This week I’ve decided to do something a little different. The IMDB Top 250 can wait, as I decide to put 5 portrayals of dystopian futures where people fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses into a figurative arena to…well, fight to the death. And yes – I wanted to go and see The Hunger Games and therefore have to justify it as some kind of research so I can avoid the hypocrisy inherent in the insults I throw at adults who enjoy things like Harry Potter and Twilight.
Firstly, I had to select the films and set some ground rules. These were:
• The film must be set in the future, even if it’s only a few years in the future
• It must recognisably set on Earth
• Death must be the primary aim of the ‘contests’, not just a by-product
• The ‘contests’ must be state-sanctioned and legal in the film’s universe
After asking on Twitter, I received a number of suggestions. One of the most popular suggestions was the original Rollerball, but this was disqualified due to the third rule. I also had suggestions for The Condemned and The Tournament, but I discarded these because they were either set in the present, or they featured an illegal tournament. Plus, they both looked fucking terrible.
The five I eventually decided on represent a wide-range of cinematic work. We have a couple of cult indies, a couple of Hollywood blockbusters, and a foreign-language film. And while they fit the same template above, the contests themselves fit into a few different sub-genres of the Dystopian Battle Royal movie.
We have the Gladatorial films, where innocent people are thrown to the lions of state-sponsored murderers. These films clearly have their roots in the tales of Rome and the Coliseum. These films pit people trying to survive against people encouraged by the state, and the public, to kill them.
And then we have the Senseless Murder Contest films – where innocent people are chosen (usually at random) to enter an ‘arena’ and kill each other until only one remains. The participants in this film are not professional killers, and some will adapt quicker than others.
So, without further ado – let’s meet our contenders.
Type: Gladiatorial (from the point of view of the gladiators)
Plot: In the titles that look like a 14 year-old’s art project, we learn it’s the year 2000, and the annual Trans-American Death Race is the best thing on television. Brought to the masses by Mr President (holidaying in the film Flash Gordon by the looks of it), the idea is for some professional drivers and their navigators to race across America in crazy modified cars. The twist being they earn extra points for killing pedestrians. It’s basically Wacky Races with decapitations.
Stars: David Carradine (straight from Kung Fu) plays the anti-hero Frankenstein. The best driver in the history of the race, and the president’s favourite. Sylvester Stallone is his arch-rival Machine-Gun Joe – who comes across like an adult turned away from the Bugsy Malone auditions. It also has a number of crazy, groovy baby casualties from the Woodstock Generation
Best Kill: For some unexplained reason, a lone spectator decides to play matador with one of the drivers. Things don’t end well…
Example Line: “I don’t need a nurse. I need a navigator”
Verdict: Let there be no doubt, this is a dreadful film. It’s badly written, acted, and put-together. There are enough plot-holes to power a small-town (if plot-holes give off energy – which they might), and just one example of this is when Machine-Gun Joe kills one of a road-works crew early on in the film. This is the biggest event of the year in these people’s lives – why the fuck would you be working on the roads when the Death Race was taking place? Luckily, the film zips along at a fair pace (as I get older I becoming increasingly grateful for any film shorter than 90 minutes – this is a breathless 79 minutes long), and it never takes itself too seriously. In fact, by the end I was positively drawn into this ridiculous world.
You know you’re in a presence of something special when a film makes you stand up and yell “what the fuck?!” at the television. There is also a scene where David Carradine dances in just his pants, a leather glove, and gimp mask. Michael Bay doesn’t give you that!
I’m not sure whether to give this film a 2/10, or a 7/10. I enjoyed it more than Warrior though.
Type: Gladiatorial (from the point of view of the ‘Christian’)
Plot: According the Commodore 64-inspired pre-credits sequence, it’s 2017 and two years have passed since the collapse of the world economy. That alone sent a small shiver down my spine – I can easily see this film being the basis for the next Conservative Election Manifesto. Ben Richards is framed and wrongfully imprisoned for the massacre of hundreds of protestors (which the pre-credit scene shows he tried to stop). He escapes from prison and goes underground with the help of Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa. Yes, really. But he gets caught and is forced to become a contestant on The Running Man – the US’s most popular TV show where convicts fight for their lives against armed Gladiators.
