Every so often, two movies with suspiciously similar plots or subjects arrive at the same time, leading movie fans the world over to wonder which one is riding the coattails of the other and, more importantly, which one will "win" when the two have their inevitable showdown. Second place is for sissies, after all.
Recent film history is littered with these showdowns and, in virtually every case, only one film manages to live on while the other vanishes from public consciousness. Who remembers Wyatt Earp? Everyone only remembers Tombstone. Does anyone watch Shark Tale anymore? Nah, they're too busy revisiting Finding Nemo. When people want to see the world destroyed by apocalyptic asteroids, they tend to turn to Armageddon, not Deep Impact.
Which brings us to...
Theory: Oblivion and After Earth are the same movie. Going by the rules established above, only one will walk out of 2013 with its dignity intact. Let's break this down...
Heroes Explore a Devastated Future Earth
The similarities between the two films start at the plot. Both feature protagonists forced to survive on an Earth that's seen better days and the trailers get plenty of mileage out of their mutual "Oooh! Look at how dangerous our otherwise familiar world has become!" factors. This is great for fans of postapocalyptic sci-fi adventure movies, but the fact that we'll be getting two films with such similar settings released within two months of each other is worthy of an eyebrow raise… but wait, there's more!
The Posters Are Borderline Identical
Seriously: look at the top of the article and realize that these are two completely different movies from two different studios. Did the marketing teams go out, conduct a few polls and discover that audiences really like people, seen from behind and standing atop/next to their futuristic mode of transportation, staring out over a vast and ruined landscape? Let's be thankful that neither poster is a bunch of floating heads, but this isn't really helping the "They're Totally NOT the Same Movie" argument.
Something Isn't Quite Right Here...
In the trailer of Oblivion, we learn that there's more beyond the destruction of Earth than meets the eye and it has something to do with Morgan Freeman and a group of heavily armed men. After Earth isn't quite so obvious, but the tagline ("1,000 years ago, we left for a reason") and its director's penchant for big twists suggests that there are plenty of secrets lurking under the surface. (For the record, Oblivion's tagline -- "Earth is a memory worth fighting for" -- is like the complementary inverse of After Earth's.) If you'll allow me to be so bold: both films are probably actually about how mankind destroyed the planet and it was covered up and so on and so forth… but that's one's just speculation. I just hope I'm right so I can link to this article and brag obnoxiously on Twitter in a few months.
Troubled Directors Out of Favor with the Public
In most of these movie showdowns, the similarities are surface level only (Two films about Alexander the Great! Two movies about dueling magicians!), but it actually goes so much deeper here. Note what's missing from both the trailers and the posters: the names or the credits of the directors. We live in an age where directors tend to get more butts in seats than movie stars (more on that in a moment!), but Joseph Kosinksi is suspiciously absent from the Oblivion marketing and M. Night Shyamalan is nowhere to be seen in the orbit of After Earth. They can't say "from the director of TRON: Legacy" because audiences will remember that movie and fall asleep and they can't say "from the visionary M. Night Shyamalan" because people will burst out laughing and put After Earth in the same mental headspace as The Happening. Simply put: these two are liabilities to the public consciousness of their films, but they need these movies to be hits. Both are one more expensive bad film away from director's jail.
Movie Stars in Need of a Hit
Also missing from the posters? The faces of Tom Cruise and Will Smith. Sure, their names are there, but you could easily overlook them in favor of the nifty science fiction settings and military hardware. Cruise, who hasn't had a genuine hit without Mission: Impossible in the title for nearly eight years, simply isn't the draw he used to be. In fact, he may be keeping more audiences away than he's attracting at this point. It's a shame (especially since Cruise has never phoned it in while cameras were pointed at him), but the anemic box office of Jack Reacher should tell you all you need to know. Will Smith isn't in the same dire straits as Cruise, but Men in Black 3 underperformed and his last big hit was in 2007. Both of these guys could use a smash that has their name above the title.
Both Are Completely Original Concepts
But here's why I'm truly rooting for both of these films even thought I'm dedicating an entire column to essentially making fun of them: they are original concepts. They're not based on toys, video games, comic books or even books. They're not sequels or reboots. Whatever their influences, both are completely new ideas, original concepts that are trying to hook us with their storytelling instead of childhood nostalgia or familiarity. How sad is it that I'm actively excited for these movies not because I was blown away by their trailers (because I wasn't, really), but because they're taking a risk by not catering to franchise fanboys? The fact that these big-budget, star-studded projects feel risky in the modern studio climate makes me twitch, but that's a subject for another time and place.