Make It the Same, Only Different! Actually, You Know What? Screw Different.

In the upcoming films portion of our most recent No-Name Movie Podcast, Matt mentioned that he was looking forward to BATTLE:LOS ANGELES.  I was skeptical and delivered an anecdote about my sister and I seeing the trailer in theatres and not knowing whether to laugh or grip our armrests in trepidation.  (We chose to laugh.)

However, a day or two later, I saw the trailer for BATTLE:LOS ANGELES and realized I’d been thinking of a different film, because the BATTLE:LOS ANGELES trailer actually does look pretty decent, if a little reminiscent of, say, INDEPENDENCE DAY, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and CLOVERFIELD.

Today I googled “alien movies in 2011” and quickly found an article entitled, “Alien Invasion Movies are Taking Over Hollywood! 16 of Them!”  After a quick perusal of the list, I found the trailer I’d actually been thinking of was for SKYLINE.  So, I decided to find it on youtube.  Here’s what my search came up with.

One can forgive a girl for being confused.

Here are the trailers for the two films.

BATTLE:LOS ANGELES

SKYLINE

And hey, just for the heck of it, let’s look at the trailer for…

INDEPENDENCE DAY

Notice how many of the same beats these trailers hit?  Now, of course, you can’t always judge a movie by its trailer, but, in essence, that’s exactly what the trailers ask you to do.  To drive the concept home, check out the loglines below (via IMDB).

Can you tell to which films they belong? (Answers at the bottom of the post.)

  1. As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival.
  2. The aliens are coming and their goal is to invade and destroy. Fighting superior technology, Man’s best weapon is the will to survive.
  3. Strange lights descend on the city of Los Angeles, drawing people outside like moths to a flame where an extraterrestrial force threatens to swallow the entire human population off the face of the Earth.
  4. A family living on a farm finds mysterious crop circles in their fields which suggests something more frightening to come.
  5. A Marine platoon faces off against an alien invasion in Los Angeles.
  6. An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent who is exposed to their biotechnology.

Only one jumps out at me as truly different.  The rest seem like they could all belong to the same movie.  I’m not sure exactly what lessons there are to be learned from this, but it seems like it’s something worth thinking about.

Despite the proliferation of movies that at least appear to be incredibly similar via their marketing, I think it’s still important as a writer to do our best to provide the basis for differentiation from everything else out there.

It starts with the script, and finding that balance between a frame of recognition for an audience (that starts with a single reader and ultimately grows, one hopes, to a larger crowd) and a reason to shell out hard-earned money and valuable time/effort (to option, to produce, to buy a cinema ticket, to move it to the top of one’s Netflix queue) for something they haven’t seen before is the struggle we face.  (Thank you, Professor Fred Lamer, for cementing this concept of Information Theory in my brain during my second year of college.)

I can only assume that there was something about each of the scripts for these films that grabbed the attention of a series of very important people.  Even if they are fairly similar in premise and even execution, it doesn’t speak against the quality of the films (or the scripts on which they’re based).  Frankly, that’s the problem I had with THE FIGHTER.  It’s a very good film with excellent performances.  But I essentially could have just watched ROCKY, which I already know and like and can see for less money.

And therein lies the problem: audience buy-in.  As we hear complaint after complaint about box office problems and big-budget tentpoles flopping and people not going to the movies anymore, perhaps a big part of the problem is, regardless of the quality, we’ve seen so much of it before.

Logline answers: 1) War of the Worlds, 2) Independence Day, 3) Skyline, 4) Signs, 5) Battle:Los Angeles, 6) District 9.
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10 thoughts on “Make It the Same, Only Different! Actually, You Know What? Screw Different.

  1. No, no, SKYLINE looked AWFUL from the word go. Battle: Los Angeles looks kind of whatevs, but I think it has more potential from the trailer than most alien movies do. I am, admittedly, not a fan of the genre.

    I think the problem with these movies is how long it all takes to get written. Everyone got tired of zombies and then wrote alien scripts, and then they all got picked up and made at the same time. I suppose good ideas come in dozens? Something like that.

    Of course, being samey isn’t all bad. I mean, lots of the world’s best movies are just riffs on established genres. It’s all about the talent involved and the execution. That said, alien movies are going to outpace superhero movies AND zombie movies as the most played genre. And that sucks. But at least we got District 9 out of it.

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  3. Good post. I still can’t bring myself to watch Skyline. It’s one of the worst reviewed name movies in a long time. It’s rare that anything but no-budget, c-movie horror gets below a 5 on imdb, but Skyline’s rocking a 4.5, so presumably it stinks real, real bad.

    And Professor Lamer? Medal of bravery to that guy for going into teaching, for sure.

