10 Movies That Tried To Imitate Other Massive Films (And Totally Failed)
For as long as there have been successful movies, there have been copies, imitations, and rip-offs. Hollywood studios are hugely risk-averse--the sheer cost of making movies and the vulnerability of many studio executive jobs means that most would rather churn out something resembling a big hit than take the chance on an original concept.
In many cases, this means a sequel or reboot--but that's only an option if you are the studio that owns the rights to the original film. For the others, it's a matter of making movies that try to recapture whatever made the first one so popular, whether it's the storyline, tone, visual style, or chemistry between the stars.
In the past decade, this has extended beyond imitating single movies to entire franchises. With movie series based on popular books such as Harry Potter and the Hunger Games proving so successful, studios have looked at whatever similarly themed novels could be adapted, in the hopes that they can find similar success.
Of course, it often doesn't work. In trying to slavishly copy the formula of a hit movie, writers and directors often hugely underestimate audiences and fail to give their films any spark of originality. Harry Potter is not popular simply because it's about a kid who learns magic. It's the casting, the chemistry between the leads, and of course, the way in which JK Rowling's world was so well translated to the screen--something that cannot simply be xeroxed (something even Rowling herself has attempted and failed to do with the Fantastic Beasts spin-offs).
So here are some of the most blatant attempts to imitate a popular or influential movie. Not all are terrible films and some were even financial successes. But all suffer from a misguided belief that simply copying another is to make something as beloved as the movies that are attempting to emulate.
10. American Hustle
What it wants to be: Goodfellas
David O' Russell's con thriller American Hustle was a commercial success, but its overt borrowing from Scorsese's Goodfellas makes it a lazy and hollow experience. From the multiple narrators and use of pop songs to long Steadicam shots, freeze frames, and slow-motion, the stylistic borrowing is so overt that it frequently feels like a pastiche of Martin's gangster classic.
What it wants to be: The Matrix
Taken on its own terms, Equilibrium offers some great action and a thought-provoking dystopian plot, plus a strong cast that includes Christian Bale, Emily Watson, and Sean Bean. Unfortunately, the similarities to The Matrix, released two years earlier, are impossible to ignore. From the inventive fights (in this case, "gun-fu") to the visual aesthetic (even down the long black coats worn by the characters), Equilibrium was sold to fans of The Matrix who were patiently waiting for the official Matrix sequels. They weren't interested and the movie bombed.
8. The Golden Compass
What it wants to be: Chronicles of Narnia
Long before HBO adapted Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books into an acclaimed TV show, there was an earlier, far less successful attempt to make a movie version. Unfortunately, producers at New Line were more interested in copying the recent success of family-friendly fantasy hit Chronicles of Narnia than honoring Pullman's deep, dark storytelling. The Golden Compass ladled on the CGI but removed many of its vital themes, such as the questioning of religion and the abuse of power, resulting in a deeply compromised movie. The film was a box office disappointment, and director Chris Weitz later called the post-production battles "a terrible experience."
What it wants to be: Men in Black
R.I.P.D. stands for Rest in Peace Department, a covert team of supernatural cops who are tasked with finding deceased souls who refuse to move to the afterlife. This woeful box office bomb does everything it can to rip off Men in Black--instead of Tommy Lee Jones's older grizzled veteran we have one played by Jeff Bridges, while the young, arrogant recruit played in MiB by Will Smith is now Ryan Reynolds. This mismatched pair aren't tracking down aliens disguised as humans, but dead folk hiding among us--and instead of great jokes and fast-moving, inventive action, we have a lazy, laugh-less film with bad CGI and very few.
6. The Boondock Saints
What it wants to be: Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction
The Boondock Saints was hardly the only '90s movie that tried to recreate that stylized blend of glamorized violence and snappy dialogue that Quentin Tarantino nailed in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But it is the most notorious, largely because of the documentary Overnight, which painfully and hilariously documents ego-driven director Troy Duffy's struggles to get the film made. The movie itself is a charmless, derivative, and unpleasantly violent story of two brothers attempting to clean up their town that inexplicably picked up a cult following and was followed by a sequel.
5. Girl on the Train
What it wants to be: Gone Girl
Even before the movie adaptation of Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train hit theaters, critics were comparing Hawkins' bestseller to Gillian Flynn's equally popular novel Gone Girl. Once Tate Taylor's movie version was released it was equally hard to escape the comparisons to David Fincher's movie of Gone Girl--the title, the missing woman, the unreliable narrator, the depiction of darkness hidden within middle-class suburbia. Only the plodding and predictable Girl on the Train simply couldn't hold a candle to Fincher's dazzling, gripping thriller.
4. Pearl Harbor
What it wants to be: Titanic
James Cameron's Titanic was that rare movie--phenomenally successful, yet hard for other studios and producers to imitate. Michael Bay's 2001 movie Pearl Harbor was the most obvious attempt, with many of the main plot points copied in a fairly blatant fashion. Like Titanic, it was a tragic love story set against the backdrop of a major historical event in which many hundreds of people died. But while Titanic matched the incredible visuals with a romance that captured the hearts of millions of viewers around the world, the cheeseball love story between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler proved only that Bay should stick to blowing things up.
3. The Percy Jackson movies
What it wants to be: The Harry Potter movies
There's no denying the huge success of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels--69 million copies sold worldwide and a devoted young fanbase. But the movie adaptations were hugely disappointing attempts to cash in on the popularity of the Harry Potter films. Both movies--The Lightning Thief and Sea of Monsters--deviated hugely from the books (much to Riordan's dissatisfaction) and emerged as pale imitations of the Potter films, with none of the thrills, drama, or magic of those movies. Hopefully, the upcoming Apple TV+ series can do the novels justice.
2. Mac & Me
What it wants to be: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg's immortal classic ET is revered as one of the greatest '80s movies, a timeless fantasy that continues to enchant new generations of kids. The 1988 rip-off Mac and Me is none of those things. This shameless copycat is essentially one long advert for McDonald's, that uses the exact plotline of ET--an alien gets stranded on earth and hides out with a normal family while trying to avoid the government--to sell Happy Meals to kids.
What it wants to be: The Hunger Games
The huge success of The Hunger Games led Hollywood to look for other similarly themed Young Adult book series that could be turned into movies. Veronica Roth's futuristic Divergent novels were adapted into three movies of rapidly declining quality and box office appeal that delivered every dystopian cliché imaginable. The series didn't even finish properly. The third movie, Allegiant, only adapted the first half of that novel, and the planned fourth film was canceled, ending the whole thing on a cliffhanger. An attempt to reboot Divergent as a TV show also came to nothing.