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written by Sam Greenspan

How are there so many times where thematically similar movies hit theaters within weeks or months of each other?

I just read an article that there’s another mall cop movie coming out. It’s called Observe and Report and it’s the “edgier” take on the mall cop genre, with Seth Rogan handling the lead role that Kevin James just rode to absolutely shocking commercial success in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Well… this got my friends and me thinking about other basically identical movies that came at basically identical times. And, without too much trouble, I was able to find 11 cases of shockingly similar movies that were released within months of each other.

Here are comparisons of each of those sets of movies. In each breakdown, I reference the Rotten Tomatoes score — if you’re unfamiliar, Rotten Tomatoes is a site that aggregates all the reviews for a movie and gives the movie a score based on what percentage of the reviews are positive.

1 | Deep Impact (May 8, 1998) and Armageddon (July 1, 1998)

Two movies about large space objects (a comet and asteroid, respectively) hurtling toward Earth and a small group of heroic astronauts, seemingly average people and government officials uniting to save mankind before it’s too late.

Critical success

Deep Impact got a 46 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (which was a pretty good score for a ’90s blockbuster). Armageddon got a 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; James Sanford of James Sanford on Film said, “Breathless and utterly brainless… makes the similarly-themed and much more sentimental ‘Deep Impact’ look like ‘Schindler’s List’ by comparison.”

Commercial success

Deep Impact had less hype and made less money, $140.5 million to Armageddon‘s $201.6 million.

Biggest difference

In Deep Impact part of the comet actually hits Earth. In Armageddon Bruce Willis’s martyr-ific sacrifice atop the asteroid totally saves the day.

Winner?

Deep Impact was a better movie (ask a lot of people — they’ll tell you that Deep Impact made them cry), but Armageddon did better in the moment and has seemingly held the mantle for shit-hitting-Earth films ever since.

I blame that damn Aerosmith song… the version where in between Steven Tyler wailing about not wanting to close his eyes or go to sleep there’s voiceover of Ben Affleck talking about animal crackers.

2 | Chasing Liberty (January 9, 2004) and First Daughter (September 24, 2004)

Two movies about the 18-year-old daughter of the President of the United States (Mandy Moore and Katie Holmes, respectively) becoming so frustrated with her constant protection and her presidential father’s over-protectiveness that she can’t take it any more and decides to rebel… right into the arms of a tall, handsome gentleman. But that gentleman has a secret (in BOTH EFFING CASES, he’s an undercover secret service agent), and the first daughter is about to get more than she bargained for.

Critical success

Chasing Liberty pulled in only 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But First Daughter was way cheesier and did even worse, at a remarkable NINE percent.

Commercial success

Chasing Liberty made $12.2 million (and cost $23 million to make). First Daughter made even less, at $9.1 million (and cost $30 million to make).

Biggest difference

As my friend Adam put it, “Chasing Liberty is like taking the plot of First Daughter and the plot of Eurotrip and mashing them together.” Also, for some reason, in Chasing Liberty, they threw in a huge subplot about Jeremy Piven (as a secret service agent) falling in love with another secret service agent.

Winner

I guess it’s Chasing Liberty by every measure — although it’s more like Chasing Liberty sucked slightly less than First Daughter… not Chasing Liberty was a better film than First Daughter.

3 | The Illusionist (September 1, 2006) and The Prestige (October 20, 2006)

Two critically-acclaimed period pieces, set in Europe, that explore the world of seemingly-supernatural magic and it’s role in life-or-death rivalries.

Critical success

The Illusionist got a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. The Prestige got a 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and two Oscar nominations — one for art direction, one for cinematography. (Both lost the cinematography category to Pan’s Labyrinth by the way.)

Commercial success

The Illusionist made $39.8 million, The Prestige made $53 million, so neither was any kind of real huge box office success.

Biggest difference

While both seem to feature supernatural magic, only The Prestige actually does — when Hugh Jackman’s magician character meets Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) and uses a machine he created to do actual teleportation. (Or, at least, matter replication. Or something. I was half-asleep when I watched both of these.)

