AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The new movie "Life," which opens next Friday, is about a group of astronauts who discover an alien life form and live to regret it.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That is beautiful.
CORNISH: So is "Alien: Covenant."
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CARMEN EJOGO: (As character) Faris, please open up.
AMY SEIMETZ: (As Faris) I can't do that.
CORNISH: "Life" and "Alien: Covenant" were originally scheduled to open on adjacent Fridays. They'll now be a few weeks apart, but that close call has critic Bob Mondello remembering other times rival studios stared each other down and no one blinked.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: They are showdowns that didn't need to happen, Earth-snuffing asteroids blown up in the nick of time by nuclear warheads not once but twice in 1998, with much beeping in "Armageddon."
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MONDELLO: And slightly higher beeping in "Deep Impact."
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Three, two, one, now.
MONDELLO: That same year, animated insects skittered onto movie screens in "Antz"...
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WOODY ALLEN: (As Z) My father flew away when I was just a larva.
MONDELLO: And also in "A Bug's Life."
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DAVID HYDE PIERCE: (As Slim) Come on, Francis, you're making the maggots cry.
MONDELLO: And all of this just one year after dueling lava flows erupted in "Dante's Peak"...
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PIERCE BROSNAN: (As Harry Dalton) That is a pyroclastic cloud.
MONDELLO: ...And "Volcano."
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I know this sounds crazy, but it almost looks like lava.
MONDELLO: Hollywood is not a big town. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. And movies that cost millions of dollars require many people and many months of development. And still they end up with "Red Planet" and "Mission To Mars" in the year 2000, two romantic comedies about presidential daughters in 2004, and even two animated penguin movies in 2006 - "Happy Feet" with animated dancing penguins.
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ELIJAH WOOD: (As Mumble) Yeah, see?
HUGH JACKMAN: (As Memphis) Oh, that feels good.
MONDELLO: And just a few months later, "Surf's Up" with animated surfing penguins.
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MARIO CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) Does anyone in this entire frozen wasteland surf?
SHIA LABEOUF: (As Cody Maverick) You've got to see what I can do. Please?
CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) You can actually stand on a board?
LABEOUF: (As Cody Maverick) You're going to be happy and everything's going to be good. And I'm coming with you.
CANTONE: (As Mikey Abromowitz) I can't imagine a better day.
MONDELLO: One film in each of these pairs will necessarily emerge victorious at the box office, but both will arguably be damaged by their proximity. So why bring them out together? Well, it can sometimes make a perverse kind of sense. Say, in 1992 when there were rival movies about the guy who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Entirely understandable. Five hundredth anniversaries don't come around often. And with everyone figuring there was a chance they'd sail off the end of the earth, it's at least theoretically a good story.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You are a passionate man, Senor Columbus.
MONDELLO: Still, both "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" and "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" sank like stones at the box office, even though one had Marlon Brando, the other Gerard Depardieu - don't ask me which was which. At least there was a reason for them to come out at the same time, as opposed to two presidential kidnapping movies - "White House Down" and "Olympus Has Fallen." Or competing high school nerd comedies - "Real Genius" and "Weird Science." Or dueling Christ story musicals.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) Day by day.
MONDELLO: "Godspell" was still a hit off-Broadway in 1972. And if it had waited a year, it might have been one on screen. But put it in a multiplex opposite big-budget Andrew Lloyd Webber and it's bound to look puny.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Jesus Christ superstar.
MONDELLO: Hollywood history is littered with the corpses from other double dust-ups. And sometimes lightning doesn't just strike twice. Three vampire flicks opened in '79 - "Nosferatu," "Dracula" and "Love At First Bite." And then there was the year that audiences had to choose between four body-switching comedies. George Burns had an accident that made him, as the title had it, 18 again. Judge Reinhold touched a magic Tibetan skull and switched places with his son in "Vice Versa." Dudley Moore took a potion to do the same thing in "Like Father Like Son." And in "Big," it was an amusement park wish...
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DAVID MOSCOW: (As Young Josh Baskin) I wish I were big.
MONDELLO: ...That turned a little boy into Tom Hanks.
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MERCEDES RUEHL: (As Mrs. Baskin) Sweetheart, it's 7:30. Are you up?
TOM HANKS: (As Josh Baskin) I turned into a grownup, mom.
