"Armageddon" vs "Deep Impact"
Shared Theme: Asteroid impact threatens the planet with extinction
Released within: 2 months of each other -- summer 1998
Different Approaches: While the premises are the same for these two films, right down to teams of astronauts being sent up (perchance to self-sacrifice) in desperate attempts to divert the seemingly inevitable, Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact” plays out in a much more minor key than the gung-ho Aerosmith fueled testostrionics of Michael Bay’s "Armageddon.” In fact you could almost hazard that they diverge in terms of genre, with ‘Impact’ unraveling as more of a disaster movie while "Armageddon" goes for straight-up, one-man-saves-the-world type heroics. Bay’s film is broader by miles of course, while Leder’s, despite having the storyline to support some pretty massive scenes of planetary destruction, is more interested in the human reaction to this potential apocalypse, something it deals with with surprising heart (Maximillian Schell and Tea Leoni’s embrace on the beach as the tsunami hits is memorable and moving). But perhaps the reason that “Armageddon” is so brash and staccato in its rhythm is that there was no time to make it? The rumor goes that, hearing about the well-progressed script for “Deep Impact” at lunch, a Disney exec took notes and rapidly greenlit “Armageddon” as a counter move, which left Bay with only 16 weeks from a standing start to get the film in the can.
Which was more successful? “Armageddon” was the number two movie of 1998 (to "Saving Private Ryan"), making a hefty $553m of a $140m budget. But maybe contrary to the narrative at the time, the more downbeat nature of 'Impact’ didn’t actually put people off in their droves; the film pulled in a very respectable $349m off a much smaller, $80m budget. It also opened bigger, though that could simply be down to being first in theaters.
Which was better? If the day will ever come that we reassess Bay’s “Armageddon” as anything but a noisy, graceless, frenetic and yet strangely boring headache of a film, today is not that day. “Deep Impact” takes our prize, not because it’s at all a flawless movie -- it gets a little slack at times with all the heavy-duty emoting -- still it has more actual meat on its bones in any one of its scenes than was contained in the whole bloated 151 minutes of “Armageddon.”
"Zero Dark Thirty" vs. "SEAL Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden"
Shared theme: The hunt for Osama Bin Laden was, like, super hard, but thankfully there were a bunch of rough and tumble bad-asses who were up for the challenge.
Released within: Two months of each other ("SEAL Team Six" aired in November 2012, "Zero Dark Thirty" was out at the end of December)
Different approaches: "Zero Dark Thirty" takes an almost journalistic approach to the material, covering the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden in sometimes painstaking detail, beginning with the terror attacks of 9/11 (heard but not seen, over a chilling black backdrop). It focuses on a single CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who doggedly led the pursuit. On the other hand, "SEAL Team Six" goes for an almost faux-documentary approach, with a number of characters looking into the camera to address the audience as if they're being interviewed and sequences meant to appropriate the look of several kinds of non-cinematic cameras (helmet cameras, complete with timestamps, etc). Sometimes this approach works, but other times, like when they utilize news footage of President Obama with his cabinet and they have someone dub in the voice of the cabinet member saying lines of dialogue from the movie, come across hilariously bad. The fact that the Weinstein Company-produced "SEAL Team Six" initially aired on the National Geographic Channel does, at least, explain why the budget and production values appear to be roughly the same as that of most original Shark Week programming.
Which Was More Successful? "SEAL Team Six" was actually incredibly successful for a TV movie, especially a cheapo knock-off like this one -- it pulled down 2.7 million viewers, which was enough to make it National Geographic's highest rated broadcast of 2012 and the network's sixth-highest rated broadcast ever. But it doesn't quite compare to the $95.7 million 'ZDT' grossed in the United States (another $13 million overseas), universal critical adoration and 5 Academy Award nominations. Sorry, Weinstein Company and National Geographic Channel.
