Dueling Movies

Coming soon to a theater near you: A film about the plot to kill Osama Bin Laden, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).

Also coming soon to a theater near you: Another film about taking out Bin Laden, directed by John Stockwell (Turistas).

Meanwhile, the late Apple leader Steve Jobs is penciled in for two biopics: an independent entry with Ashton Kutcher as the technical visionary, and the other one from a major studio, based on the recent bestselling book by Walter Isaacson, with casting yet to take place.

And coming soon to yet another theater near you: A survey of the life of Deep Throat actress Linda Lovelace (starring Amanda Seyfried).

And also coming soon to a theater near you: A different survey of the life of Deep Throat actress Linda Lovelace (starring Malin Ackerman).

Dueling movies. Wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. Certainly won’t be the last. In fact, the practice is fairly common and not all that new.

Consider, for example, the years 1939 and 1940, where two “Honest Abe” movies greeted moviegoers. Henry Fonda did the honors in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln, directed by John Ford, and focusing on the great man’s years as a lawyer.  Raymond Massey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which takes Lincoln’s story all the way to the White House in 1860.

In 1965, two films were issued with the same name: Harlow, about the movie star sex-bomb Jean Harlow. One was a glossy production with Carroll Baker as the platinum blonde screen queen, while the other was shot in a week in a video-to-film process and starred Carol Lynley. Neither was a hit.

A year earlier, two films looked at the end of the world (as we knew it) with completely different approaches. Fail-Safe, helmed by Sidney Lumet, took the serious side of a nuclear altercation between the U.S. and Russia, ratcheting up the intensity as U.S. President Henry Fonda has to figure out how to deal with a catastrophic situation. A similar situation befalls president Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, but the filmmaker took a wildly satiric approach to the material. Both were from the same studio (Columbia) and both received fine reviews. However, Strangelove was first to the theaters, and its lampooning painted a comic cloud over Fail-Safe’s intense but relentlessly grim approach. Strangelove bested Fail-Safe big at the box-office.

Here, then, is a scorecard of Hollywood movies that may have seemed like good ideas at the time, just not when they went against their doppelgangers on the big screen.

Armageddon (1998) / Deep Impact (1998)

Premise: Meteorites barreling into the Earth!

Overview: Both films were expensive, but while Armageddon took the expected Jerry Bruckheimer / Michael Bay, action-adventure approach, Deep Impact, produced by Steven Spielberg, was more serious in tone despite the similar idea. Both movies featured big casts. The former offered an odd mix of Hollywood A-list players like Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck teamed with indie regulars like Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi and Will Patton. Deep Impact, directed by former TV specialist Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward), showcased Tea Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood and Morgan Freeman as the President of the U.S.

Critical and Box-Office Consensus: Neither received glowing reviews, but Armageddon did capture a younger, more enthusiastic audience and topped Deep Impact $200 million to $140 million.

Sweepstakes Winner: Armageddon.

Dante’s Peak (1997) / Volcano (1997)

Premise: A volcano is about to erupt threatening all those who live nearby.

Overview: Look out, Captain…it’s gonna blow!? In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan tries something different than James Bond, playing a volcanologist trying to get a South American town evacuated. And in Volcano, Tommy Lee Jones, a hyperactive emergency medical specialist, tries to warn the officials and constituents of L.A. that a big volcano could topple the city.

Critical and Box-Office Consensus: Neither did great in the theaters. Dante’s Peak peaked at $70 million on a budget over $100 million, while Volcano took in $45 million with a budget of $90 million. Volcano received better reviews than Dante’s Peak overall, which is like saying Earthquake was a more critically favored disaster film than Rollercoaster.

Sweepstakes Winner: Volcano by a bar of Lava.

The Abyss (1989) / Leviathan (1989) / Deepstar Six (1989)

Premise: Scientists encounter horror and mystery as they carry out underwater explorations.

Overview: James Cameron’s expensive, dangerous-to-film The Abyss was shot under a veil of secrecy, but the word that it involved lots of water and something spooky was enough to inspire George P. Cosmatos’ lower-budgeted Leviathan, starring Peter Weller and Amanda Pays, and the even lower-budgeted Deepstar Six from Friday The 13th auteur Sean S. Cunningham, with Greg Evigan and Nia Peeples. Cameron definitely took the metaphysical route with his journey, but the other two were H2O-infused horror movies.

Critical and Box-Office Consensus: The Abyss received mostly positive reviews, which pointed out that it was a thinking man’s popcorn movie. The two copy-cats didn’t fare well, getting glubbed by critics. Still, The Abyss cost nearly $70 million to produce, and brought in just about $30 million, a major disappointment to Cameron and the studio. (Eight years later, Fox was understandably nervous about letting the director go back in the water with a big budget for Titanic. We’re sure they got over it.) In reality, Leviathan and Deepstar Six may have been more financially successful (or less financially disastrous) because of their cheaper costs.

Sweepstakes Winner: The Abyss, due to its ambitiousness.

The Truman Show (1998) / EdTV (1999)

Premise: A man has his life filmed for TV cameras, making him famous.

Overview: Peter Weir’s The Truman Show features Jim Carrey’s breakout performance in a semi-serious role, playing Truman Burbank, a carefree insurance salesman who has no idea his life has been scripted and chronicled on TV 24/7 since he was an infant. And in Ron Howard’s EdTV, video store clerk Matthew McConaughey gets similar TV treatment when he’s chosen to be the focus of a reality show, but in this comedy, he’s aware of the coverage.

Critical and Box-Office Consensus: The Truman Show received mostly rave reviews and was nominated for three Academy Awards, although Carrey didn’t get his much-discussed nomination. EdTV received mostly positive reviews, but coming out eight months after the acclaimed, more cerebral Truman didn’t help. The Truman Show took in $125 million, while EdTV welcomed just $23 million in box-office receipts.

Sweepstakes Winner: The Truman Show. A lot of people got Carrey-ed away with it.

Check out more cinematic combats in our next installment.