When I talked to director Robert Fiveson before "The Island's" opening day about its suspiciously close resemblance to his 1979 movie, "Clonus,"...
When I talked to director Robert Fiveson before “The Island’s” opening day about its suspiciously close resemblance to his 1979 movie, “Clonus,” he seemed a little puzzled. No other journalists had called him yet, and he didn’t know what he wanted out of the situation.
More than three weeks later, a Google search of “Clonus” and “The Island” yields more than 21,000 results, and Fiveson says from his Ashburn, Va., home, “I’m getting more focused now.”
Focus on this: A lawsuit filed Aug. 8 by Fiveson’s “Clonus Associates” against DreamWorks and Warner Bros., the domestic and overseas distributors of director Michael Bay’s action/sci-fi blockbuster, claims a whopping 90 points of similarity with “Clonus” — aka “Parts: The Clonus Horror.”
Both films are about a man in a futuristic, highly monitored colony, who discovers that the colony’s residents are clones being raised to supply replacement parts to their rich human originals. Those taken out to be used believe they’ve won a trip to a promised land. The man escapes, with assassins in pursuit, faces his original on the outside, and returns to stop what’s happening in the colony.
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Filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the suit seeks unspecified damages for copyright infringement, a jury trial and an order to pull “The Island” from theaters.
That last demand may be a moot point.
It’s been a tough year for Michael Bay: First he got called out in a song from “Team America: World Police.” (“I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made ‘Pearl Harbor’ … Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?”) Then about 60 percent of the nation’s critics dumped on “The Island” (according to www.rottentomatoes.com). And as of Wednesday, the movie — which cost $122 million to make — had made only $32 million domestically. Overseas tickets bump the take up to $74 million, but that’s still a mega-flop by any standard.
While “The Island’s” fortunes are sinking like a rock, “Clonus’ ” are rising slightly, before the case even gets near a courtroom.
After the lawsuit was filed, the DVD of “Clonus” jumped from a ranking of No. 21,000 on Amazon.com to No. 4,500 (as of Thursday).
“Sales have definitely picked up,” reports Pete Tombs of Mondo Macabro (www.mondomacabrodvd.com), distributor of the DVD. He says people who’d experienced the flick years earlier — or saw it lampooned on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — are getting their memories jogged by the “Island” buzz, and that the company’s getting plenty of e-mails. “Many of them along the lines of, ‘I always knew it was a great idea. Now we see Hollywood has finally realized this, too!’ “
Tombs says this kind of publicity is very unusual for his small, niche company, whose other titles include “Seven Women for Satan” and “Lady Terminator.” Mondo Macabro doesn’t usually have the budget for much promotion. So it plans to reissue “Clonus” with a new cover that includes some of the recent press remarks.
Fiveson, now 58 and working in real-estate in addition to producing TV documentaries, says, “My co-producer and I are giggling a lot lately, because we just find it incredibly funny that 27 years after we make a movie, it’s getting notoriety and we might make money from it. We were kids when we made this movie. The whimsy factor’s very high.”
Watching “The Island” and “Clonus” back-to-back as I did more or less eliminates the possibility that the numerous similarities could be accidental, and Fiveson says he hopes that a jury will do just that.
It seems inconceivable that none of the hundreds of people involved with “The Island” knew about “Clonus” — from science fiction buff Steven Spielberg, who excitedly turned Bay onto the script, to screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen and others.
In fact, Fiveson’s suit claims that DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg did see “Clonus” in a 1979 screening. Afterward, the suit claims, Katzenberg, “impressed, indicated if Fiveson was able to make that movie for under 1 million dollars, he would like to see what he could do with 10 million.” (“Clonus” cost $257,000.)
DreamWorks won’t comment on the suit, even though it made the front page of Variety on Wednesday. Tredwell-Owen didn’t respond to the voicemails I left at his Redondo Beach office number. Maybe he’s screening his calls these days.
Fiveson says there’s no precedent for what he says is “a case of a studio co-opting a whole existing movie.” But it does bring to mind one that writer Harlan Ellison won against director James Cameron. “The Terminator” bore a strong resemblance to stories of Ellison’s that included the classic “Soldier,” and now you see Ellison’s name in the film’s credits.
Would that kind of acknowledgment satisfy Fiveson?
He says, “Isn’t that a little like asking someone if they want their name put on the Hindenburg?”
If Fiveson is quick with a retort now, there seems to be a downright gleeful aspect to his outrage that almost calls for a drummer ready to supply rimshots. “I want for the world and the studio and the little guy to know this can’t be done. Hollywood seems to have run out of original ideas — so they’ve taken us and used us for parts creatively. It’s unethical!”
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org