French producer Luc Besson plagiarised action classic Escape From New York, court rules

 A cinema still from Lockout, starring Guy Pearce.
A cinema still from Lockout, starring Guy Pearce.PHOTO: MVP ENTERTAINMENT

PARIS (AFP) - French filmmaker Luc Besson has been ordered to pay Hollywood's self-styled "Master of Horror" John Carpenter nearly half a million dollars for plagiarising his classic 1981 movie Escape From New York, court documents revealed Friday (July 29).

The director of The Fifth Element and Nikita had denied that his 2012 film Lockout copied the cult futuristic thriller in which New York's Manhattan island is a giant prison that has been overrun by its inmates.

Kurt Russell plays a government agent-turned-convict who goes inside to rescue the US president after his plane crash-lands there.

An appeals court in Paris ruled that Lockout had "massively borrowed key elements" of the earlier movie, according to a judgement put online Friday by BFMTV.

A spokesman for Besson told AFP they were "very surprised by the ruling but the judges have spoken and we will accept their judgment."

Plagiarism cases in the movie business are notoriously difficult to prove, particularly as so many action and sci-fi films share similar tropes.

In Lockout, Guy Pearce plays a wrongly convicted man who is offered his freedom if he can free the US president's daughter from a jail in outer space which its violent prisoners have taken over.

Critics have long pointed to the uncanny parallels between the two films.

Box Office magazine called Lockout - which Besson wrote with Irish filmmakers Stephen St Leger and James Mathers - "a sleek, slick and shameless rip-off of Carpenter's Escape from New York" as well as its sequel, Escape from LA.

The Mandatory website joked that it was a "stealth remake".

Carpenter, who is best known for his horror films Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, had demanded €2.2 million (S$3.3 million) in damages.

Last year, the court found in his favour and ordered Besson, his Europacorp production company and his co-writers to pay a total of €85,000 to Carpenter, his co-writer Nick Castle and StudioCanal, which holds the rights to Escape From New York.

Besson appealed, with his spokesman telling AFP that the judgment was a "block on artistic freedom".

His lawyers argued that "one of France's great talents of all time" would never intentionally stoop to plagiarism, and that Escape From New York itself owed much to the classic western Rio Bravo and Mad Max, which had been shot two years previously.

But the appeal court disagreed, increasing the damages more than five-fold to €450,000.

Its judges said there was a long line of similarities between the films.

The heroes of both "got into the prison by flying in a glider/space shuttle, had to confront inmates led by a chief with a strange right arm, found hugely important briefcases and meet a former sidekick who then dies".

"And at the end (of both films the heroes) keep secret documents recovered during their mission," the judgment added.

But a spokesman for Besson and Europacorp said that "the judges did recognise that there were many differences between the films - and that in their totality the movies were quite different".

"We think that is important, and the fact that the damages were a lot less than were demanded reflects that," he added.

Carpenter, 68, who made his name with the hugely influential Assault On Precinct 13, is touring the US with a live show of his film music.

Besson's latest project, the US$180 million (S$240 million) sci-fi adventure Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, got a thunderous reception when several scenes were shown at the Comic-Con festival in San Diego last week.

The film will not be released until next summer.