Friday, 11 August 2017

Unrelated movies that aren't

In May this year, Universal Pictures released its remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. The film is meant to be the first instalment in the new Dark Universe series – a reboot of the old Universal Monsters movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s that featured crossovers between Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Those original films, with their recurring cast and characters, were an early example of what is now referred to as a shared cinematic universe.

Monsters from Universal's Universal Monsters universe

These days the notion of a shared cinematic universe is quite familiar. We see all sorts of huge blockbuster franchises, containing sequels, prequels and spin-offs, where some of the different films focus on different characters, yet all are set within the same fictional context. The likes of Marvel, Star Wars and Alien, all display examples of different stories being told against the same background.

Some cinematic universes seem to be expanding faster than the real one

But there's a small cluster of popular films that have seen the shared universe concept used far more subtly. Films that are not part of an easily discernible series, instead connected to one another in less obvious ways. These films often leave only a single clue – just the merest hint of a crossover – to suggest they are in any way related. Like a puzzle for the audience to unravel and piece together.

Here are ten sets of tangibly connected movies, most of them worth watching*, where a minor element opens the door to a far wider universe.

Alien (1979) and Predator 2 (1990)
Anyone with a passing interest in film will be aware of some of the following connections already, but this one is perhaps the most obvious due to the Alien vs. Predator movies completely spelling it out. However, back when Predator 2 was initially released, the idea of a crossover between the two universes came as quite a shock. At the end of the film, when Danny Glover's Mike Harrigan gets inside the spaceship, an Alien skull is briefly seen on display in a kind of gruesome, Predator version of a trophy cabinet. It's only a few seconds worth of footage, yet it spawned a host of comics and video games that built upon the idea and eventually culminated in the aforementioned AVP movie franchise**.

Ripley's foe shows his distinctive teeth and skull in Alien

Lt. Harrigan finds a similar skull in Predator 2

Braindead (1992, also known as Dead Alive) and King Kong (2005)
Before director Peter Jackson made his ground-breaking The Lord of the Rings trilogy and propelled himself to international fame, he made a few low budget schlock-style films set in his native New Zealand. In one of them, Braindead, a Sumatran rat-monkey – a fictional, hybrid creature, meant to have been captured on Skull Island in 1957 – brings a zombie plague to Wellington. After The Lord of the Rings Jackson decided his next project would be to remake King Kong – one of the films that had inspired him to become a film-maker in the first place, and had provided the reference for Skull Island in Braindead. In Jackson's King Kong he completed the tie-up by showing us a cage containing a Sumatran rat-monkey on board the expedition boat heading out to find the same island, some 24 years earlier.

Brain Dead's rat-monkey. His bark is not very nice, but his bite is definitely worse

As if a giant ape and all manner of horrific beasties weren't enough for the crew to deal with in King Kong

Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)
These two Quentin Tarantino films are irrevocably linked by a familial relationship. Michael Madsen's character Vic Vega (or Mr. Blonde) in Reservoir Dogs is the brother to John Travolta's character Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. For a while there was even talk of a third film, potentially called The Vega Brothers, set before both the others as a kind of prequel, effectively turning the whole lot into a trilogy***.

In Reservoir Dogs Mr. Blonde, Mr. White and Mr. Pink flash some teeth to someone who's about to lose an ear

Vincent Vega performs Pulp Fiction's famous Winston Churchill dance

American Psycho (2000) and The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Talking of brothers across movies, here are two from another couple of films, both of which are based on Brett Easton Ellis books. Nearly all Ellis's novels feature characters that are in some way connected to one another, so it makes sense that their movie adaptations will be too. In American Psycho Christian Bale plays Patrick Batemen, the serial-killing, Wall Street investment banker. And in The Rules of Attraction, James Van Der Beek plays Patrick's younger brother, Sean Bateman. During the filming of Rules, it is said Christian Bale declined the offer to reprise his role as the murderous banker, so Casper Van Dien (of Starship Troopers fame) stepped in, only to have all his scenes cut from the final theatrical release.

Bale's Batman famously tries not to kill anyone. In American Psycho, Bale's Bateman doesn't have nearly the same compunction

James Van Der Beek shows us Sean Bateman's dark side in The Rules of Attraction. A family trait?

Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996)
Danny Boyle's two breakout Scottish films are related by Keith Allen's character. In the first film Allen plays Hugo, a gangster with a suitcase full of money, who dies of an overdose near the beginning of the film, kicking off the main chain of events. In Trainspotting, set a little earlier than Shallow Grave, Allen plays an unnamed drug dealer with similar clothes and accessories to Hugo. Although that doesn't sound like much to go on, Danny Boyle is reported to have stated outright that the characters are one and the same.

