, minimal substance variety of filmmaker with a penchant for explosions. It may come as little surprise then that Armageddon was ill received by critics, but what may perhaps be more unanticipated is that the film was heralded by a separate, similarly themed blockbuster released just two months previously. Both films deal with an asteroid hurtling toward Earth at a devastating speed. While Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) took a more measured, emotional response to the material (“You think about the value of your life, and you think about living it fully,” she told Times Union of directing the film. “How could I be doing it differently? How could I make it better?”), Bay’s characteristic love of bombast was well and truly in place. “Making films is like a war,” he once famously said. In the end, the audience’s desire for destruction would not be sated by just one apocalypse, and both films performed admirably at the box office…though both received less-than-impressed reviews from the critics. On the DVD commentary for Armageddon, Bay is not shy about discussing Deep Impact: he admits that its success hurt the box office of his film; states that both films are “very different”; claims that Armageddon “would resonate more with mass audiences”; and tags his special effects as more realistic.