Feature: LET THE GAMES BEGIN! A Guide to Reality TV in Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Risker

In 1983’s The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese contemplated celebrity in America, the pursuit of fame and the adulation of media personalities. In the modern age, the adulation of celebrity is intertwined with “Reality television.” Pre- and post- The King of Comedy, the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres have featured reality television, and the concept of violent games in a series of films that began in the realm of dystopian sci-fi, and eventually merged with the horror genre; before the first instalment of The Hunger Games brought us full circle.

The television and cinema screen have become the new arena or Coliseum for modern society’s blood sports. No crowd better exemplifies this than the vocal FrightFesters, who gather each year to explore “The dark heart of cinema”, laughing and applauding a multitude of acts of violence committed by villains and heroes alike.

The discussion of reality TV and games of violence inevitably are a reflection of the dark heart of our own society. Meanwhile, Rollerball’s Jonathan E, Death Race 2000’s Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe, The Running Man’s Ben Richards, and the combatants of the Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders and those of the 74th Hunger Games are our modern gladiators.

So without further ado, “Let the Games Begin!”

From Rollerball to the Hunger Games


Rollerball and Death Race 2000, both released in 1975, and The Running Man, released over a decade later in 1986, are films set in a future dystopian America. Whilst Death Race 2000’s future is now in our rear view mirror, The Running Man’s 2017 setting and Rollerball’s 2018 are just a year apart; less than four years into our future. These depictions of a future America, from Rollerball’s corporate global control, to The Running Man’s totalitarian police state, offer a cynical view of how society will evolve, in which the games of Rollerball, the Transcontinental Road Race, and The Running Man Game Show are used to placate the population through violent entertainment.

Whilst comparisons were drawn to Battle Royale in the build up to the theatrical release of The Hunger Games, it’s also worth comparing to Rollerball and Death Race 2000. It’s set in the future - the exact year unconfirmed – and follows Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen and her fellow participants as they’re coerced into competing, just like Schwarzenegger’s Running Man.

Despite this coercion, The Hunger Games’ closest connection is with Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, and whilst comparing The Hunger Games and Battle Royale may be pertinent in regards to the format of the games, and the victimisation of the youth, the larger than life characters of Jonathan E and Katniss Everdeen, both of whom were never intended to defiantly rise above the game and assert the value of the individual, have similar story arcs.

The Running Man

Despite the fact that this early group of films looked to the future, this trend was halted at the beginning of the new millennium when Battle Royale (2000) and Series 7: The Contenders (2001) chose to retain focus on the present day. Battle Royale would, however, create an alternative timeline to lead into its present day, whilst Series 7: The Contenders used the ascending form of reality TV to offer an exaggerated view of contemporary society, both the media and the audience alike as producers and consumers.

In the same vein as Series 7: The Contenders, there were another set of films interested in exploring the reality TV aesthetic. In 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, Michael Myers found himself the star of a reality show, in which six young horror protagonists agree to spend the night in the old Myers house to uncover the real Michael Myers.

Despite the Rollerball remake in 2002 and the Battle Royale sequel in 2003, from 2002 through 2008, cinema’s takes on reality TV shifted from sci-fi and fantasy to horror, more specifically the ‘Slasher’ sub-genre, through Halloween: Resurrection, My Little Eye, Cruel World and Killer Movie. The aesthetic of these films, in hindsight, could be viewed as offshoots of both the found footage subgenre, and point of view horror. British horror My Little Eye (2002) remains the one point of view horror, and whilst British thriller Exam (2009) featured a manipulative game-like structure which Mark Kermode dubbed “The Apprentice goes to hell”, the premise being “one room, one job, eight candidates and eighty minutes on the clock”, it would not be until 2012 that The Hunger Games would bring the concept of reality TV in sci-fi, fantasy and horror full circle. At this point it would return it from its spiralling descent into horror to the realms of fantasy and sci-fi, which had begun a decade earlier with the resurrection of the man in a William Shatner mask, walking to the beat of his own drum, or rather to one of horror cinema’s most chilling movie themes.