    • Lamer was one of the most terrifying, intelligent and effective teachers I’ve ever had. Toward the beginning of the semester, to illustrate the principle that people are more likely to engage in rebellious behaviors in packs rather than alone, he once related a story to our class about how he posted a sign in his yard that said something along the lines of, “Do not touch this sign.” Single passersby would leave it alone, but a group of kids came along, ripped the sign out of the ground and tossed it aside. Most professors would end the story there, but Lamer continued, telling us that he’d then filed the edges of the metal sign until they were razor sharp and reposted it. He finished the story with a sinister grin and dismissed the class. I think most of the class left horrified, but I loved it (while still admittedly being a little terrified myself). That class was the hardest, most important, most applicable and most enjoyed of my entire academic career.

  4. Re: SKYLINE, the thing is, I actually think the bit in the premise about looking at the alien craft being every human’s downfall is really interesting. Because in every alien invasion movie, what do people do? They look up at the alien craft. It’s an ultimate case of “curiosity killed the cat.” I haven’t seen the film, but going against my own advice and judging by the trailer, if they’d focused on that, I think it could have been really cool. Take out the explosions and you’ve got a game of psychological warfare instead of an all-out military battle like in every other alien invasion movie we’ve ever seen.

    • I remember there was a lot of buzz about Skyline when the first stills hit, because of the gonzo way they shot it, and the pared down focus of an alien invasion told mostly from an apartment, but the big question was “While this looks cool, have the guys behind Alien vs. Predator II *really* made something that’s any good?” Apparently the answer to that was no, though.

      So having not seen it either, I’d guess that maybe it’s a case of starting with a cool premise, but just not having the talent or creativity to fulfill that to its potential.

  5. “I can only assume that there was something about each of the scripts for these films that grabbed the attention of a series of very important people. ”

    Skyline was an independent feature basically put together to showcase the sfx skills of the Strause Brothers. The film only cost $10m to make (about all of which was the effects.) They made a trailer based on the idea before they even had a story treatment and then cobbled together a script which was limited by the fact that it would all be shot in one location (area). The script is pretty horrendous – don’t think it had much editing.

    District 9 was another low budget film ($35m) and got off the ground because it was based on a short film and Neil Blomkampp’s impressive work at directing three shorts based on the Halo franchise. Also, he had Peter Jackson on his side as producer which helps. The film was financed outside of the studio system by independent financiers so there was a lot to pitch mostly on basis of previous work and talent.

    War of the Worlds was a given: Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise wanted to adapt H.G.Wells. Who says no to that? Especially given Spielberg’s history with alien films.

    Signs green light would have been largely based on the script but it didn’t hurt that it was written my Shyamalan who was still riding high on the success of The Sixth Sense and had Mel Gibson’s buy in before he went nuts. It was never advertised as an all-out alien invasion film, per se, but was all about the crop circles. It also (obviously) reads quite differently from the rest of the line up as there isn’t much in the way of massive destruction. (I loved the film up until the last 10 minutes which made me hate it with such a passion that I’ve never rewatched it.)

    Independence Day was a shoe-in for a summer blockbuster, especially as it was written and directed by the guys who had made stack loads of money from both Universal Soldier and Stargate (both on low to medium sized budget). Apparently the 20th C. Fox boss greenlit the script within a day of reading it – probably on the basis of “We’ve got a mile wide flying saucer blowing up the White House.” That’s an image which sells. And did – it took ~ $900m in Box Office against a $75m budget.

    I believe “Battle: Los Angeles” was the only spec screenplay in the list and was picked up by Columbia for development and also the only film in the list where the director wasn’t in place before the film had a completed screenplay.

    There’s always been a market for alien invasion films and there probably always will be. The better ones will be more allegorical than the special effects fests (for those of us who care about such things) and every now and then, we’ll get a spate of higher profile invasion films that seem to dominate. 1996 saw Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, The Arrival and Star Trek: First Contact (invasion-ish); 1997 saw Men In Black, Contact, The Fifth Element and Starship Troopers; 1998 gave us The Faculty, The X-Files, The Second Arrival, Species 2, Phantoms (although this might not have actually been an invasion film) as well as Deep Impact and Armageddon (similar movies – both tied thematically in so far as being death from space).

    • Lots of good information there. Like I said, I’m not questioning the individual quality of any of these films. It’s more the logic of handing the moviegoing audience such a large quantity of similar films (at least in how they’re marketed).

      Interestingly, in the years you list with multiple alien movies, each title that I’ve seen strikes me as fairly distinct. MARS ATTACKS! is a farce of the alien invasion genre. MEN IN BLACK is an action comedy about aliens living in secret on earth. CONTACT is basically an existential drama — what’s our place in the universe and how does the potential existence of alien life affect that? THE FIFTH ELEMENT is a fish-out-of-water story set in a slick future. THE X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE is very specifically based in the series’ mythology, which is quite distinctive in and of itself. THE FACULTY was an alien invasion set in a high school.

      They all take the same very basic premise — what happens when you stick aliens and humans together — but put a distinct spin on it. I wouldn’t mix up any of those films (again, the ones with which I’m familiar). Again I’m left feeling that, at least in the marketing of films today, the appeal of “different” has been lost to some extent.

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