Stars: Arnie in his usual 80s role, Richard Dawson as the Noel Edmonds-inspired blood-thirsty game show host, and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura (the former wrestler who became a US Governor before Arnie and is now a raving right-wing loony)
[EDIT: Car Hole from the Football365 Forum has pointed out that Ventura is nothing like my description there. I realise I have confused him with The Ultimate Warrior. Who really is a nutbar these days.]
Best Kill: Not a kill from the contest, but from the prison break at the beginning of the film. A rogue prisoner makes a break before the defences are completely shut-down, and his neck-tag blows up – completely decapitating him. Nice.
Example line: This actually has a very high number of Arnie one-liners (although the quality is hit and miss). The one that stayed with me is when Arnie takes the ‘attractive female he is destined to kiss at the end’ hostage and warns her “Remember, I could break your neck like a chicken’s”. When Killian the evil game show host yells “Get me the President’s agent” we know that there is at least a seam of satire running through this film.
Verdict: This film ticks most of the boxes for our genre. A small underground resistance. The nation dived up into paramilitary zones. The entertainment of death onscreen as an opiate of the masses to quell rebellion. Check.
What is interesting, although a little disappointing, is that almost all of the ire of the film and of Ben Richards is aimed at the television show. The resistance’s sole ideal is to force the show off the air, and hope that solves things. There are obvious underlying reasons for the show existing in the first place and these remain unspoken.
This is a very flash and 80s film – at times it is as though even future dystopias can carry product placement (this one is brought to you by Adidas). Sadly (as I remember loving this film in my youth) there is little more to the film than flashy visuals and violent deaths – with any attempt at social commentary being superficial at best.
Type: Senseless Murder Contest
Plot: In a future US known as Panem, the Capitol forces the twelve districts to offer up a boy and a girl (aged between 12 and 18) to fight in the annual Hunger Games. A fight to the death in a specially-created arena, with additional Miss World touches. Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games in place of her sister, and has to fight to survive so that she can return home to look after her family.
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson as her potential love interest, Stanley Tucci as the extravagant televison host of the games, and Donald Sutherland perfectly cast as the scheming President Snow.
Best Kill: Interestingly for a film of this type, the kills aren’t played out with any kind of relish. Kills are best remembered for what they mean to the characters, rather than how they happen.
Example Line: “Face the probability of your imminent death, and know that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to help you”
Verdit: Have you heard the joke about what the French call The Hunger Games? Battle Royale with Cheese. Clever, funny, but not really very fair. I was as dubious as most people. For a start, I tend to stay away from teen-fiction and its associated film versions. But when I found out that instead of wizards or vampires this was a sci-fi story about a dystopian future when children are forced to kill each other? Ok, I’m in. I didn’t read the book before going to watch the film, as I wanted to watch it on its own merits (plus, I am really too lazy to read something I can watch instead) – so I can only judge this film from an independent film fan’s point of view. And I really liked it.
Jennifer Lawrence has an incredibly difficult job of carrying the film, and she does so with a touch of vulnerability, and a truck-load of bad-ass attitude. I have never seen Stanley Tucci having so much fun, and Donald Sutherland is quiet menace personified. What really struck me as being different to the other films I had been watching though was how much I cared about the characters. Every single death actually means something in this film, and there is no need to make it bloody and violent as the loss of some of these characters is gut-wrenching enough.
The film presents a world that, although fantastic and futuristic, is very recognisably this world. It is a world of the 1% versus the 99%. A world where powerful people really can do pretty much what they like. There is a real revolutionary feel to this film, and I hope it continues in the following films. I know the books do, as I have almost finished the trilogy since watching this film.
