The Cheap Sin of Preferring the Wrong Movie in a Dueling Pair

By  · Published on June 24th, 2014

Mark Webber in 13 Sins

Dimension FIlms

In almost every set of “dueling” movies, whether they’re competing biopics or similar-premise disaster flicks out within months of each other, there’s a right one and a wrong one as far as which you’re supposed to prefer. It’s okay to enjoy Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but you should recognize Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact as the better movie. Capote over Infamous. Observe and Report over Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Top Gun over Iron Eagle. Dantes Peak over Volcano. Tombstone over Wyatt Earp. 1492: Conquest of Paradise over Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. The Prestige over The Illusionist. Mission to Mars over Red Planet. Chasing Liberty over First Daughter. Leviathan over DeepStar Six, and The Abyss over both of them. Some pairs are nearly a draw as far as neither actually being worth a preference, such as Lambada and The Forbidden Dance.

Here’s a more recent one: Cheap Thrills over 13 Sins. The former came out first (in March), which is often a plus financially but can also be in a movie’s favor with critics. It sure seems that way given the distance between their Rotten Tomatoes rating (88% to 58%). The latter opened in April and now is available on DVD and VOD as of last week, and it hasn’t been receiving nearly as much love. Well, maybe it’s because I actually saw it first, but I like 13 Sins better. They’re not really easily comparable outside their likeminded concept, both involving a desperate guy performing rising-stakes dares for rising sums of money. 13 Sins is richer (and sometimes more ridiculous) in its plotting, more believable in its character’s evolution over the course of the game and sicker and more gruesome in its horror-tinged splatter spectacle. Cheap Thrills is better in some ways, mostly in its performances, but it didn’t grab me like 13 Sins did.

The thing about that dueling pair is that they’re both latecomers as far as their premise is concerned. They could be thought of as part of a dueling trio, following last year’s straight-to-video horror flick Would You Rather? (technically a 2012 film, while Cheap Thrills is technically 2013, going by festival debuts), which stars Brittany Snow as a guest at a party where the titular game is played violently to the extreme. And before that was the original 13: Game of Death, a 2006 Thai film upon which 13 Sins is based. I haven’t seen either, and I wonder if I’d end up liking each less as a diminishing appreciation of the basic scenario. In his review of 13 Sins for FSR, Rob Hunter calls the movie redundant and overly familiar and, while noting that Would You Rather? is the better movie, also implies that this one is bad in part because we’ve already seen it before. But what if we haven’t? When I finally watched Cheap Thrills this week, long after I’d seen 13 Sins at SXSW, that was the one that felt overly familiar and kinda boring because I’d already seen it before.

I also recently caught up with last year’s dueling movies involving The White House under siege. While they’re not nearly as far off in their Rotten Tomatoes ratings (both earned predominantly negative reviews), White House Down is considerably the more hip of the two, with many critics, than Olympus Has Fallen. The latter was the box office hit of the two, despite opening later, and it’s the only one so far to spawn a sequel. That makes it’s Hollywood’s preferred choice and, going by RT’s audience scores, the one for mainstream audiences, too. It’s fun in a cartoonish, awkwardly bad effects kind of way, and its relative lack of logic in nearly every scene allows us to accept it as intently mindless entertainment. Still, White House Down is more satisfying in its seriousness. It’s an old-fashioned movie where you can feel the physical weight of the action, and Channing Tatum is far more appealing as a lead in this sort of role than Gerard Butler.

Preferring White House Down makes me fall into the cool critics club, yet it seems like we’ve collectively sided with the wrong movie in that dueling pair since it’s the less popular choice. And it’s not like we’re defending a masterpiece over junk; they’re both fairly forgettable at the end of the day. It’s kind of like a backwards version of the debate of ’98, when it felt more right to like The Thin Red Line over Saving Private Ryan. Never mind that they’re hardly parallel films outside of their being World War II movies – not even in the same continental conflict – but they’re both great in their own ways, so it’s not like there’s any reason to champion one against the other. We get to like both. And we get to like both Antz and A Bug’s Life, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, M*A*S*H and Catch-22, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and West of Memphis.

We can go as far back as 1982 for evidence that I’ve been a chooser of the wrong movie since youth. Although I’d never critically defend The Pirate Movie as being better than The Pirates of Penzance, I’ve always had enough of a soft spot for it that I could say I prefer it. As a kid, the modern-day bookending sequence was an accessible gateway through which to enjoy the elements of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera and its period setting. When you’re five, you just relate better to Kristy McNichol (an early crush with that shoulder and thigh-baring dress of hers) and Christopher Atkins than Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith (and Kevin Kline) – though I admit that the later, more faithful musical won me over with somewhat by featuring “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” star Angela Lansbury, so it wasn’t like I was exclusive. And after 33 years, I do confuse a lot between the movies, which have to be the most similar and parallel-premise non-biopic dueling movies ever.

Many years later, it happened again. I watched Christopher Smith’s Triangle and became entangled in its time-loop plotting before seeing Nacho Vigalando’s Timecrimes. In fact, I watched the latter one day later, thanks to immediate recommendations that I do so on account of it being considered the better film. Had I waited a while longer, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal since the pair is so dissimilar in all but the looping element that they’d have been more separate in my mind. Instead, they’ve become forever remembered in comparison and I can’t help but have fondness for the twists and turns of the movie I saw first, especially since the visuals are also far more striking and the mindfuck is more complex in Triangle. Timecrimes is executed well but in the wake of the other it feels overly familiar and there’s not a lot to it other than the twists. It’s not as interesting to rewatch as Smith’s film is.

In a month, this year’s second of a dueling pair of Hercules movies arrives with Brett Ratner’s take on the myth starring Dwayne Johnson. There’s little faith that it will be any good, but at the same time it’ll be very hard for it to be any worse than The Legend of Hercules, which I graded a D- back in January and which currently sports a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes. I have a good chance of at least preferring if not totally liking the right one of these movies if I smile just once during Hercules. Unless somehow the newer one is reviewed more poorly than the first and shockingly grosses even less than $18m. There’s a growing precedent for my siding with the wrong movie in these pairs, so I guess I can’t be that surprised if that does happen.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.