Shallow Grave gave us the charismatic Hugo, then took him away again...

...only for Trainspotting to bring him back once more

Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998)
These two movies are both based on books written by the late Elmore Leonard, and as such they both feature the character Ray Nicolette. The cool bit is that although the first film was directed by Quentin Tarantino and the second by Steven Soderbergh, the character is played by Michael Keaton in both.

Jackie Brown...

...and Out of Sight. Spot the difference

The Conversation (1974) and Enemy of the State (1998)
There has to be a disclaimer here. Technically these two films aren't related at all. But read on and see what you think. In The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul. In Tony Scott's Enemy of the State, Hackman's character is called Edward 'Brill' Lyle. But anyone who's seen the two movies should be forgiven for thinking that both characters, espionage specialists in communications equipment, with their similar dress sense and taste in industrial-looking hang-outs, are really the same man at different stages of his life. Even down to the fact that Brill's photo in his NSA file in Enemy of the State is the same one used in The Conversation nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

Harry Caul in The Conversation

'Brill' Lyle seems to like very similar glasses in Enemy of the State

Blade Runner (1982) and Soldier (1999)
David Webb Peoples co-wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner and later went on to write Soldier. He is said to have stated that Soldier is a 'sidequel' to Blade Runner  – a film set in the same universe, but otherwise unrelated. Soldier includes many references to Blade Runner, but most notable is a derelict version of a spinner – the flying cars from Blade Runner – seen among the junk on Arcadia 234, the waste disposal planet****.

Spinner, cityscape and giant face in Blade Runner

Pictures showing the right kind of junk from Soldier just don't look very good, so here is the wrong kind of junk in front of some pretty serious military hardware

Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988)
In these films, both directed by John Landis and staring Eddie Murphy, the incontrovertible connection is provided by the secondary characters Mortimer and Randolph Duke. It could be said they only appear in the second film as a nod to the first, but I would argue that their scene is in keeping with the established continuity and actually moves their story on.

The Dukes before their fall from grace in Trading Places...

...allowed a second chance in Coming to America

The Abyss (1989) and The Terminator franchise (1984 onwards).
In The Abyss there's an overarching idea that the underwater aliens will help us if we love one another, but leave us to destroy ourselves during times of war. In The Terminator franchise, our machineries of destruction have risen up and turned on us. Seen together you could take the message of The Abyss as a warning against an eventuality like The Terminator's. But there's a far more tangible connection. In The Abyss an anchorman, played by Joe Farago, is seen on TV covering the news. We had previously seen the same newsreader in The Terminator (1984) telling us about the apparent serial killings of women named Sarah Connor. This probably isn't enough to prove the link, but coupled with the fact that the fictional oil company, Benthic Petroleum, that runs the Deep Core undersea drilling platform in The Abyss, is the same oil company that owns the gas station in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) I'd say we're on to something.^

A newsreader in The Terminator tells us someone (or something) is on the rampage

The same anchorman tells us about the problems facing the Benthic Petroleum Deep Core drilling platform in The Abyss

While in T2, in the gas station where the heroes hide for the night, the logos on the pumps show us Benthic Petroleum again

Although only meant as a light collection of movie trivia, the above list still had to abide by some heavy rules. There were five in particular that guided what went in and what got left standing in the cold.

1) The films must appear serious about displaying a shared, but subtle continuity.

2) The clues that link the movies together must appear during the films. Hints that exist only in the minds of the creators, and seep out after release, during interviews with the cast and crew, have been discounted.

3) Also excluded are movies that feature cameos of well-known characters or elements from other films simply as a nod to popular culture. This is usually done for the sake of comedy rather than a serious attempt to link backgrounds. An example might be Dan Aykroyd's character, Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters (1984) appearing in the movie Caspar (1995), uttering the line "Who you gonna call? Someone else!" A stance (and therefore Stantz) that mildly contradicts his original Ghostbusters character. Another example could be R2D2 and C3PO appearing as hieroglyphs in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), where they probably weren't meant to be telling us that ancient civilisations in Indiana Jones's past were familiar with droids. If we were including TV shows in this list^^, The Simpsons would be another obvious example of the 'crossover as comedy' scenario – a show that is filled with jokey cameos of characters from elsewhere.

4) We're also not talking about those series of films where different actors play the same central literary character. Films like the ones based on Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books, or James Patterson's Alex Cross, or even Ian Fleming's James Bond^^^. The connection is simply too obvious.

5) And the Disney Pixar films have been deliberately left off the list. Some of the crossovers appear quite strong, but others are pure conjecture. Either way the various stories have already been covered extensively elsewhere and we don't need to re-iterate them here. Even if the king and queen from Frozen do turn out to be Tarzan's parents.

