Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

  Top Gun vs. Iron Eagle. Armageddon vs. Deep Impact. Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano. K-9 vs. Turner & Hooch.

Why this sort of thing happens so often is beyond comprehension. In 1989, did the world unilaterally and simultaneously clamber both for movies about underwater monsters and a cop and his dog? It’s unlikely, but yet, they got two of each.

1995 was set to be the ultimate battleground for such cinematic coincidence. As the story goes, Crisis In The Hot Zone and Outbreak were in a race. They were basically the same movie and while both were going to be made, only one would survive [as recently evidenced by the wild success of one Wyatt Earp movie (Tombstone) and the miserable failure of another six months later (Wyatt Earp.)]. Someone was going to spend $40 million on what would appear to be a back door rip off of whichever one came out first. As you’ve never heard of it outside this context, Crisis In The Hot Zone obviously lost that race, supposedly conceding defeat halfway through production when Outbreak announced it was finished.

The real story isn’t as taut maybe, but could be the better one. Arnold Kopelson wanted to make a movie about an epidemic. He tried to buy the rights to an article about how the Army almost let a deadly virus out of their lab and into the world and the virologist who helped them stop it. But he lost the bidding war. The studio that did buy the rights to that article hired Ridley Scott and Robert Redford and Jodie Foster and figured they had the markOutbreaket on virus movies pretty well cornered. But Arnold Kopelson was not to be deterred. He bought his own fictional script about an outbreak, tried to hire Ridley Scott away from the other movie, settled for Wolfgang Petersen and set off to beat the “true” version to theaters. Which was very very easy since Crisis In The Hot Zone stalled while Robert Redford and Jodie Foster argued about who the star should be and then both dropped out. Outbreak was released on March 10th 1995, grossed almost $200 million and made a star out of a monkey. To this day, Crisis In The Hot Zone remains a terrible title for a movie.

Since then, it hardly seems to matter to anyone whether two (or three) of the same movie come out around the same time. There are always comparisons, it’s not as no one notices, but there doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of failure, regardless of the timing. Gordy preceded Babe by two months and no one knows what you’re talking about when you say that Gordy was a movie, but they might shed Pavlovian tears at the mention of the only talking pig movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Just last year two Snow White movies were released and no one cared about either equally.

But not every parallel is so startlingly self-evident. The fact that 2013 will (or has) feature(d) two White House hijackings, two end of the world comedies, two Somali pirate hijackings, two colonies of Earth-orbiting elitists and two possession horror movies starring Patrick Wilson and directed by James Wan seems to indicate that not only is everyone fine with homogenization, we crave it. And with all of that high profile sameness going on, it might seem like nitpicking to concentrate on a much less obvious, but perhaps even more astonishingly specific confluence.

Neither Mud nor Kings Of Summer was ever going to make much more money than either did in their respective theatrical runs. But their limited scope puts them in much closer company than would be the case were they both larger budget higher profile fare. Because of their relative smallness, they court much of the same audience, despite the latter decidedly targeting a younger one.

Both have protagonists in their early teens, but Mud never has any intention of being for the audience its characters depict. Kings Of Summer would love to have that problem but it doesn’t seem to want to risk losing its art house credibility to appeal to that sought after age group.

Their similarities aren’t so concrete that they can’t be overcome, even with them coming to theaters within a month of each other (and in some places, playing at the same time.) Kids want to live in the woods is about as far as it gets. The kids in Mud never really get the opportunity. So it could end there. But somehow two seemingly divergent productions were struck with the exact same afflatus.

imageThe snake bite isn’t the cliché it seems like it should be. It isn’t a device employed so often that we should cringe at its very inclusion. But when in Mud, Ellis and Neckbone run over a stream filled to capacity with cottonmouths, it’s pretty clear where that’s headed. There aren’t a lot of places it can go.  And so when Ellis is bitten, it isn’t surprising but it isn’t repellent either. It’s just part of this story. The way this particular story decided to force it’s titular character out of the safe harbor he’s built for himself and back into the world where bad things are sure to happen.

Unfortunately for Kings Of Summer, when a snake bite forces Joe to finally abandon the Eden he built for himself and return to the real world he’s been avoiding, it doesn’t seem so particular anymore. It’s a further injustice because Kings Of Summer thekingsofsummerhandles the set up so much more subtly. When Patrick finds a shed copperhead skin, it’s just a reminder than there is danger out here, that it isn’t all pipe drumming and Boston Market. It sets up the eventual climax without necessarily telegraphing it and still manages to serve as a metaphor all its own.

But while Mud’s snakes might represent the downside of Chekov’s Gun, unlike Kings Of Summer, it doesn’t saddle them with the burden of providing its climax. There are still quite a few things to be resolved and the snakes only serve to propel those events, rather than constitute the event itself.

Therefore: Winner, best use of a snake bite to force someone out of hiding in the woods in 2013: Mud


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