Have you ever watched a film only to get struck by a sense of deja vu part way through, as though you'd already watched a scene before? Writer Christopher Booker shared his theory in 2004 that there are only seven basic plots in all of storytelling, so it would make sense that there would occasionally be different movies with the same plot. Writers are working from the same building blocks.
Some movies take it a bit farther, though - beyond remakes and reboots or specific genres like the slasher flicks of the '80s that all adhere to the same template. We're talking about movies that look different from a poster or trailer, but once you see them in motion, they manage to hit the same story beats at the same time in eerily similar ways. The following examples all spotlight an instance where a more recent movie feels undeniably similar to an older one. This list will break down the basic plot that both pictures follow, dive into the similarities, and, finally, point out a few key differences.
This phenomenon doesn't mean the newer pictures committed plagiarism or are bad. Far from it. Most of them brought highly original elements to familiar material, and many of them are actually quite good. In a couple of cases, they're arguably better than the ones they feel similar to. They just happen to exude that unmistakable "same plot different movie" vibe.
What's the Plot: A hero travels to a new frontier. There, he meets and becomes close with the indigenous people of the land. This leads him to help defend those people against colonialists.
What's the Same: On the surface, Dances with Wolves and Avatar could not look more different. Zoom in, though, and you'll find distinct similarities. Wolves' John Dunbar sustains a leg injury that nearly requires amputation, and Avatar's Sully is confined to a wheelchair after losing the use of his legs. After ingratiating themselves into different cultures (the Sioux and the Na'vi) the men learn to speak the native language and fall in love with a prominent woman in the community. And let's not forget the movies' endings, where both Dunbar and Sully lead their adopted tribes as they square off against white colonialists.
What's Different: The primary difference is that Dances with Wolves is set in the American West following the Civil War; Avatar is a science fiction story set in the nonexistent world of Pandora. Consequently, the Na'vi are a made-up group with a fictionalized background. The Sioux, of course, are real people.Too close for coincidence?
What's the Plot: An enthusiastic young law enforcement official infiltrates an "extreme" activity as part of a criminal investigation. He comes face-to-face with an enigmatic leader who may or may not be a bad guy. The agent becomes helplessly entangled in the world he's supposed to be investigating.
What's the Same: These two movies, released 20 years apart, share a protagonist who's either an FBI agent or a cop working in conjunction with the FBI. Both lead characters fall in love with a woman who's a central part of the world they're looking into. After going through adventures as a part of their crew, both heroes start to sympathize with the leader, deciding to let him get away in the end. The films even share a finale in which the disillusioned hero decides to leave the agency for which he works.
What's Different: Point Break is centered around surfing, whereas The Fast and the Furious is set in the world of underground car racing. We find out the occupation of the heroes at different times - Point Break establishes right away that Johnny Utah is an FBI agent, but The Fast and the Furious hides Brian O'Conner's undercover status throughout the first act. Utah has a partner with whom he's working, while Brian goes it alone.Too close for coincidence?
What's the Plot: The hero enjoys life with his owner. Then a newcomer arrives, threatening to take away some of the owner's attention. Eventually, the newcomer finds his way outside the house, so the hero reluctantly launches a rescue mission to bring him back with the help of a motley crew of cohorts.
What's the Same: The Secret Life of Pets hits the same story beats as Toy Story in depicting the robust lifestyle that pets/toys enjoy when their owners are not around. In addition to a disgruntled hero, both movies have a villain who threatens the newcomer after he's stranded outside the home. In Pets, it's an angry rabbit; in Toy Story, it's a mean kid who likes to mutilate his playthings. The movies end in a similar fashion with the hero and the newcomer becoming friends after enduring the adventure together. There's a love interest for both heroes, too. One is a poodle and the other is Bo Peep.
What's Different: As the titles imply, the hero and newcomer in Pets are two dogs, whereas in Toy Story they're a cowboy doll and a space ranger action figure. Pets differentiates itself slightly by incorporating some of the weird things animals do into its plot. Because toys are inanimate, Toy Story can't have that kind of humor.Too close for coincidence?
What's the Plot: A rough-edged young woman meets a wealthy man. He helps her develop a sense of style and class. They fall in love in the process.
What's the Same: Pretty Woman's Vivian is basically an R-rated version of My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle. After meeting their respective rich men, the women undergo lessons in etiquette. Their lapses into lower-class behavior may be played for laughs, but their transformation into swans is endearing. It's worth noting that each of them has a very open heart, which allows them to give something back in return. They teach, respectively, Edward Lewis and Henry Higgins how to experience genuine love.
What's Different: The major difference is in how the ladies meet their gentlemen. Eliza meets Professor Higgins when he chooses her to settle a bet that he can teach anyone to speak like royalty. Vivian, on the other hand, is a sex worker whom Edward pays a couple thousand dollars to be his companion for a week. My Fair Lady is also a musical, while Pretty Woman is not, despite its excellent soundtrack.Too close for coincidence?