In Hollywood, originality is grossly overrated. In fact, it is often deterred completely– major studios systems mostly opt to produce concepts that are familiar to audiences, but just different enough to be construed as new. The reality of movie making is that most celebrated films are straight up rip-offs. To demonstrate the success rate of cinematic thievery, here are 15 filmmakers whose big hits stole concept, style, or story from other media.
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Star Wars isn’t just a rip-off of one film, it steals from a multitude of sources and mashes them together. The film’s episodic structure is taken from old Flash Gordon serials as, before he came up with Star Wars, Lucas had tried unsuccessfully to remake that property. Several of the film’s characters are also modeled on the cast of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai adventure Hidden Fortress. Luke Skywalker’s desert planet of Tattoine is lifted from Frank Herbert’s iconic novel, Dune, as is the concept of the Jedi Mind Trick. Finally, the look of C-3P0 was taken from the iconic robot of Fritz Lang’s M. Despite taking these ideas as his own, George Lucas is given a pass by most science fiction and film aficionados for intermingling these ingredients in a unique way.
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Director Steven Spielberg collaborated with George Lucas on the story Raiders of the Lost Ark and, in the process, created another film that lifts from several sources. What Star Wars did for space opera serials, Raiders did for adventure serials along the lines of Zorro. However, most point to a Charlton Heston adventure film called The Secret of the Incas as Raiders main source of, ahem, “inspiration.” Indeed, Indiana Jones’ look is lifted from the film wholesale along with several setpieces and the film’s feisty female character.
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Director John Lassetter has been accused of making a string of rip-offs for Pixar. The character designs and concept of Monsters Inc is heavily indebted to the 1989 Howie Mandel vehicle Little Monsters. Toy Story‘s concept and plot was tackled by none other than Jim Henson in made-for-TV movie The Christmas Toy. Most glaringly, however, is Lightning McQueen’s character arc in Cars, which runs a close parallel to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood but, you know, with talking cars.
While Elit Roth’s freshmen feature Cabin Fever was hailed as the second coming of horror by critics, many fans were alienated by its lack of originality. Not that the film’s screenplay was unoriginal– quite the opposite, in fact, the viral horror film pre-dated later Hollywood epics like Contagion. However, it is Roth’s penchant for ripping off shots, set pieces, and musical numbers from classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Two Thousand Maniacs that made many horror fans dismiss Cabin Fever completely.
Critics of Quentin Tarantino have long held the director doesn’t make movies, but instead performs mix-tape remakes of other movies. His career is a laundry list of “homages” that many perceive as rip-offs. What are the most obvious take-aways Tarantino has committed? Well, the plot of Reservoir Dogs comes from both the film noir Kansas City Confidential and the Hong Kong crime epic City On Fire. Yet he’s also taken from television, too– the entire “buried alive” sequence from Kill Bill Volume 2 comes from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as does his segment from the indie anthology Four Rooms. Yet despite these obvious swipes, Tarantino is always honest when it comes to his “inspirations” and his cinematic cherry picking is seen by moviegoers as more of a nod to his favorite films rather than outright plagiarism.
When Avatar was released, many fans called James Cameron out for taking the film’s plot from a variety of sources. The environmentally themed animated film Fern Gully and the Poul Anderson novella Call Me Joe are just a few of the original precursors that Cameron swiped from for his blockbuster. However, Cameron is no stranger to accusations of plagiarism. His work on Aliens more or less transplants the space marine characters and jargon of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers into the world of the original Alien film. Not only that, but science fiction screenwriter Harlan Ellison sued the director for stealing the concepts of two of his The Outer Limits scripts (Demon With A Glass Hand and Soldier) and mashing them together to make The Terminator. The legal system agreed with Ellison claims, giving him a posthumous writing credit on the film that is featured in the home video release.
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In 2001, Gary Scott Thompson adapted the Ken Li article “Racer X” into the screenplay of The Fast and the Furious. The Rob Cohen directed, car racing crime film has spawned six sequels to date. Despite the massive success of the franchise, many have accused the initial film of ripping off another sports themed crime thriller, Point Break. Indeed, The Fast and the Furious replicates the relationship between Break‘s central characters almost beat for beat.
The Wachowski Siblings
Unlike Star Wars, which is seen as a loving “homage” at best, The Matrix series has gained a great deal of vitriol from several writers claiming it ripped them off. In a forward for the published screenplay of the film, cyber-punk writer William Gibson acknowledged that The Matrix borrowed a great deal from his novel Neuromancer but applauded filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski for doing it so well. Other writers have been less kind– writer Grant Morrison has accused the Wachowski siblings of swiping from the plotline, characters, and entire sequences from his comic book The Invisibles. Both feature the concept of machines using humans as batteries and a resistance that’s formed by a Zen-like master against it.
