While every genre fan knows 1981’s classic action flick Escape from New York, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the 2012 Luc Besson-produced Lockout. The latter movie follows a snarky political prisoner played by Guy Pearce as he tries to rescue the President’s daughter from a orbital prison. It’s no classic, but it’s pretty fun, and according to French courts, it’s because Besson plagiarized John Carpenter’s classic.
Even at the time, people noticed the obvious debt Lockout owed to Snake, and Carpenter sued in France in 2015 over several similarities between Besson’s movie and his classic. Plagiarism in movies is notoriously difficult to prove, but weirdly the court sided with Carpenter because it was the same movie in the broad strokes:
…both presented an athletic, rebellious and cynical hero, sentenced to a period of isolated incarceration – despite his heroic past – who is given the offer of setting out to free the President of the United States or his daughter held hostage in exchange for his freedom; he manages, undetected, to get inside the place where the hostage is being held, after a flight in a glider/space shuttle, and finds there a former associate who dies; he pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.
The court acknowledges that the details are different, even in the translated ruling above, and Besson appealed because, come on. But he lost, and now he owes Carpenter half a million dollars.
It’s a particularly strange stance for Carpenter, of all filmmakers, to take, as his work is filled with homages to and even remakes of classic movies and filmmakers. His second film, Assault on Precinct 13, is more or less an unofficial remake of the Howard Hawks’ classic Western Rio Bravo. Escape from New York is itself packed full of common tropes and cliches.
The larger question is what this means for the movies. Since Warner Bros. engineered the formula every superhero movie follows with Superman and Batman, do they get to sue Marvel for damages? Does Akira Kurosawa’s estate get to sue Star Wars for cribbing from his movie The Hidden Fortress? Does the screenwriting team of Die Hard basically get to collect off of every movie that was “Die Hard on an X?” This ruling only applies in France, of course, but the court may have opened an unusually large can of worms.