But what with this being a blog that is mainly concerned with all things science fiction, it would be remiss not to mention one last set of connections. Think of it as a bonus fact for the uninitiated. It brakes the rules above, but seeing as the links are between two of the greatest sci-fi universes ever committed to celluloid, we really can't ignore them. 

Blade Runner (1982), Aliens (1986), and Prometheus (2012)
Aliens and Prometheus are both part of the Alien franchise started by Ridley Scott in 1979, and as such already share a cinematic universe, but it's the bringing of Blade Runner into this that's of interest. The links are a little tenuous, and could quite easily fall into the 'crossover as comedy' category, but they're worth mentioning as they at least show some level of knowing intent on the part of the film-makers. Both the connections are found buried in sub-menus on DVD releases of the two Alien films. On the Prometheus DVD there's text that implies Guy Pearce's old Peter Weyland character is a protégé of Joe Turkel's Dr. Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. And on one of the Aliens DVDs there's a close-up of Dallas's crew screen (seen in the background of the inquest scene at the beginning of the film), that also mentions the Tyrell Corporation (along with another couple of in-jokes).

It's highly unlikely to happen, but with Blade Runner 2049 due for release in October, there's the tiniest chance we might discover why Guy Pierce was chosen to play an old man in Prometheus, set roughly 44 years later.

Eldon Tyrell is beginning to dislike where this little chat is going, in Blade Runner

Ripley (standing in front of the crew logs) asks if IQs just dropped sharply in Aliens

Peter Weyland is old before Guy Pierce's time in Prometheus

Obviously there's a certain amount of judgment in choosing which links are serious and which aren't, so contentious cases could easily fall on the wrong side of the line. Therefore, as always, if there's anything you'd like to add, like a favourite connection that's been missed, or something that's been unfairly excluded, or you really think we should have talked about Monsters Inc appearing in Brave, then please get in touch in the comments below.


*I won't name any films in particular that I would avoid because I don't want to offend Paul W.S. Anderson. Especially as I'm quite a fan of some of his other films. But I will tell you that none of the Adam-Sandler-verse movies made it anywhere near this list.
**The first Alien Versus Predator comic was released in 1991, after the film Predator 2, but there are some sources that state the idea for a crossover was originally formulated in the late 1980s by a group of Dark Horse comic creators working on related titles. Certainly the film Predator 2 borrows other ideas from the earlier Predator comics, including the scene where armed commuters are attacked on the subway.
***Many of Tarantino's movies are subtly connected. In Inglourious Basterds (2009), Eli Roth's character Donny 'The Bear Jew' Donowitz is meant to be the father of Saul Rubinek's movie producer Lee Donowitz from True Romance (1993). There's even a suggestion that Brad Pitt plays his own grandfather (or perhaps great grandfather) in the two movies: Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds and Floyd in True Romance. Patricia Arquette's Alabama Whitman from True Romance may even have, at some point, been partnered to Harvey Keitel's Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs. If it's the same Alabama that would put all four films mentioned here into the same cinematic universe.
****The link between Blade Runner and Soldier is somewhat undermined by director Paul W.S. Anderson's decision to include a handful of joke references to other sci-fi properties in Soldier. However it's my belief that the Blade Runner connection is legitimate while the others are merely 'crossover as comedy' at play (see the 'rules' above).
^Some sources that I am unable to substantiate have said that the same anchorman is also seen telling us the news in James Cameron's True Lies (1994), while Bethnic Petroleum is supposed to crop up briefly in Twister (1996), possibly as a nod to its star, the late Bill Paxton – a stalwart Cameron actor, with the rare distinction of having played characters killed by an Alien, a Predator and a Terminator.
^^We're not including TV shows in this list. The word 'movies' is in the title of this article for a reason. On television, popular shows often tie-in with lesser-known series or go on to launch spin-offs of their own, thereby creating a vast collection of related properties. For the purposes of this article all TV shows have been discounted, including Cheers, Frasier and Wings, or the prolific Marvel Television productions, the Battlestar Gallactica universe, the Arrowverse, the different Star Trek titles, the Stargate franchise, the Whoniverse, the crossovers between Murder She Wrote and Magnum PI, and all the other myriad ones out there. There's enough material in the world of TV crossovers to warrant an entire series of future Torva Tenebris articles, and I very much doubt even the most enduring readers would want that.
^^^Enduring readers might, of course, know that James Bond himself, or at least someone very much like him, at one point crossed over into the TV movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. You can can find more on that in an earlier post here.

And finally special thanks must be extended to Pete 'The Chef' Cook, Joe Stuart, Trey Collinge, Tim Footner, James Muthana, Wayne Hill and Cos Georgiou for their help with this article. You guys were all invaluable. Except you, Cos.