Remakes You Never Knew Were Remakes

by D.W. Lundberg

(originally posted February 14, 2011)

A few weeks back, while surfing through our NetFlix account on the Wii, I happened across Waterworld in the Sci-Fi Recommendations section. It’d been a while since I’d seen it, and my memories of it aren’t at all venomous, so I thought, “Yeah, I’ll add that to the Instant Queue.” I mean, why not, right? I’m paying my $8.99 a month. Might as well get my money’s worth. And I know you’re thinking: “Waterworld. Isn’t that the Kevin Costner fish movie that came out, like, twenty years ago? Don’t you have better things to do?” Well, yes and yes — but the truth is, you never really know what mood will strike you in your spare time.

When the movie came out in the summer of 1994, it just about sunk under the weight of its troubled production history. Its budget soared to $175 million — until Titanic, the most expensive motion picture ever made — because of costly delays during filming. Infighting among cast and crew plagued the shoot, most notably between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, whose friendship had already been strained while filming their last venture, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. The screenplay was being rewritten on a daily basis, with script-polisher Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) describing his time on set as “seven weeks of hell.” With that kind of publicity, the movie was either destined to become one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, or a massive hit peaked by audience curiosity. Actually, it turned out to be neither — Waterworld grossed over $264 million worldwide, barely enough to recoup its production and advertising budgets.
The movie itself, meanwhile, is hardly an embarrassment. It’s reasonably entertaining even. Granted, it’s not one of those titles that automatically springs to mind when you think “Great Movie,” so it took me a while to get back to it. But after sampling a few scenes again the other night, I was struck again by its energy, by the set design… and by how much it seems like an outright rip-off of The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2, for you purists out there) from 1982.

The cast is different. The director is different. The setting and the dialogue are different. But the plot and the characters — except for a few minor bells and whistles — are exactly the same. Both movies are set in a desolate dystopian future where precious resources are in short supply (petrol in Road Warrior, dry land in Waterworld). Both have laconic, perpetually grumpy anti-heroes as protagonists (Mel Gibson as Max, Costner as the Mariner). Both Max and the Mariner roam the remnants of the planet in/on vehicles equipped for action. Both anti-heroes are teamed, Odd Couple-style, with members of the society they’re trying to avoid (Warrior’s Gyro Captain and Feral Kid, Helen and Enola from Waterworld), while he simultaneously and begrudgingly learns to Trust In Humanity Again. And both movies feature a marauding band of bad guys as antagonists, chasing after the very thing the hero is trying to protect.

I’m sure there’s more, but my mind’s started reeling from all the dejà vù. Directed by George Miller with a keen eye for action, The Road Warrior is leaner, meaner, made on a miniscule budget (roughly $4 million AUD), and it moves like a shot. Waterworld, by comparison, merely gets the job done. Its paucity of imagination hardly warrants its $175 million budget.

And so we have another example of the old Hollywood mantra: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It, But At Least Disguise Your New Project So No One Will Notice It’s Copied From An Older One. Have you ever sat through a movie and had a nagging sensation that you’d seen it somewhere before? That, somehow, you recognize the twists and turns of the plot from previous sources? And I’m not talking about direct adaptations of novels or short stories or historical biographies, because those don’t count; any movie bearing the credit “Based on the novel by” or “Based on the life of” will naturally follow the same story progression.

Here follows six examples of movies cribbed from other movies without admitting as much. Keep in mind, there are maybe six or seven movie plots in the world, as the saying goes, so forgive me if these storylines were stolen from earlier titles. (I’ve omitted the whole Mission: Impossible II/ Notorious debacle, since screenwriter Robert Towne fessed up on numerous occasions that’s where he stole M:I-2's basic plot. Plus, I’ll be covering that in a future Franchise Face-Off.)

Oh, you can argue they’re different movies all you want. But despite their differences in tone and window dressing, some of these story beats are just too similar to dismiss as coincidence. Spoilers follow, naturally.

__________

Title: Powder (Victor Salva, 1995)

Copied From: Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)

Plot For Both: A youth with special “gifts,” left on his own after the death of his caregiver, is taken in by a kindly woman who attempts to integrate him to society. At first he is greeted by the local townsfolk with admiration and awe, but following a few run-ins with a local bully, plus a failed go at love, it’s clear the boy will never be viewed as one of “them,” thanks to his odd appearance and introverted nature. What starts off as a cautionary fairy tale soon erupts into violence, and our protagonist, crushed by this lack of acceptance, vanishes into the night and is never heard from again.

The Difference: One has scissors for hands, was created in a lab, and a severe case of bedhead. The other conducts electricity out of his body, was birthed after a lightning strike, and has no hair at all. Oh, and the characters have different names. I once had a conversation with a friend who thought this made all the difference in the world. But you and I know better, don’t we?