Winner

I saw both of these movies about two years ago and the only one that really stuck with me was The Prestige… I remembered the twist, the magic and the whole strange Tesla angle. Also, The Illusionist is one of those films from the phoning-it-in period of Ed Norton’s career.

4 | Antz (October 2, 1998) and A Bug’s Life (November 25, 1998)

Two computer-animated films about ant colonies… specifically one seemingly-generic ant who has more heroism inside of him than anyone every could’ve imagined… and who, over the course of the movie, leaves the colony, channels his heroics into defeating other insect enemies (termites, caterpillers, evil ants), and, ultimately, is responsible for the betterment of the colony as a whole.

Critical success

Antz was a huge critical success — 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. A Bug’s Life did almost as well, at 91 percent… and got one Oscar nomination, for best original music.

Commercial success

Antz brought in $90.6 million for Dreamworks… A Bug’s Life rode the Disney/Pixar machine to whoop it, with $162.8 million.

Biggest difference

The plots of the movie, outside of being set against ant colony backdrops and featuring unlikely everyman heroes, are fairly different. Antz has a whole communism/democracy angle and a crazy love story… A Bug’s Life is kinda like an animated “Three Amigos”.

Winner

A Bug’s Life had more success but, like the Deep Impact/Armageddon battle, I really think Antz was a smarter, better movie.

5 | The Truman Show (June 5, 1998) and EdTV (March 26, 1999)

Two movies that show both the upsides and downsides of having cameras broadcasting your every move to millions of captivated Americans. Can any relationship be real? Can you really fall in love? And ultimately, just how far would you go to get away from the cameras and get the sweet, sweet freedom of privacy?

Critical success

The Truman Show — which is probably Jim Carrey’s best dramatic role ever (with apologies to my friend Steve who, for some reason, is obsessed with The Majestic) — got a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It also got three Oscar nominations (including best original screenplay and best director); and both Jim Carrey and Ed Harris won Golden Globes for their acting.

EdTV did significantly worse, with a 63 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and its only award nod being a 1999 Teen Choice Award nomination for sexiest love scene (between Elizabeth Hurley and Matthew McConaughey). And they ended up losing to Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That… which, best I can recall, never escalated beyond a kiss in the backyard. So… yikes.

Commercial success

Truman Show did better than I would’ve guessed, making $125.6 million. EdTV did worse than I expected, making $22.4 million.

Biggest difference

There’s a fundamental plot difference between the two movies — in Truman Show, Jim Carrey is born into the reality show and doesn’t know he’s part of a show; in EdTV, Matthew McConaughey chooses to sign up for the reality show, not realizing the potential downside.

Beyond that, the movies have seriously different gravitas — EdTV is an entertaining little movie that never makes you to nervous or unsettled because you know, ultimately, the character will be ok. Truman Show can actually send you spiraling into an existential crisis and eff up your mind.

Winner

Truman Show easily won every battle. Since it’s the few weeks of the year right now where people watch college basketball, I’ll put this into March Madness terms. While it’s not a one seed versus 16 squash (EdTV isn’t THAT bad)… it’s like a two seed versus a 15. And Truman Show is no Arizona.

6 | Saving Private Ryan (July 24, 1998) and The Thin Red Line (January 15, 1999)

Two World War Two epics featuring a man surprisingly thrust into the role of heroism in a fool’s errand… and his ultimate bravery and sacrifice to fulfill that errand, defeat America’s enemies in a smaller battle, and serve as a metaphor for the humanity it took to win the war.

Critical success

Saving Private Ryan got a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — and, of course, got 11 Oscar nominations and won five (but lost Best Picture to Shakespeare In Love). The critics liked The Thin Red Line but not as much, at 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It also got a lot of Oscar nominations — seven, believe it or not, including one for Best Picture — but it lost all seven.

Commercial success

Saving Private Ryan made a freaking fortune, at $216.1 million. The Thin Red Line made one-SIXTH of that, at $36.4 million.