A Reflection of a Dark Heart

Battle Royale

Born out of the image and sound of Rollerball was the confrontation of the individual versus the collective. Jonathan E stands as a figurehead of the individual in the wake of his defiance, echoed by the repeated sound of his name being chanted, and the sound of Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifth and eighth symphonies on the film’s soundtrack.

Rollerball opens on the build-up to Houston versus Madrid, the adulation of the fans mixed with the ominous men in suits that, along with the use of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, infuses the opening with a sense of unease. The masterstroke, however, is perhaps the aforementioned incorporation of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

In 1936, I.M. Rezin, the director of The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, under pressure from Communist Party officials, persuaded Shostakovich to cancel the premiere of his fourth symphony. The struggles of Jonathan E, under pressure to retire from the Energy Corporation, in light of Shostakovich’s own struggles under a totalitarian regime, defines his music as an appropriate sound to characterise Jonathan E’s cinematic journey of defiance. Shostakovich himself worked in the shadow of fear for the majority of his life, yet somehow he miraculously preserved his artistic identity and integrity to become one of the twentieth century’s great composers, and he would proclaim this in his tenth symphony. It is a journey of defiance that he shares with what for most of us would be considered an unlikely character, a star of the fictional sport Rollerball, played in a dystopian world to undermine aspirations of the individual to transcend their standing.

Series 7: The Contenders

Throughout Rollerball, Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Battle Royale and Series 7: The Contenders, the forces of control, the corporations, the totalitarian police state, or government, are agents of oppression. Within these narratives, there is a distrust and demonisation of authority. Whilst Kinji Fukasaku, director of Battle Royale, cites his experiences of being forced to work alongside his classmates in a World War Two munitions factory as the reason for his interest in directing the film, the near past is perhaps just as pertinent as the distant past.

The fear of children by the alternative government in an alternative present could be viewed as a reflection of the Chinese policy of one child per couple, and therein the control of government in determining the fates of the population, and the depriving of citizens of their free choice or will. Battle Royale could equally be viewed as a darker reflection on the solution of overpopulation, and from this point one is quickly led to consider the xenophobia of “the other” that has marred our civilisation’s history. Further still, it could be perceived as a contemplation of the conflict between generations, and a pro-active reversal of the natural order, in which the older generations ensure that they subvert their replacement by the next generation through the Battle Royale tournament.

Similarly to these aforementioned links to as far back as the Second World War, The Hunger Games could be viewed as a reflection of the treaty of Versailles that followed World War One, and the harsh punishment dealt to Germany is perhaps mirrored in the harsh treatment of the surrounding nations of the Capitol. Whilst in our reality Versailles led to the events of the Second World War, a resurrection and change through one individual, Collins’ story looks to the future with greater optimism through her heroine Katniss Everdeen. Or maybe it is that Collins has unlocked the key and alongside The Hunger Games, Rollerball, The Running Man, Death Race 2000 are re-imaginings of the Greek myth of Theseus, and through the hardships confronted by the hero or heroine, change is either instigated or the potential for change is present.

The films which sit outside of the reality TV horror cycle prove to offer greater discourse. Meanwhile the reality-horror films, through a failing to create a suspenseful atmosphere, function as pedestrian ‘Slashers’ that exploit an alternative aesthetic, or as in Killer Movie incorporate documentary filmmaking into the narrative. Like the sports in the dystopian sci-fi, the reality genre becomes a stage for the “slice and dice” antics, an underwhelming exploitation of reality TV in horror.

In his review of Series 7: The Contenders, Roger Ebert observed, "It's not the idea that people will kill each other for entertainment that makes Series 7 jolting. What the movie correctly perceives is that somewhere along the line we've lost all sense of shame in our society.”

One cannot help but consider how on some level Ebert’s observation ties into some of the films discussed, and how the lack of shame in violence and death motivated by either greed, corrupt self-preservation, or moral apathy provides them, regardless of their entertainment value, with a certain edge.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is in cinemas from November 21st.

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