Are All Rip-Offs Terrible? The Six Levels Of Rip-Off Hell
Not all recycled ideas are created equally - many can be terrible, while some can excel. Here Zac Hestand presents the six levels of Rip-offs.
Early in the summer, Film Inquiry posted an article on the six levels of remake hell. The levels used were to indicate the categories of film remakes; some are better and worse than others. In another multiverse, there is another movie hell. As with Dante’s Inferno, it too has different levels. Only this time, it’s not remakes, but rip-offs.
When a movie that gets released becomes popular, and makes a heap of cash, imitators show up at their door for a piece of the action. Studios make and release films that copy, to various degrees, a successful formula in the hopes that those same audience members will attend the copycat/knockoff. As with remakes, there are different levels of rip-offs. Some stand on their own, while other scrape from the bottom of the barrel.
The levels presented below start with the lowest form of rip off, and end with the best kind. Emphasis will be placed on movies only, not television (you’re safe for now, V.R. Troopers, you Mighty Morphin Power Rangers rip-off, you.)
For those unfamiliar, Mad Libs is a word game where nouns, verbs and other random terms learned in English class are removed. The player has to add their choice of grammatical term or item (animal, person’s name etc.) to create a nonsensical story. Some screenwriters use a Mad Libs approach when making a script “inspired” by a popular movie.
The film, Jaws, kicked off the concept of the summer blockbuster and was a juggernaut at the box office. Not only did Jaws spawn three sequels, but it inspired a wave of “animal attack” movies in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The bottom of the barrel of this rip-off Mad Lib trend is Grizzly.
Grizzly follows the same story beats of Jaws. However, the type of animal, location and hero were removed to make our own Mad Lib. Instead of a shark, a bear. The mountains stand in for the beach, and the local park ranger stands in for our law enforcement hero. There are even effects issues. Jaws had a faulty mechanical shark, while Grizzly has a man in a bear costume for attack scenes.
The film makes little effort to stand on its own, and becomes a “Jaws in the mountains”. It lacks the character dynamics that made Jaws a fun movie, and a classic. If you want an animal attack movie that’s enjoyable, find Alligator instead. Robert Forster is a riot in that one.
Money, Money and More Money
To paraphrase John Carpenter when he spoke at the New York Film Academy, “Hollywood is called show business, not show art.” Just telling it like it is, folks. Hollywood is a business like Amazon or Apple, they aim to provide what the consumer demands. No studio understands this better than Walt Disney Pictures, and its rival, Warner Bros. (Mickey Mouse vs. Bugs Bunny).
Disney will find a gimmick, and exploit it until the, well, magic dies. Though they’ve made sports movies for decades, none had an impact like The Mighty Ducks. The motley crew of misfits and the unlikely, inspirational coach to lead them to victory, and believe in themselves, became a cash cow. Two sequels, an NHL team, an animated series and to continuing making money for Disney, more sports movies. Warner Bros. wanted in on the action, so they ripped off The Mighty Ducks with 1994’s Little Giants.
The Mighty Ducks formula made its way to this Warner Bros. movie with the following: lovable losers, athletically-inclined foes, motivational coach and of course, the big game. Little Giants follows the beats, but uses football instead of hockey and the rival coaches are brothers instead of former coach/player. The film was not a massive success, and makes viewers miss Rick Moranis even more.
Copy and Paste
This type of rip-off is similar to the Mad Libs with making slight changes in hopes of copying success, but this method is more organized. It at least attempts to follow what made the previous film a success, instead of throwing out random nouns and verbs.
The film, Robocop, is one of my favorite action movies. It’s well-acted, written, has brilliant action sequences and is full of hilarious satire. A robot saves a crime-ridden city of the future, and the idea of technology saving the day in a dystopic world brings us to Class of 1999.