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It’s hard to think of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver and imagine it as an American Western, but that’s exactly what it is. The film’s plot depicts a racist, lonely, mentally unhinged war veteran as he resorts to violence to rescue a young girl from a primitive culture. If it sounds familiar, it is the synopsis of the John Ford western The Searchers. Though clearly modeled on the Ford film, Taxi Driver‘s disturbing, post-modern approach separates it from the John Wayne western in most viewers’ minds. However, the similarities between each film’s story lines are impossible to ignore for most movie fanatics.
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Wes Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left, is regarded as an exploitation classic of its era. The horror film told the story of a pair of girls who, on their way to a concert, find themselves kidnapped, abused, and eventually murdered by a gang of thugs. Later, the murderers unknowingly seek refuge at the house of one of the victim’s parents, who discover their dead daughter and proceed to exact a grisly revenge on the criminals. While wrought with gory, unnerving setpieces, the film is actually just a Grindhouse remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Wes Craven has owned up to the fact in past, but also highlights that his version (and the subsequent 2009 remake) emphasizes horror, while Bergman’s arthouse film veers more toward an existential meditation on God and revenge.
Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
The Blair Witch Project came out of the gate in 1999 as one of the most innovative films ever. Combining a documentary format with a classic horror tale, the film saw a group of film students trek into the woods to document a spooky legend only to find horror, death, and despair waiting for them. While the film would capture the imagination of moviegoers worldwide, many horror fans took umbrage with the fact it simply reworked the premise of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. While Blair Witch and Holocaust have completely different villains, the films are achingly similar in terms of premise and approach, leading many to accuse directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez of taking Deodato’s innovation and selling it as their own.
The Island was a modest hit for Dreamworks and Michael Bay, one that refreshingly didn’t feature fighting robots or an asteroid the size of Texas. While the film’s wasn’t exactly the most intelligent science fiction film ever, its intriguing clone-themed plotline was a breath of fresh air within Bay’s filmography. Well, it turns out the “breath” part was on the money, but the film’s plot was anything but fresh. In 2009 the creators of the admittedly bad science fiction film Parts: The Clonus Horror cited 90 points of similarity between their film and The Island. In the process, they won a large settlement from Dreamworks.
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Darren Aronfsky’s Black Swan redefined the psychological thriller and earned Natalie Portman an Oscar in the process. The only problem? It existed as a Japanese anime film made over ten years before beforehand. Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that mirrors the plot of Black Swan closely, only instead of a ballet dancer the film centers on a pop star. While that may be enough to label Black Swan a rip-off in the eyes of many viewers, Aronfsky is bold to recreate whole sequences from Perfect Blue shot-for-shot in his version. The final nail in the rip-off coffin is home when you consider that, indeed, Aronfsky currently holds the remake rights for Perfect Blue. Though he has denied the Perfect Blue‘s “influence” on Black Swan, careful comparison reveals otherwise.
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Ben Stiller’s fashion comedy Zoolander died in the box office when it was released post-9/11, but it has gone on to gain a sizeable cult following. With a sequel currently in the pipeline, fans may be wondering whether or not the property will continue to crib from the novels of Bret Easton Ellis. The author’s book, Glamorama, seems to be Zoolander‘s main source of “inspiration.” The satire of 90s celebrity and fashion has a number of similarities to Zoolander, from its male model protagonist to its conspiracy thriller plotline. In past interviews, Bret Easton Ellis had mentioned he was taking legal action against the film, but later revealed he only considered it and was merely joking.
Along with Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien is often pointed to as the film that legitimized science fiction for mainstream moviegoers. Director Ridley Scott’s combination of sleek production design and terrifying creature horror did a lot to mask that Alien was essentially a rip-off of two other horror films. One-half of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett’s script recalled the Mario Bava 1960s Italian film Planet of the Vampires, specifically the idea of a group of astronauts answering a distress beacon on a distant planet and finding a fossilized race of alien creatures. The latter half of Alien, on the other hand, is a direct steal from the 1950s B-movie It! The Creature From Beyond Space. That film saw a group of astronauts besieged by an unkillable alien creature that snuck on aboard their spaceship. Ironically, Alien would go on to become one of the most ripped off films in cinema history, spawning an entire subgenre in the 1980s.