Which was better? Let's think about this one... Um, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a true masterpiece, a kind of "All the President's Men" or "Zodiac" but in the desert and with one of the most amazing female leads in recent memory, a woman who has devoted ten years of her life to one man, a man she is desperate to kill. "SEAL Team Six" isn't necessarily bad, well, it is, but it's not that bad. It's just that the real-life conceit that director John Stockwell, who besides being a fairly big-time filmmaker now, was the nerdy kid's jock friend in John Carpenter's "Christine," strives for is constantly being undermined, largely by his distracting casting decisions. The last thing you want to ask yourself, while getting involved in the planning and execution of a plot to bring down an infamous, genocidal terrorist, is "Hey is that T-Bag from 'Prison Break?'" And yes, it is T-Bag from "Prison Break." Thanks for asking. (And here's our full breakdown on the differences between each movie).
"Capote" vs "Infamous"
Shared Theme: Head-to-head biopics of Truman Capote, especially as pertaining to his research and writing of “In Cold Blood”
Released within: 13 months of each other Sept 2005/Oct 2006
Different approaches: So well, wow. While other films on this list bear a passing resemblance but seem to do their best to differentiate in terms of tone, in this example they are frighteningly similar in terms of storyline, plot beats, and even subtext. Both movies detail Truman Capote’s increasingly fraught and complex relationship with convicted killers Dick Hickok and Perry Smith which fed into his pioneering “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood,” and with both ready at the same time it really was a case of playing chicken; “Infamous” blinked first. The relative quality of the films here is surprisingly difficult to judge as both tell the story very well, and both are marked not just by crisp and perfect embodiments of Capote in the central role (Philip Seymour Hoffman would win Best Actor for his, but perhaps Toby Jones’ portrayal is our slight favorite), but also by strong supporting casts, many playing real-life famous people. In fact in supporting terms, Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous” is maybe the starrier, as one of its differences from Bennett Miller’s “Capote” is in how it also gives a little attention to Capote’s New York milieu of fame and glitz, which arguably makes us understand his eventual breakdown and isolation better than the slightly narrower focus of "Capote."
Which was more successful? If ever there was a case of first past the post taking the ribbon, this is it. “Capote” was a prestige pic hit, with its Oscar approval also bolstering it to a respectable $50m, off a low-budget base. “Infamous,” by contrast, made just over $2.6m the following year.
Which was better? Again, the first Truman Capote/”In Cold Blood" biopic you saw will probably be the best Truman Capote/”In Cold Blood" biopic you saw as the second time around, the story is just so strikingly similar that whichever you’re watching, you get a freaky sense of déjà vu. But while we’d never begrudge Hoffman his Oscar, we do feel a bit sorry for everyone involved with “Infamous” which is by no means an inferior film, especially for those supporting cast members who gave performances against type to good effect, like Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee (though again, Catherine Keener’s Lee in “Capote” is also terrific) and Daniel Craig as Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr in the rival film) -- in the latter case especially interesting as “Infamous” makes the homoerotic nature of Capote’s fascination with Smith much more apparent than in “Capote.” Most of all, great British character actor Toby Jones deserved more from his pinpoint accurate portrayal than for it to end up the answer to a movie trivia question.
"Finding Nemo" vs. "Shark Tale"
Shared theme: Two computer-generated movies, made by rival studios, about aquatic life
Released within: 18 months -- May 2003 and October 2004
Different approaches: If it looked slightly suspicious that two rival animation studios would have movies about insect life, released less than two months apart from each other (see above), then it seems like outright theft when a movie set underwater becomes the highest grossing animated film of all time and then an oddly similar feature comes out a little over a year later. If ever there was a case of "riding coattails," this would be it. "Finding Nemo" concerns an overprotective father (Albert Brooks) who ends up losing his son and embarking on a pan-oceanic adventure to recover him. Meanwhile, "Shark's Tale" is about a plucky little fish (Will Smith) who pretends to be a bad-ass "shark slayer" with the help of a mob-boss' cowardly son (Jack Black), in a plot that somehow manages to nonsensically fuse "GoodFellas" with "Dragonheart." While "Finding Nemo" chose to portray its aquatic stars as, um, fish, "Shark's Tale" tried to make them look like people, frequently adopting the physical characteristics of the actor who is providing the character's voice, which means that Smith's character has little fins where his trademark big ears are, and Martin Scorsese, as a puffer fish, has giant eyebrows. Truly hilarious. Or something.