Title: GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995)

Copied From: Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Plot For Both: Two friends, on a “mission” of espionage, are separated after one of them is captured and the other goes free. While in custody, the captured friend is supposedly killed. As we meet up with him in the present, we witness our protagonist carrying on in the same line of work, though he still lives with the guilt over abandoning his buddy just when it mattered most. He takes on a new job, but soon finds he’s in over his head, especially when it turns out his nemesis is none other than the very person he thought he’d left for dead.

The Difference: One is a lighthearted caper-comedy with a stellar ensemble cast, the other’s a 90s- updated James Bond extravaganza with a new 007 and lots of gunfire and explosions. Interesting to note that the producers of GoldenEye felt the need to re-jigger their action sequences because of too much similarity to James Cameron’s True Lies, but they have no problem at all lifting a couple of key plot twists from Sneakers.

Title: Eraser (Charles Russell, 1996)

Copied From: Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)

Plot For Both: A secret agent completes one mission and embarks on another, but he’s soon framed for murder and must go on the run to clear his name instead. He discovers that the man who actually committed the murders is his one-time friend and mentor, who set up his protegè to take the fall for his crimes.

The Difference: One is based on a classic TV series from the 60s, is tense and tightly structured, with at least one bravura suspense sequence (the CIA break-in, natch) and a plot that requires much of your attention. The other stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, which pretty much requires that you check your brain at the door. I quote critic Mark Steyn of the Spectator: “If Mission: Impossible failed to make any sense to you, you could look on Eraser as the world’s fastest remake, since its plot, its characters, and its big set pieces are exactly the same.”

Title: Hercules (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1997)

Copied From: Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)

Plot For Both: A baby, descended from on high, crashes on Earth and is adopted by an elderly couple, who raise the child as their own. The boy grows into an awkward teenager, at odds with his superhuman powers and his place in this world, until he realizes he’s meant for a Greater Purpose. He packs up his stuff, journeys to the ends of the Earth where he’s introduced to his true father and discovers the Truth About Himself, and undergoes a rigorous training process, after which he returns to civilization determined to become a Hero. His renowned super-strength and derring-do earn him much adoration in the eyes of the public, and raises the ire of his arch-nemesis, who plots against him from an elaborate underground lair. Our hero also meets the Girl of His Dreams, who’s initially suspicious of him, but ultimately warms to his physique and his winning personality. At the climax, in which our hero saves the world (naturally) from utter destruction, the Girl is killed, and he must perform one final, God-like feat in order to right his wrongs and bring her back to life.

The Difference: Yes, I’m well aware that the story of Hercules has been around much longer than the story of Superman, but read the original Greek myth, and it’s obvious why the folks at Disney decided to pattern the life of their newest hero on a more wholesome American archetype. And while we’re on the subject of superheroes…

Title: Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)

Copied From: Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

Plot For Both: The irresponsible son of a dead billionaire philanthropist is captured and imprisoned in a faraway Eastern country, where he learns the error of his ways. He escapes and returns to the U.S. determined to Make a Difference. Using his vast fortune to forge an armored suit, gadgets, and a new identity, he launches a crusade against the crime and corruption that threatens to envelop the world as he knows it. He later has a run-in with authority figures, who condemn his acts of vigilante justice. A villain is introduced early on as a potential arch-nemesis, until it’s revealed this first villain is merely a pawn of the main villain, who is the hero’s former friend and mentor. This mentor/antagonist confronts the hero with his plans for world domination and leaves him for dead, but the hero is rescued by his loyal butler/servant, regroups and steels himself for a final confrontation.

The Difference: Another case of If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It, though it is odd how two movies within the superhero genre bear so many striking similarities. To be fair, both Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark seem modeled on irresponsible playboy characters from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, though at no point in that dystopian tome does anyone suit up and take a bite out of crime.

Title: Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

Copied From: Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990)

Plot For Both: A crippled soldier, caught in the middle of a glorified turf war, finds himself inexplicably drawn to the traditions and lifestyle of an indigenous people he views as his “enemy.” He is reluctantly accepted by this tribe as one of their own, and even falls in love with one of them, a female companion who’d been assigned as his guide. As it usually happens, his old life rears its ugly head, and the soldier is captured by his fellow officers and branded as a traitor. Just when all hope seems lost, his adopted “family” comes to his rescue, killing many soldiers in the process. The soldier, freed, now officially becomes a member of the tribe.

The Difference: One is shot in 3D, features extensive CGI, and became the highest grossing movie of all time. The other was filmed on the vast mountain ranges of the Midwest United States, won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Picture, and could have used extensive CGI to enhance Kevin Costner’s dour facial expressions. Take from that what you will, but compare both plots and substitute “Indians” with “mutant blue kitty cats” and they’re virtually the same.

__________

There, stick that in your pipe and smoke it. Can you think of any others? I’m sure there’s more, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave it to you to puzzle out the rest. Just remember: They can’t be direct remakes or adaptations from the same novel/story/ life. That’s just too easy.


Originally published at findingthewrongwords.blogspot.com on February 14, 2014.

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