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September 27-October 3, 2006

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Cult Leader

'Terminator' vs. TV: When cult culture gets hijacked

By Steve Palopoli

ONE OF the most time-honored staples of cult-fan culture is the "idea espionage" conspiracy theory. It's really blown up in recent years thanks to the Internet, which allows tiny, marauding bands of people who love some obscure movie or TV series to electronically scream bloody murder about how Hollywood ripped it off for a mainstream blockbuster. If you've ever read one of these screeds or heard somebody go off, you know fans can get pretty worked up when they think their personal favorites have been pillaged. They usually start with something like "Did those studio jerks think no one would notice that The Island is a total rip-off of Parts: The Clonus Horror? Michael Bay should be shot!" To someone who cares zilch about the 1979 Clonus cloning flick (which is so bad it was a Mystery Science Theater 3000 target back in the '90s), these fan rants can sound pretty nuts.

Except that sometimes they're right. Not about shooting Michael Bay—welllll ... no, don't think it, someone will hear!—but about the fact that movie types do plagiarize. I'm not talking about Brian DePalma/Woody Allen-type homages here—those are knowing references to famous accomplishments by other directors and writers, and are intended to point back to the original authorship, the same way cover songs let musicians lay out personal influences for their own audiences to go back and discover. And I'm not talking about the endless B movie variations on successful films like Jaws or Alien—those are rip-offs, but pretty harmless and sometimes even really fun. I'm talking about heavy idea lifting that leaves someone or someones cut out of a success they deserved to be credited on.

We know that such wholesale theft goes on because sometimes people just flat-out admit to it. One of the most famous examples of that came after James Cameron finished The Terminator. According to Marc Shapiro's biography of the director, a visiting journalist asked where he had gotten the idea for it, and Cameron said, "Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories." Shapiro also quotes Ellison as saying he found the "smoking gun" in a Starlog article in which Cameron was quoted as saying he got the idea for The Terminator from "a couple of Outer Limits segments." The episodes in question had both been written by Ellison. He sued and received a settlement of $400,000, along with a story credit on all theatrical and home-video prints of the film.

It's pretty interesting to go back and look at those two Outer Limits episodes, which both originally aired in 1964, in the show's second season. Ellison seems particularly obsessed with Terminator's similarity to "Soldier," because the opening montages of an apocalyptic war on future Earth are very similar. "Soldier" also has a warrior from the future returning to present-day Earth, pursued by his adversary. But to be honest, that episode, aside from the opening, isn't very much like The Terminator. What's nuts is watching the other one, "Demon With a Glass Hand." What didn't Cameron steal from this episode for his movie? It's about a man from the future who goes back in time to present-day Earth after humanity has been defeated in a future war by an alien race. The aliens send agents back in time to get him, aware that he is humanity's last hope. As if that wasn't enough (spoiler ahead), the guy turns out to be a cyborg. "Demon" is probably the best episode of the series, and it still hold up today. It's a little talky, but the tension is thick, Robert Culp is great in the lead and some of the ideas will blow your mind. It's hard to believe it was made over 40 years ago, which is all the more reason Ellison deserved to get credit for his ahead-of-its-time work (I'm pretty sure I saw seeds of Terminator 2, Buckaroo Banzai and even the set design of Blade Runner in there, too, but we won't get into that now).

It's stuff like the Terminator case that adds fuel to these fan-outrage fires. Personally, though, I don't have any idea-theft axes to grind. Well, OK, I would like to know if the writers of Galaxy Quest ever saw the 1985 Tales From the Darkside episode "Distant Signals," about an alien who comes to Earth to try to get a bad TV show revived because his planet picked up its broadcasts and got obsessed with it. Did those studio jerks think no one would notice?

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite movie rip-off here.

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