Type: Senseless Murder Contest
Plot: In the not-at-all distant future, the Japanese government enacted the Battle Royal Act in order to clamp down on an increase in unruly behaviour in classrooms. A random school class is chosen each year and taken to an island where they are forced to fight to the death with a variety of weapons. All the winner gets is their life, and years in therapy I imagine.
Stars: Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano. No relation of Takeshi from Takeshi’s Castle. Plus some kids.
[EDIT: Afflikonig from the Football365 Forum pointed out that Takeshi Kitano ACTUALLY IS the man from the brilliant Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle. Enjoy a little here.]
Best Kill: To be fair, there is some brilliantly choreographed violence in this film. This is another one where my favourite happens before the games begin. By a teacher. With a throwing knife. I won’t say any more.
Example Line: “Here’s your list of friends in the order they died”
Verdict: Bleak. Bleaker than watching the BBC adaptation of Bleak House in the arctic tundra with only Christine Bleakley for company. There are some funny moments, and they mainly stem from either the cartoon violence, or the deadpan behaviour of Kitano as the class’ former teacher. This is the only film of this collection where we aren’t really shown how the media covers this event. For all intents and purposes this is a closed contest, with only the result mentioned in the media. And thinking about it, that makes it even more senseless. We don’t even have the horrible logic of the contest being essential to keep the masses distracted from rising up against a totalitarian government.
In fact, it is played so straight and almost in the present that it is too difficult to watch at times. The idea that children should be forced into state-sponsored murder to teach them some respect is a vile proposition. But is it that big a leap from suggesting that all children should do enforced National Service upon leaving school?
While the film is a fascinating commentary on a society frightened stiff by its teenagers and determined to have its revenge, once the action gets going it falls a little flat. There are simply too many characters to form any kind of emotional bond, and the kills come so thick and fast that there is little time to ruminate on what is actually happening on this island.
Type: Senseless Murder Contest
Plot: Filmed in the exact style of a US cable show – the Contenders randomly selects US citizens and forces them to fight for their lives in suburban America. Dawn is heavily pregnant and has won 2 series in a row – if she can win this series she will earn her freedom.
Stars: Brooke Smith, some other people, and Arrested Development’s WILL ARNETT (for about 2 minutes)
Best Kill: The shopping centre massacre was shocking and well-shot
Example Line: “He is in intensive care following a self-inflicted knife wound to the back”
Verdict: I remember really liking this as a hipster student. Ok, I wasn’t a hipster, but I hung out near hipster types. But as an older and, possibly, wiser man I struggled to find anything of any substance beneath the surface of this film.
The opening 10 minutes are brilliant. It feels like a Chris Morris sketch and the attention to detail in presenting this film as a reality Survivor-style show is impeccable. After that though, the joke starts to wear a little thin. It’s not funny enough to carry the film as a comedy, and the drama feels like a student film at times.
There’s no context for the existence of this show. The film-maker is essentially saying “imagine if reality TV just went to the next level and had people killing each other!”. But you find yourself questioning how and why the government has allowed this to happen. This is a pretty funny joke, but it’s not grounded in any kind of reality or even any internal logic. It fails at drawing you into its world and making care what happens to its characters.
And the winner is…
Firstly, I am going to need to take a shower after this. And maybe only watch Pixar animations for a week. This was a horrible, bleak experience. But at the same time, it was fascinating to see the differences in the worlds portrayed in these films. It was also nice to see that an idle idea at the start has turned into a piece of work that has started to recognise that these films are a genre of themselves. There are generic conventions, and rules that must be adhered to if the film is to resonate with the audience.
So, five films walked in and only one film can leave. And that film is…The Hunger Games.
Cutting for a 12a certificate and aiming at a teen demographic has put a lot of people off the idea of this film. But Hunger Games proves that you don’t need to use explicit violence to convey the horror, dread, and senselessness of violence. The Hunger Games was intelligent, and featured a strong female character in an action film which is still sadly a rarity these days. It’s not perfect, but it’s done enough to walk out of this arena battle-scarred and victorious.