First copy job: crime-ridden future. Robocop has Detroit as the background for the future, with this film, it’s high school. High schools have become very dangerous places that serve as breeding grounds for gangs and criminals. Second copy job: robots to reduce crime. In both films, robots are in the position of authority. Robocop is a police officer, in Class of 1999, the robots are high school teachers. Unfortunately, the robots reduce crime by killing students and become self-aware.
Though it rips off these elements, Class of 1999 is a fun B-grade sci-fi movie. Some scenes are unintentionally funny, which makes for proper viewing with a few friends and a case of beer.
Two Ideas Mixed in a Blender
There are times when pitching a screenplay that a writer will use two successful movies as examples to sell their story. An Executive then thinks, “Well, audiences liked this and that, so why not?” The move is risky, it might or might not work. Much like using a blender, if you put strawberries and bananas together, it makes a nice drink. Mixing strawberries and canned tuna would not. That being said, someone had the bright idea to mix Home Alone with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Both films were released in 1990, and both were very successful. This led to a trend of both martial art and mischievous kid movies. Put the martial arts of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a kid outwitting stupid adults in a blender, and you get a rip-off called 3 Ninjas.
Three annoying kids are taught martial arts by their grandpa, and use those skills to help their FBI agent dad fight a crime lord that happens to be an expert martial artist too. Before confronting the boss, the kids set up traps for three hired goons when they’re home alone. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too.
3 Ninjas feels cheap and lazy, living up to what a rip-off is. The two movies it steals from both hold up and are films I would show to my eleven year old nephew. 3 Ninjas should remain trapped in 1992.
Stands on its Own
Much like its remake counterpart, the rip-off takes elements from the successful material, and make it work. The rip-off title is only mildly applied to it, instead of it written all over the screen. Raiders of the Lost Ark brought a lot of adventure in exotic location films in the 1980’s. The title that towers over the cheap imitators is Romancing the Stone.
Like its predecessor, the film is an adventure in an exotic location with the purpose to find treasure. Along the way, the heroes are faced with several obstacles before arriving to the finish line.
Romancing the Stone succeeds where other rip-offs fail in that it gives the viewer many things to enjoy. The stars have great chemistry, the story is engaging, fun and the thing that sets it most apart: humor. The film has many scenes with funny dialogue and situations which balances well with the exciting adventure moments to make for an entertaining action-comedy.
Goes its Own Path
Much like a rip-off that stands on its own, a rip-off that goes its own path is when the film takes the formula, but goes in a radically different direction. By going off course, only fragments of being a rip-off remain. The film, Halloween, helped spawn the 1980’s slasher boom. Two years after the release of this film, a rip-off came, only it would go on to form its own identity and produce more sequels: Friday the 13th.
Both films feature a childhood trauma: child murders his sister and gets committed in one, and a mentally challenged kid is a victim of bullying and drowns because camp counselors were busy trying to get laid. Both grow up to be silent, masked killers (Jason is not the killer in the first film, but shows up at the end) that go after horny teenagers and clueless adults. Finally, each are set in their own established location: Haddonfield, IL and Camp Crystal Lake. Shifts in location are the first of many things Friday the 13th uses to go its own path.
Throughout the series, Jason Voorhees goes to New York, Hell and even outer space in the future. He’s been brought back from the dead by lightning and telepathy along with other methods. Michael Myers has yet to go to space.
The first Halloween is a better film than the first Friday the 13th in terms of tension, character and film structure. However, the sequels of Friday the 13th are far more interesting in that it started as a Halloween rip-off, but did things in its own fascinating, and at times, bizarre way.
Like remakes, rip-offs will continue to get made because of money. As long as the hits come, there will be just as many miscalculations and some successes when making a movie.
Not all rip-offs are the same, some are bad and some are good. Before you write off a movie for looking like it ripped off a popular one, give it a chance first at your local multiplex or rental service. It might just be better, and hopefully not worse, than expected.
*Are there more levels to rip-offs? Do you agree with this list? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
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