One of my favourite strands of science fiction is the speculative sports sub-genre. With its roots firmly in the gladiatorial arena of the Roman Empire, it’s a theme that continues to surface again and again; the public’s voyeuristic thirst for bloodsports is seemingly a permanent feature of the human condition and one which has worried authors for centuries. In the world of sci-fi, such sports are imagined as allegories for various societal problems. As long as these ideas are of interest to us, they will continue to have a strong cinematic presence.
Cinematically, the foundations of sporting paranoia were laid by 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game, based on a short story by Richard Connell. This classic sees a hunter literally become the hunted, when he’s preyed upon by a Dracula-esque aristocrat who has become bored of hunting animals so has moved on to people. It impressively highlights the hypocrisy of hunting while laying out the groundwork for a tradition of big-screen bloodsports.
80 years later came The Hunger Games, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel which sits firmly in the dystopian tradition which came to characterise this brand of sci-fi. Under the commands of a totalitarian government, teens must fight to the death as punishment for some past rebellion. Crucially, the Hunger Games are televised – this has become an important feature of such fiction, satirising our increasingly cruel reality television while raising issues about the violence transmitted daily into our living rooms; images of conflict from Vietnam to Iraq haunt the sub-genre and its authors. Most obviously though, the Hunger Games are about entertaining the powerful while subordinating the weak, which typifies this kind of sci-fi.
Between The Most Dangerous Game and The Hunger Games were plenty of other deadly games, the best probably being Rollerball. An anything-goes variant of roller derby, Rollerball crashed onto screens in 1975 during the golden era of dystopian sci-fi. Set in 2018, the world is run by mysterious corporations – sort of like now, but with the lethal sport in place to amuse the decadent upper-classes and to purge the undesirable lower-classes. So Rollerball targets television and inequality just like The Hunger Games, with interesting overtones about the individual’s triumph over institutions. What makes Rollerball particularly good is the thrilling nature of the sport itself, making the film as much a sports movie as it is a piece of sci-fi.
At the camper end of the spectrum, we see Arnold Schwarzenegger donning the lycra in The Running Man and David Carradine donning the leather in Death Race 2000. Arnie’s is an unfortunately tacky take on the idea from 1987, as convicted criminals compete for their freedom on a deadly game show. Once again, the focus is on the way in which television feeds our thirst for blood. Death Race 2000 is just as gaudy but much more enjoyable, resembling an X-rated Mario Kart. Made in 1975 to capitalise on Rollerball‘s publicity, the film is set unsurprisingly in the year 2000 and America is under the control of a dictator known as Mr. President. He puts on an annual road race in which points are rewarded for killing innocent pedestrians, not to entertain the powerful but to placate the masses. It sounds more fun than the actual year 2000, which gave us Big Brother. With its over-the-top violence and sporting satire, Death Race 2000 is a bizarrely entertaining exploitation flick.
In the horror genre, The Most Dangerous Game’s legacy was taken up by 2005’s Hostel; the wealthy are now so bored and desensitised that they have apparently turned to paying for the privilege of torturing innocent people. That this organisation is called the Elite Hunting Club is no cinematic coincidence. Far more interesting than Hostel is the 2002 British horror movie My Little Eye, about a Big Brother-style competition in which 5 people stay in a house for 6 months to win $1 million – the one condition: “If someone leaves, everyone loses.” The whole thing is webcast and all is not as it seems. Tapping astutely into the zeitgeist, My Little Eye is a clever low-budget horror film. Then of course there’s Battle Royale, Japan’s precursor to The Hunger Games from 2000 whereby a class of school kids are sent to a remote island to – you guessed it – fight to the death. Both more brutal and comedic than The Hunger Games, this is familiar genre musing on the demonisation of youth and a cautionary tale about the dangers of an overly-powerful state. Interestingly, the Battle Royale isn’t televised (someone will probably correct me on that) but nonetheless brings those ideas unavoidably to the table.
From the more family-friendly fare, Tron stands out – the 1982 milestone in visual effects concerning a tyrannical super-computer who makes rogue programs compete in lethal techno-games. The most iconic and exciting of these is of course the Light Cycle arena, which surely rivals Rollerball as the greatest cinematic sci-fi game. With these gladiatorial themes, Tron is the sub-genre’s access point for younger people; certainly better than the Podrace from Star Wars or Quidditch from Harry Potter. But then competing in any of the bloodsports mentioned would be preferable to watching Quidditch.