MONDELLO: Now, there have been times when Hollywood duplication involved a bit of duplicity. When "Gone With The Wind" was still auditioning Scarlett O'Haras, the Brothers Warner decided to steal MGM's thunder by beating them into theaters with a confederacy epic of their own. They bought the rights to the Broadway play "Jezebel," cast Bette Davis as its vain, self-destructive southern belle, and opened it while "Gone With The Wind" was still shooting.
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BETTE DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Banging on a lady's door. I'm scandalized at you.
HENRY FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) How long must we go on like this?
DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Like what, Preston?
FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) Fighting and fussing all the time like a couple of children.
DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) Why do you treat me like a child?
FONDA: (As Preston Dillard) Because you act like one, a spoiled one.
DAVIS: (As Julie Marsden) You used to say you liked me like that once. You never wanted me to change.
MONDELLO: "Jezebel" won Bette Davis an Oscar, which gave Warner's bragging rights in February of 1939 that pretty much evaporated a few months later.
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MONDELLO: Close on Scarlett and Rhett's heels came two biopics about the guy who ended their way of life, "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Abe Lincoln In Illinois." Biopics often seem to inspire a herd instinct in Tinseltown. 1960 saw both "Oscar Wilde" and "The Trials Of Oscar Wilde" coming out, as it were. And more recently, there was a big year for another gay icon with two stars not only doing Truman Capote impressions, but telling the same stories - Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote."
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PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Humphrey had just about moved into the hotel bar...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Humphrey Bogart.
HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) ...Where he and John...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) John Huston (laughter).
MONDELLO: And here's Toby Jones in "Infamous."
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TOBY JONES: (As Truman Capote) And I was struggling to write a scene for Bogie (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Bogie? You mean Humphrey Bogart?
JONES: (As Truman Capote) Yes. And so John...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Wayne?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Garfield?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Kennedy?
JONES: (As Truman Capote) Huston.
MONDELLO: "Infamous" was a tiny indie, while Capote was from a major studio, which explained their overlap. Also true of the competing blonde bombshell biopics about Jean Harlow, one starring Carroll Baker and the other Carol Lynley, two Carols in films released months apart called - believe it or not - "Harlow" and "Harlow." It's like the producers had a death wish. If films are sufficiently different in tone, there won't be audience confusion even with similar plots. In 1964, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, there were two movies about the start of World War III. Nuclear annihilation played straight in "Fail-Safe" and for laughs in "Dr. Strangelove."
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Hey, what about Major Kong?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character, screaming).
MONDELLO: There were no reports of moviegoers laughing at the wrong movie. It was about a decade after that that for the first time in Hollywood history, wiser heads prevailed. Two best-selling novels about burning skyscrapers had been optioned, "The Tower" by Warner Brothers and "The Glass Inferno" by Twentieth Century Fox. Irwin Allen, who'd just made "Poseidon Adventure," suggested that they do something that no major studios had ever done at that point - join forces to make...
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) The towering inferno.
MONDELLO: Not that there weren't issues. Fox had Steve McQueen under contract, Warner's had Paul Newman. And both insisted on top billing, which was tricky. McQueen also insisted not just that his salary equal Newman's but that they have the same number of lines. You can almost feel the screenwriters divvying them up.
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PAUL NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) I want jacks on every floor.
STEVE MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) I want to plug into your PA system.
NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) No sweat.
MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) How about your emergency setup?
NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) Battery-powered standby system.
MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) All right, now, can you take these lines and splice them into our two-way communication band?
NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) Sure.
MCQUEEN: (As Chief O'Hallorhan) And no problem?
NEWMAN: (As Doug Roberts) No problem.
MONDELLO: Riveting, though. Still, audiences got a bigger movie, and Fox and Warner's got the biggest attendance of 1974, roughly the same as for one of the "Lord Of The Rings" movies. So everybody won, proving that it is profitable to not go head to head, which is not to suggest that Hollywood has learned that lesson. Witness last year's twin terrible opera singers, "Marguerite" and "Florence Foster Jenkins." And the not two, but seven - seriously, seven - "Robin Hood" movies currently in development, including feminist, punk-pop and dystopian future versions because the more than 100 previous ones listed in the Internet Movie Database just weren't enough. I'm Bob Mondello.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREATER LOS ANGELES ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF KAMEN'S "OVERTURE AND A PRISONER OF THE CRUSADES")
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