The Critical Distinction of Steve Jobs

By  · Published on September 7th, 2015

Universal Pictures

It’s been more than two years since the release of Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher in the title role, but we can still consider that and this fall’s Steve Jobs to be a dueling set. They were at least in early development at the same time, as most competing pairs are, and while it’s typical that “twin films” (as Wikipedia labels them) arrive at most only a year apart, it’s difficult not to consciously align these two.

“To even compare it to Jobs … would be as unfair as likening the Star Child to one of those apes wandering around at the beginning of 2001,” writes Justin Chang in his review of Steve Jobs for Variety. But of course he had to make the mention anyway. Many write-ups out of the Telluride Film Festival, where the newer take on the late Apple CEO debuted over the weekend, seemed required to do so. And I think it is worth a reference, because as Chang points out the distinction is quite monumental.

Jobs might as well have been a competing knock-off from The Asylum for how much Steve Jobs is overshadowing it in critical terms. It’s obviously very early to consider the full extent of the latter’s reception but right out of the gate it had a 100% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes (since this was written, a single review knocked it down to 86%, but we expect that to rise again later). Jobs, on the other hand, is way down at 27%.

That’s a very significant difference in the context of twin films. Historically we’ve looked at such pairs for their box office disparity, often by the assumption (but not always the reality) that the first of each set wins the duel money-wise simply for being first. Quality-wise, we eventually pit some of them against each other for deep critical comparisons, particularly in the cases of Deep Impact vs. Armageddon and Antz vs. A Bug’s Life (both duels were products of the general competition between DreamWorks and Disney in the 1990s). But in most cases favoring one or the other is just a matter of taste.

Although decades earlier we saw dueling Abraham Lincoln biopics and dueling Oscar Wilde biopics come out within months of each other, twin films really became a notable phenomenon in the 1980s, when you had the striking match-ups of two James Bond movies, two “Dangerous Liaisons” adaptations, two lambada dance films and two buddy cop movies where one of the buddies is a dog – although the last one was more just your basic Hollywood trend situation (also see body swap, little creature and underwater monster movies of the time). Then in the 1990s it got worse with dueling Christopher Columbus, Wyatt Earp and Steve Prefontaine biopics and competing disaster movies involving volcanoes and asteroids.

None of these received the level of difference between reviews as Jobs and Steve Jobs (even with the latter’s last-minute dip). Most of them, in fact, wound up having fairly similar receptions from critics, either a majority negative or a majority positive. The closest of those mentioned above is Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont, yet a lot of what happened there was critics really liked the former and then a year later didn’t like the latter almost just in terms of relativity to the first – and then some critics, like Roger Ebert, very much preferred Valmont.

For Steve Jobs, which we haven’t seen yet, it’s hardly a case of the reverse effect, that everyone is liking this one starring the more beloved actor Michael Fassbender in the lead because they disliked Jobs so much. If it also weren’t great, critics would accept the duel as a draw, the kind where both parties wind up dead. Instead, it’s simply that much better, maybe even for having had the extra distance to improve upon what didn’t work with the earlier attempt.

As Steve Jobs nears closer to release (October 9th) and more critics have a chance to review it, the new biopic could turn out to have one of the greatest leads on its competitor. With its dip to an 86% score, its difference from Jobs is still a very substantial 59 percentile points. The only movies to have a better lead are Babe, at 71 points higher than fellow 1995 talking pig movie Gordy, and Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo, at 64 points higher than DreamWorks Animation’s Shark Tale.

Here is a list of 27 twin film sets from the past 35 years (the upper title of each was released first) with their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores side by side:

Octopussy (1983) – 42%
Never Say Never Again (1983) – 60%
18 point difference

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – 81%
An American Tail
(1986) – 68%
13 point difference

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – 93%
Valmont (1989) – 54%
39 point difference

K-9 (1989) – 22%
Turner and Hooch
(1989) – 54%
32 point difference

Leviathan (1989) – 14%
DeepStar Six (1989) – 0%
14 point difference

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) – 7%
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – 39%
32 point difference

Tombstone (1993) – 73%
Wyatt Earp (1994) – 42%
31 point difference

Rob Roy (1995) – 72%
Braveheart (1995) – 78%
6 point difference

Gordy (1995) – 26%
(1995) – 97%
71 point difference

Dante’s Peak (1997) – 27%
Volcano (1997) – 44%
17 point difference

Prefontaine (1997) – 59%
Without Limits (1998) – 79%
20 point difference

Antz (1998) – 95%
A Bug’s Life (1998) – 92%
3 point difference

Deep Impact (1998) – 48%
Armageddon (1998) – 39%
9 point difference

Saving Private Ryan (1998) – 92%
The Thin Red Line (1998) – 79%
13 point difference

Mission to Mars (2000) – 25%
Red Planet (2000) – 14%
11 point difference

Finding Nemo (2003) – 99%
Shark Tale (2004) – 35%
64 point difference

Chasing Liberty (2004) – 19%
First Daughter (2004) – 8%
11 point difference

Capote (2005) – 90%
Infamous (2006) – 73%
17 point difference

The Illusionist (2006) – 74%
The Prestige
(2006) – 76%
2 point difference

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) – 33%
Observe and Report (2009) – 51%
18 point difference

Despicable Me (2010) – 81%
Megamind (2010) – 72%
9 point difference

Skyline (2010) – 15%
Battle: Los Angeles (2011) – 35%
20 point difference

No Strings Attached (2011) – 48%
Friends With Benefits (2011) – 70%
22 point difference

Mirror Mirror (2012) – 49%
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) – 48%
1 point difference

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) – 48%
White House Down (2013) – 51%
3 point difference

The Legend of Hercules (2014) – 3%
Hercules (2014) – 60%
57 point difference

Jobs (2013) – 27%
Steve Jobs (2015) – 86%
59 point difference (down from initial 73%)

Related Topics:

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.