We can thank director Roland Emmerich for the indelible image of the White House being blown to smithereens in the hugely popular sci-fi action picture “Independence Day.”
That computer-animated event is stuck in the minds of many filmgoers not just because they went to the movie but also because the explosion was repeated endlessly in previews shown throughout primetime television during the weeks leading up to its July 1996 release.
But you can’t blow up the Oval Office too many times. Emmerich is poised to do it again in June with the big-budget summer flick “White House Down,” which stars Channing Tatum as Bruce Willis. That is to say, the film appears to be a sort of “Die Hard at the White House” with Tatum as the one man who can save the day when a paramilitary group invades the nation’s capital.
Of course, if you have seen the current “Olympus Has Fallen” or its trailers, you know that in that film the White House is also nearly leveled, in this case with Gerard Butler playing Bruce Willis.
You will be forgiven for thinking they were the same movie.
If that’s not enough, there’s now “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which also features Tatum, along with Dwayne Johnson — and, in the Bruce Willis role, um, Bruce Willis. In this one the White House remains standing, the takeover by a paramilitary group is more stealth in nature and saving the day is more of a team effort. But in general it is not a dissimilar picture.
With “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down” opening within three months of each other, you might well wonder: What the heck is that about? Shouldn’t one of the filmmakers been put off by the other and perhaps waited a few years?
Ah, the Hollywood standoff. It’s an old story. Hollywood has been competing with itself this way on and off dating back to 1964 when “Dr. Strangelove” opened in January, followed in October by “Fail-Safe.” Although “Strangelove” is a dark satire and “Fail-Safe” is a serious thriller, both have essentially the same plot about the U.S. president trying to stop nuclear bombs headed for Russia, the former caused by a mad general and the latter by a technical glitch.
Despite excellent reviews, “Fail-Safe” flopped, and the thinking at the time was that moviegoers didn’t want to see a serious, downbeat version of a comedy they had made a huge hit just 10 months earlier.
The very next year, two biographical films about early sound star Jean Harlow — the platinum-blonde, sex-symbol predecessor (by two decades) of Marilyn Monroe — were released by competing studios, each trying to be the first in theaters. And both were titled “Harlow”!
But Paramount Pictures’ big-budget, widescreen, Technicolor version starring Carroll Baker could not hope to get there before the low-budget quickie starring Carol Lynley, which was shot in the speedy, black-and-white, videotape Electronovision process and looked like a TV-show kinescope.
Still, it was just five weeks after the Lynley film opened that Baker’s was on the big screen. Not that it mattered in the end; both films flopped. (Tom Lisanti’s book “Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen” chronicles the backstage battles that accompanied the films’ tumultuous productions.)
Since then there have been many similar films released in theaters within months of each other, including:
“Iron Eagle” (January 1986) and “Top Gun” (May 1986). Though they diverge in terms of plot, both focus on cocky, rebellious young pilots and are filmed in a sort of videogame style to engage the audience. “Iron Eagle” became “Top Gun’s” warm-up act, the latter winning the box-office sweepstakes by a wide margin and rocketing Tom Cruise into superstar status. But “Iron Eagle” did pretty well, fostering no less than three sequels.
“Like Father, Like Son” (October 1987) and “Vice Versa” (March 1988) and “18 Again!” (April 1988). The “Freaky Friday” farcical body-switch plot was quite the rage in the late 1980s. All three of these have teenage boys switching bodies with adults, the first two with their fathers and the third with his grandfather. These three were closely followed by the similar “Big” in June 1988, though that one is a “wish,” not a “switch,” comedy, but is easily the biggest box-office hit and most fondly remembered of this group.
“Dangerous Liaisons” (February 1988) and “Valmont” (November 1989). These are adaptations of the 1782 French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (though the first is by way of Christopher Hampton’s play, which was taken from the novel) about a pair of manipulators in pre-Revolutionary France playing games with people’s lives, thereby destroying them. The first film, starring Glenn Close, was successful, but Johnny-come-lately “Valmont,” headlined by Annette Bening, was a notorious failure.
“K-9” (April 1989) and “Turner and Hooch” (July 1989); “DeepStar Six” (January 1989) and “Leviathan” (April 1989). The first two are cops and canine comedies and the second pair are underwater horror films that essentially rip off “Alien.” “The Abyss,” which opened in August 1989 and is by far the best loved of these, is often lumped with the latter two because of the underwater setting, but it’s not a horror movie.
“Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” (August 1992) and “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (October 1992). Big-budget, all-star, epic stories of events leading up to and following Columbus’ discovery of the New World, both of which were critical and box-office fiascos
Among others you may recall are the Westerns “Tombstone” (December 1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (June 1994), both about events leading up to the O.K. Corral gunfight; the eruption-disaster flicks “Dante’s Peak” (February 1997) and “Volcano” (April 1997); two sci-fi thrillers about speeding objects in space on a trajectory to destroy Earth, “Deep Impact” (May 1998) and “Armageddon” (July 1998); “EdTV” (June 1998) and “The Truman Show” (March 1999), comedies about ordinary men being followed by reality-TV cameras 24/7; “Antz” (October 1998) and “A Bug’s Life” (November 1998), computer-animated features about misfits becoming heroes to their ant colonies; “Chasing Liberty” (January 2004) and “First Daughter” (September 2004), about the U.S. president’s teenage daughter breaking free of the oppressive Secret Service, unaware that the guy helping her is also a Secret Service agent; “Capote” (September 2005) and “Infamous” (October 2006), chronicling Truman Capote’s research and writing of “In Cold Blood” and too many others to list.
An interesting footnote to all this competitiveness is the 1974 all-star box-office smash “The Towering Inferno,” which was based on two novels, “The Tower,” purchased by Warner Bros., and “The Glass Inferno,” owned by Twentieth Century Fox.
After the enormous success of 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure” (and before that, 1970’s “Airport”), Hollywood studios were looking around for more disaster epics, and Warner and Fox discovered they were developing similar projects. But rather than create competing films the two studios collaborated, allowing them to split production costs and profits.
This was the first time two major studios co-produced a movie, although it is now common practice (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” being the latest, from Paramount and MGM).
Maybe Congress could take a lesson from that.