Friday, August 28, 2009

Less Than Inspired

There have been quite a few instances where films based on the same concept have raced to beat each other to the punch at the box office. It may be down to the growing dearth of ideas in Hollywood during the past couple of decades or the fact that the stories were predominantly spectacle-based and made them perfect fodder for simple–minded summer audiences.

Dante’s Peak and the more–to–the–point Volcano competed against each other in a vain attempt to cock–punch some life back into the disaster movie. Deep Impact and Armageddon both presented doomsday scenarios in which the Earth would be smacked in the face by an asteroid, inconveniently wiping out all mankind. Meanwhile Kevin Costner appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the same year as the other movie starring the other bloke.

From those initial duelling concepts, at least each film had the good sense to come up with a very different scenario. Dante’s Peak was localized to laying waste a small town in the Pacific Northwest and made the foolish decision of attempting to be scientifically accurate, which just won’t do in these situations. On the other hand, the makers of Volcano simply failed to understand that filling the LA basin with molten lava might actually not be an altogether bad thing.

While Deep Impact veered toward the touchy-feely, pushing the global apocalypse as close as it could into chick-flick territory, Armageddon was about boys with toys, gaining extra points and a hearty audience cheer for smashing Paris off the face of the Earth. Even if Prince of Thieves had dodgy accents and the strange idea that Hadrian’s Wall stands between the White Cliffs of Dover and Sherwood Forest, for all its many shortcomings it was still more memorable than the other movie starring the other bloke.

Apparently Fathom Studios, the makers of Delgo, have made it known during the past week that they aren’t too impressed with the Avatar trailer that Fox squeezed out late last week, noting the striking visual similarities between the two movies even if the plots don’t exactly match up. To prove their point some bright spark has already gone through the available material and posted numerous shot–for–shot comparisons online for all to see.

James Cameron’s original detail-heavy treatment for Avatar has been knocking around for many years now. Clocking in at 114 pages, and filled with so much tedious detail that it seems to be desperately trying to convince itself it makes sense rather than tell a story, I wouldn’t be surprised if only the hardy few got through it all rather than giving up part way and just skipping to the end to see how it all turns out.

Fathom’s contention is that the independently financed Delgo has been in development just as long. Independently financed, initial concepts for the film appeared on its dedicated website as early as 1998, followed by further works–in–progress over the years as they doggedly scraped together the $40 million budget required to finish the film. Avatar on the other hand only went into production a few years back when the precious camera equipment that the movie couldn’t be made without was finally pieced together.

It may be seen as just sour grapes on the part of a company who spent all that time and effort only to see their movie make just under $512,000 on its opening weekend, which on a wide release meant it only earned an incredibly unimpressive average of $237 per theater. But though it was only on general release for a week before being pulled, given that Delgo appeared in December of 2008, that’s given Cameron or one of his flunkies almost nine whole months to come out and say something like, “Well, here’s a funny thing...” and mention that they were working along pretty much the same lines.

Obviously one significant drawback of being secretive about what you’re working on is that someone may also come out with the same themes or ideas without even knowing it. Even if it is simply one of the most outrageous coincidences, it doesn’t look good for Cameron who hasn’t exactly been squeaky clean when it comes to purloining existing material. Terminator got taken to task for bearing far too many similarities to The Outer Limits episodes Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand. Obviously just as arrogant back then as he appears now, Cameron even went so far as to admit his pilfering to a visiting journalist, meaning that prints soon required an acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison.

With Avatar four months away, the folk at Fathom have enough time to see whether it’ll be worth their while to take whatever legal action is open to them. Delgo wasn’t particularly original to begin with but I’m sure there are a lot of people in the film community who would like to see Cameron taken down a peg or two for the less than endearing behaviour he has repeatedly shown over the years.

In the meantime you always have to look on the bright side. After watching David Lynch’s utter abortion of Dune a couple of months back and then skimming through the novel to see how badly he had ballsed it up, I went back and re-read Frank Herbert’s trilogy of books. With Cameron pointlessly coming out and saying that Avatar was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ cycle of Barsoom books, because quite frankly what science fiction tale hasn’t been influenced in some respect by the adventures of John Carter of Mars, the last few evenings I’ve been reimmersing myself in A Princess of Mars.

Though I may not give a fig about Avatar, I am looking forward to John Carter of Mars, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of Burroughs‘ novels. After earlier attempts by the likes of the great Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett and Ray Harryhausen failed to bring the American Civil War veteran’s classic adventures on Mars to the screen, Pixar’s Andrew Stanton is finally good to go. With filming set to begin in November and a release date still two years away, it gives me time to work my way through all eleven books in the series. So I’m happy.


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