Winner

There’s no way to possible pick Thin Red LineSaving Private Ryan was a better movie, made more money, had a better response AND inspired a better porn knockoff title. Shaving Ryan’s Privates is a classic title. Did The Thin Red Line even inspire a porn movie?

7 | Mission to Mars (March 10, 2000) and Red Planet (November 10, 2000)

Two futuristic movies about manned missions to Mars after some strange developments arise regarding the potential for life on the planet. The all-male-with-one-female crews crash on Mars, sustain deaths as they travel across the planet, find sources of oxygen and make shocking discoveries regarding unexpected life on Mars.

Critical success

Both movies were pretty widely panned — Mission to Mars got a 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; Red Planet did even worse, with 13 percent.

Commercial success

Mission to Mars lost about $30 million — its budget was $90 million and it took in $60.8 million. Red Planet lost almost twice as much — its budget was $75 million and it took in $17.5 million. Overall, that means, in the year 2000, Hollywood had $165 million invested in Mars movies and America responded by paying less than half of that to watch them.

Biggest difference

The life on Mars. (Wow, I could make my second David Bowie reference of this list here. Homeboy is everywhere today!) In Mission to Mars it’s an actual martian, in Red Planet it’s blood- and algae-hungry insects. Oh… um… spoiler alert. Sorry. I’m guessing if you haven’t seen either of these in the past nine years you’re not going to start now. Plus, since these movies are so interchangeable, when you do watch you’ll forget which film features which life form, guaranteed.

Winner

It’s a real push here. I’ll go with Mission to Mars as a slightly better film because Red Planet gets way too deep up its own ass trying to wedge a huge philosophical/religious/spiritual debate angle into what should just be a disposable blockbuster-type movie.

8 | Iron Eagle (January 17, 1986) and Top Gun (May 16, 1986)

Two movies about young hotshots with incredible, innate fighter pilot skills (partially thanks to their fighter pilot dads) fighting incredible odds and challenges to take down enemy planes, avenge the deaths of those close to them, and realize their own fighter pilot destinies in the name of their fathers.

Critical success

Iron Eagle has one of the most ridiculous plots ever — a high school student, his buddies and a retired pilot steal Air Force fighters and successfully take on the entire fleet of an unnamed EVIL Muslim country. Top Gun isn’t un-ridiculous… but it might — might — just be slightly more grounded in realism. Neither is available on Rotten Tomatoes (it doesn’t go back that far)… but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that Top Gun got a better reception than Iron Eagle.

Commercial success

Iron Eagle made just $24 million during its brief time in theaters. Top Gun did exponentially better than that, making $176 million.

Biggest difference

Other than the basics I laid out at the top of this point, these movies are fairly different. To me, what stands out is how they view the military: Top Gun glamorized it, Iron Eagle made the Air Force look like bumbling, bureaucratic amateurs. Top Gun ended up increasing Air Force and Navy recruiting numbers; Iron Eagle… well… I don’t think it was influential either way.

Winner

It’s weird. By every quantitative measure it’d have to be Top Gun. Except that I haven’t watched either movie in at least a decade and, after writing this, all I want to do is watch Iron Eagle again. It’s such a great ’80s movie, such escapism, such a male fantasy. So I’m not willing to declare a winner. You can do that if you’d like.

9 | Dante’s Peak (February 7, 1997) and Volcano (April 25, 1997)

An experienced but troubled hero is responsible for pulling a city, a love interest and at least one child out of trouble when an impending volcanic eruption threatens to destroy that city. Both are able to at least somewhat minimize the damage of the eruption and save lives in the face of doubting and difficult bureaucrats, although many casualties are claimed along the way… and both volcanoes [is that really how it’s spelled?] are deemed ongoing, active threats at the end of the movies.

Critical success

Dante’s Peak didn’t do particularly well on Rotten Tomatoes, at just 32 percent. Volcano did a bit better, at 42 percent.