Which was more successful? "Finding Nemo," with more than $380 million, was the highest grossing animated film of all time (at the time). "Shark Tale," which followed "Finding Nemo" by more than a year, was not. "Shark Tale" netted $160 million, which is admittedly impressive, but still $200 million less than its predecessor.
Which was better? While "Shark Tale" has its fans, undoubtedly, somewhere, possibly hidden deep within the Afghanistan mountains, "Finding Nemo" is the clear victor. There's a reason it was such a smash - it's that fucking good. From Ellen DeGeneres' peerless performance as the forgetful fish Dory to Brooks' equally nuanced job as the fretting father, to Willem Dafoe as the polar opposite -- a father figure who pushes his faux son a little too far -- the cast is uniformly excellent. "Shark Tale," on the other hand, has a starry cast (including Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Renee Zellweger) but not nearly as much compassion or depth. It's the first DreamWorks movie in which the zippy pop culture references overtook the rest of the movie and simply became the movie. There was nothing deeper going on beyond how the next "Jaws" gag could be wedged into the story, which is typically not how great filmmaking works (and a team of three directors helmed this thing). Unlike "Finding Nemo," which tugs on your heartstrings from the opening prologue and doesn't let up until the credits roll, there isn't a single moment of emotional resonance in "Shark Tale," unless you count the relief that washes over you once it's over.
"Paradise Lost 3" vs "West of Memphis"
Shared Theme: Documentaries detailing the struggle for justice of the wrongly imprisoned West Memphis Three
Released within: 14 months of each other, though ‘West’ premiered at Sundance just 4 months after "Paradise Lost 3" bowed in Toronto.
Different approaches: Strange to be talking about dueling documentaries, but with the case of the West Memphis Three becoming one of the most high-profile instances of wrongful imprisonment in U.S. history perhaps not as surprising as it seems at first glance. And in fact, the films are different -- “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (review here) is after all the conclusion to Joe Berlinger’s epic trilogy of HBO docs, the first of which was certainly hugely instrumental in getting people’s attention drawn to the case in the first place. This fact is acknowledged in Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” (review here) which is told maybe more in terms of the campaign to free the men than what happened subsequently (arguably the central figure in ‘West,’ Lorrie Davis who met and eventually married the imprisoned so-called “ringleader” Damian Echolls while he was on Death Row, mentions that she was moved to start writing to him after hearing about the case through the first Berlinger film). ‘West’ is also, however, critical of the second HBO doc, which cast suspicion on Mark Byers as a possible alternate suspect, while Byers emerges as something of an unlikely hero in Berg’s film, in publicly showing his change of heart regarding the Three’s guilty verdict. But the achievement of "Paradise Lost" cannot be underestimated, and as three successive contemporary snapshots of the ins and outs of the trial, subsequent investigation and eventual release of the men (‘Lost 3’ initially started filming under the impression it would end with the men still incarcerated), it has a different quality, and perhaps a different historical value, from ‘West of Memphis.’ Mainly though, with the events ‘Lost 3’ details, like the new DNA and witness evidence that points fairly damningly to a different perpetrator, coming about largely from the continued fundraising efforts of the campaign detailed in ‘West’ perhaps really the four films together make a compelling portrait of how, in telling a story, a documentary can become an integral part of the story too.
Which was more successful? It’s hard to gauge in traditional terms, with both films playing festivals and then released only in limited theaters, but ‘Paradise Lost 3’ did snag a Documentary Oscar nomination, at least partly, we have to believe, in recognition of the vital role the trilogy and its filmmakers played in righting a dreadful wrong.
Which was better? Both documentaries are expertly told narratives of a grotesque and at times enraging miscarriage of justice, and Berlinger’s sprawling film certainly has earned the right to be considered definitive. But for newcomers to the story, “West of Memphis” maybe provides the more coherent overview from the murders to the initial trial and then through the long, revelation-strewn path to eventual freedom for the convicted three, and is also notable for the appearances by the campaign’s famous champions like Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and the film’s producer, Peter Jackson. But whichever you watch, prepare for the incendiary story to leave your blood boiling.