(My theory is that even though The Hunger Games has a 85% fresh rating at RottenTomatoes, each critic who reviewed the film gave it an just above-average rating, which means that everybody isn’t hogwild about it, they just all agree it didn’t suck too terribly.)
More famously in modern times, The Running Man was a cheesy but entertaining escapade adapted from a Stephen King novel in 1987, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, María Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, and Richard Dawson. It was full of hilariously bad one-liners, but also featured a critique of mob mentality and populist garbage.
The movie everybody is throwing around this past weekend that is similar to The Hunger Games is Battle Royale, the twisted 2000 Japanese import that has a totalitarian state surprising a high-school class tracked my metal collars on an evacuated island as part of a military research project meant to keep the population in terror, so they would be afraid to mount an insurgency. In spirit, its the closest to The Hunger Games, but it contains a much more savage view of human nature.
A movie with that same savage view and a more pointed, precognitive satire of reality TV is Series 7: The Contenders. Way back in 2006, it topped my list of the Top 10 Most Overlooked Movies and it has yet to claim its spot atop the reality-deathgame satires as of yet. (It might have something to do with the fact that in post-9/11 2001, the social climate in the U.S. was not ready to accept a violent parody hat made us all look like idiots.)
The 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders, written and directed by Daniel Minahan (who went on to direct every HBO show in the 200s ever and is currently doing Game of Thrones), is a rough-and-tumble, badass satire of the highest degree. It’s so good I’d put it up there with Starship Troopers. And let me tell you, that’s high praise indeed.
The main reason the movie is so effective is because when you watch Series 7: The Contenders, you feel implicated. This is the one thing that The Hunger Games never got across as well as it needed to. It’s one thing to show the obvious divide between the rich and the poor and criticize the all-powerful totalitarian government, but Series 7: The Contenders makes you feel like you are a part of the problem once you become involved in the “plot” of the TV show.
“Real People in Real Danger”
The setting isn’t some grand, elaborate wilderness either. It’s trailer parks, shopping malls, convenience stores, and everywhere else where you may be hanging out at any given moment only to have your day interrupted by gunfire. These are the places that six lottery-picked ordinary Americans will duel to the death for the amusement of a national TV audience, from the most unlikely contestants (an emergency-room nurse and a pregnant woman) to the least.
Brooke Smith is commanding in the lead role as a reigning champion who will stop at nothing to survive and win. You may recognize her as the girl stuck in Buffalo Bill’s pit in The Silence of the Lambs. Here she is no less determined, but way more dangerous.
The entire movie is presented as one marathon-long version of the TV show, complete with frank interview sessions and a parody of 00s reality shows that pre-dates most of the awful TV of the decade.
In less than 90 minutes, Series 7: The Contenders crams more interesting and fully developed characters than The Hunger Games could muster in two-and-a-half hours, plus it’s plot machinations have the power to surprise.
The movie plays with the idea of instant celebrity and one’s 15 minutes of fame to an absurd level, as one 18-year-old girl’s parents are so excited that she’s a contestant that they chauffeur her around on her way to kill other contestants. More absurdity: There’s also the inane narration (from Will Arnett, no less!) that frames everything, reminding you whenever a “real” moment seeps through that you are watching a consciously manipulated program.
Another key element that Series 7: The Contenders gets right is that it makes the overarching theme seem personal. One of the contenders is an artist with cancer who just happens to be the pregnant lady’s first boyfriend back in high school (Glenn Fitzgerald) . Melodramatic? Sure, but it also means that this story will go beyond surface-value social criticism and have to confront its bigger issues on a personal level. It makes Series 7: The Contenders a more effective emotional journey and sets up a climax that is way more risky and dramatic than the foregone conclusion of The Hunger Games.
Series 7: The Contenders was ahead of its time in 2001, and still retains its dark and twisted no-holds-barred version of satire today. Fans of South Park will appreciate the bold story choices and the dark comedy.
If there’s one thing Series 7: The Contenders anticipated more than anything else, it’s that our media and culture would become more and more in tune with the idea that he who scores the biggest upset must be declared the winner, whether their ideas are better or not. When a debate becomes about being the quickest guy in the room to put somebody else down, it ceases to be about anything tangible; anything that matters.
In Series 7: The Contenders, that is 100 percent the case. And look where its gotten us.