Commercial success

Dante’s Peak ended up making $67.2 million (and cost more than $100 million to make). Volcano only made $47.5 million (and cost more than $90 million to make). So both pretty much flopped.

Biggest difference

Easy. Dante’s Peak takes place in a small town in Washington… Volcano takes out the freaking city of Los Angeles when a volcano springs up out of the La Brea Tar Pits.

Winner

The spectacle of Volcano is much greater… lava tearing up L.A. is pretty stunning. But Dante’s Peak always feels like a better movie. It’s also more memorable… strangely enough, because it’s title is unique. Naming a movie Volcano is so lame. I hate when movies have titles like that. Things like Push or Go! or Someone Like You. Generic-ass bullshit.

That rant sure came out of nowhere. Perhaps I’ve started going insane as I’m now going on like hour five of writing this list.

10 | Tombstone (December 25, 1993) and Wyatt Earp (June 24, 1994)

Two fictionalized biopics about Wyatt Earp. Both focus on his family and romantic relationships, his friendship with Doc Holliday, the battle at the O.K. Corral and his vendetta against the Cowboys.

Critical success

Tombstone was a pretty badass movie — I remember watching it in the theater at age 14 and recognizing that — and the critics liked it too. It got a 79 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. Wyatt Earp was a 191-minute Waterworld-era Kevin Costner movie that only got a 42 percent.

Commercial success

Tombstone made $56.5 million at the box office (and cost $25 million to make); Wyatt Earp made $25.1 million (and cost $63 million to make).

Biggest difference

Wyatt Earp spends a LONG time focusing on Earp’s back story and youth and all the boring shit in his life and somehow, in 191 minutes, can’t find time for more than a montage of his Vengence Ride. Tombstone only focuses on the highlights — the O.K. Corral and the aftermath.

Basically, Wyatt Earp would be like making a Michael Jordan biopic and focusing on his elementary school years, some of his time at UNC, the loss to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals… then doing a montage of his six championships… and ending the movie squarely focused on his two seasons with the Wizards or the time he drafted Kwame Brown. And having the role of Michael Jordan played by Kevin Costner.

Winner

In the biggest landslide on this list, Tombstone.

11 | DeepStar Six (January 13, 1989); Leviathan (March 17, 1989); and The Abyss (August 9, 1989)

A group of people on an underwater mission encounter dangerous, unidentified creatures that put their lives in serious peril, changing their mission to “survive!” (I tried to write that one in my corniest, most Leonard Maltin-ish way yet. Couldn’t help myself. Again, I’ve been working on this list longer than I ever thought.)

Critical success

The Abyss did really well — with the highest budget, best effects and best writing, it got 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It also got four Oscar nominations. Leviathan didn’t do even CLOSE to that well, at just 11 percent. As for DeepStar Six… well, Rotten Tomatoes only has six aggregated reviews for it and they’re all negative… so that’s a big fat zero percent.

Commercial success

DeepStar Six made $8 million. Leviathan made $15.7 million. The Abyss made $54.2 million… a lot more than the others… but still about $15 million less than its budget.

Biggest difference

This one’s easy: In The Abyss, the creatures aren’t evil. In fact, they save Ed Harris’s life. In the other movies, they’re straight bad.

Winner

The amazing thing about the 1989 battle of underwater creature movies is that these weren’t the only three. They’re the most high-profile but two other underwater man-versus-creature movies were released that year too: Evil Below and Lords of the Deep.

Still, of all five, odds are, The Abyss is the only one you’ve heard of… and it was the only one that made any real money or had any real success. So it definitely won the battle. And also helped launch James Cameron’s future successful trips back to the water (like Titanic) and less successful ones (his Joaquin Phoenix-esque meltdown that led him to quite making real movies and only shoot 3-D underwater IMAX films for several years).

Honorable mention goes out to Capote and Infamous; Alexander and Troy; Prefontaine and Without Limits; Madagascar and The Wild; and 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.

And if I’m ever masochistic enough to do this enough for TV shows, I promise I’ll lead off with Supernanny and Nanny 911.

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