Art is built on unoriginality (just ask Quentin Tarantino). Every artist in every medium is reliant upon the art that came before them, whether they’re emulating earlier trends or trying to tear them down. Film is worse than most other art forms when it comes to originality, primarily thanks to the huge investments involved in producing a feature.
If you’re a producer worried about profiting from your latest movie, it’s often easier to fall back on established tropes and genre cliches rather than coming up with something new, interesting, or challenging. Hollywood history is littered with crummy cash-in ripoffs, some with enormous budgets and some too small to even be called shoestring. Let’s look at a few of the most unoriginal movies ever made.
1. The Man Who Saved the World
The Man Who Saved the World is the official title translation of this low-budget Turkish import, but you’re far more likely to hear it referred to as “Turkish Star Wars.” This 1982 foreign import is only one of many late-’70s/early-’80s films that blatantly tried to ape the runaway success of the Star Wars franchise by copy-and-pasting the same tired space opera adventure tropes into a new context.
But Turkish Star Wars goes a step further, lifting footage directly from the 1977 original and hoping no one would notice. The notoriously ballsy gimmick has made this laughable film a cult classic often considered one of the worst films ever made.
2. The Lion King
While filming The Lion King, Simba’s voice actor, Matthew Broderick, mistakenly believed he was participating in an American remake of a ’60s Japanese anime series known in the U.S. as Kimba the White Lion.
The film’s director, Roger Allers, claims that the film didn’t borrow from the suspiciously similar characters in Kimba — including a wise baboon, boneheaded hyenas, a stuffy bird, and a villainous lion named Claw — but his history as an animator in Japan in the ’80s, where the cartoon was exceptionally popular, suggests that there must have been some inspiration, whether conscious or subconscious.
3. The Autobots
The Autobots neatly represents a whole class of modern rip-offs that we decided to call DVD cover copies. These copies seem especially pervasive when it comes to animated films, using familiar titles and images to trick unsuspecting buyers into purchasing a crummy straight-to-DVD film instead of the successful Hollywood movie they think it is.
Just look at the cover for The Autobots, whose protagonist is almost identical to Lightning McQueen in Pixar’s Cars. You don’t even need to see the movie to know this Chinese import is nothing but a shameless cash-in.
People tend to rag on Michael Bay an awful lot for creating a directorial career entirely out of overblown explosions, but what about Roland Emmerich? The man who gave us Independence Day is one of cinema’s most dedicated devotees of disaster porn, building entire films around hacky CGI effects and writing characters and plots to serve all the destruction as an afterthought.
Emmerich’s worst is probably 2012, which exploits end-of-days conspiracies and engages in every disaster film cliche in the book just for the sake of blowing up a world filled only with characters we don’t care about.
5. Mac and Me
Nothing makes you appreciate the magic of E.T. more than Mac and Me, the film that took every element of Spielberg’s classic family film and did it all completely wrong. A mysterious alien creature (MAC) loses his family while on Earth and forms an unlikely bond with a group of suburban children, despite the fact that he has no personality and looks like a neutered, developmentally challenged burn victim.
The film also takes E.T.’s product placement a few steps further, including painful scenes that blatantly hock Skittles, Coca-Cola, SEARS, and McDonald’s.
6. A Fistful of Dollars
The first of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy that decisively established Clint Eastwood as everyone’s favorite hardened film star, A Fistful of Dollars follows Eastwood’s strong-but-silent protagonist as he arrives in a Mexican border town and cleverly pits two warring gangs against each other by playing both sides.
The setup was obviously inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, which was itself inspired by old John Ford westerns — so obviously, in fact, that Kurosawa quipped Leone had made “a fine movie, but it was MY movie.”
7. The Fast and the Furious
A young FBI agent infiltrates a suspicious gang of extreme sports enthusiasts, sparking a romance with a female member of the gang and becoming close with the uber-masculine gang leader even as he suspects he may be behind a recent string of robberies. Blinded by his loyalty to the new gang, he suspects another crew of pulling off the robberies before he learns his friends were behind the crimes the entire time.
The FBI agent is duty-bound to capture his new friends, but in a final show of solidarity, allows the gang leader to run free at the end. Now, was I describing Point Break or The Fast and the Furious? Even for a cookie-cutter action flick, The Fast and the Furious is unoriginal.
8. The Boondock Saints
Pulp Fiction created a new aesthetic in ’90s Hollywood, inspiring every studio to try to recreate that film’s success with their own edgy crime capers. The Boondock Saints is the nadir of the Tarantino imitators, made by another working class schmo turned film scribe, Troy Duffy, and turned into a cult classic by high school bros too stoked about the film’s souped-up styles and immature, misogynistic humor to notice how derivative the whole thing is.
Everything you see onscreen — the made-up bible verses, the un-chronological storytelling, the juxtaposition of religion and violence, the slow-motion shootouts — has been done better elsewhere, by films that actually have something to say beyond a reckless endorsement of vigilantism.