With the upcoming release of The Hunger Games (catch the trailer here), a generation of megaplex-going teens raised on misfit wizards and misunderstood vampires will get an overdue introduction to one of the more interesting sub-genres of dystopian science-fiction: ultra-violent entertainment as opiate of the masses.
In the wildly successful tween books by Suzanne Collins, an evil (of course) central government recruits teens (who else) from outlying districts to fight to the death on a “reality” TV show. The object: To mollify most folks while reminding others that the central government is powerful enough to do stuff like make your kids fight to the death on TV. Dystopia, as we said.
Hollywood (along with tween lit) seldom does anything particularly original, and The Hunger Games is no worse than a million other bits of popular fiction in borrowing from past works. Most geeks will have seen some, or perhaps all, of the films on this list — some certainly are considered canonical entries in the great ’70s dystopian sci-fi wave. Think of this list as a kinda creepy holiday shopping list for nieces and nephews who you are trying to help start off right in their fledgling geekdom. And of course, lists are always fun to fight over.
And so, the five greatest Ultra-violent Entertainment As Opiate of the People movies are:
5: Logan’s Run (1976): The true opiates in this semi-classic are never having to work and a futuristic version of Match.com that teleports random booty calls right to your door. However, the Carousel - a ritual / game in which the clueless populace is slaughtered under the guise of offering possible “renewal” - makes the list for two reasons. One, it offers a false sense of hope to people in a hopeless situation. Two, it’s the only game show in history that requires less participant skill than “Deal or No Deal.”
4. The Running Man (1987): This neon-laced set piece extravaganza is either the high point or low point of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign atop “action sci-fi,” depending on your perspective. The government keeps a ravaged population distracted by televising the struggle of condemned prisoners to defeat over-the-top gladiators en route to their freedom. So, of course, they pick a guy who looks like Schwarzenegger as their patsy. It’s so dumb it’s fun, and Richard Dawson just tears through the scenery in his turn as the maniacal game show host.
3. Battle Royale (2000): Collins caught flak from some critics for knocking off this Japanese film in The Hunger Games series, but again, there’s nothing really new under the sun. An entire class of punk teens are served up (by their teacher, no less) to participate in a TV show where, yes, they are forced to kill each other in order to survive. Well, not entirely forced - some of the kids gravitate to the raw violence, while others use the game as the ultimate outlet for every teen pathology imaginable. As much an indictment of human nature as oppressive government, you have to work pretty hard to get the Japanese perspective to truly appreciate this film. It is ultra-violent (the safeguard device is a collar that blows off the heads of recalcitrant players), and frankly the ending is pretty hackneyed. But the performances are all remarkable, and this movie finally answers the question of how far teen boys will go for sex.
2. Death Race 2000 (1975): The high point of the Roger Corman’s ‘70s low-budget machine (apologies, Riff Randell), Death Race follows the exploits of weirdo celebrity drivers as they race cross-country, running over hapless bystanders for bonus points. And of course, people can’t get enough of the violence and the star-watching and jingoism it comes wrapped in. As directed by Paul Bartel, the movie is inherently an absurdist comedy with plenty of political commentary layered close to the surface. The sped-up-film car chases only add to the overall effect. And how can you not love a movie in which the United Provinces of America wages a disinformation campaign against the French Air Force?
1. Rollerball (1975): This Norman Jewison film accomplishes the rare feat of both condemning and celebrating sports, the current real-world opiate for a whole lot of the masses. Corporations have seized control, and to keep folks in tow, they’ve invented a sport that’s so violent and pointless that nobody should ever be able to get good at it; the entire point of the game is “to demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” But somebody (James Caan, no less), does get good at it, and what follows is a struggle of individualism against dehumanizing complacency. Scenes of homicidal fans slamming into barricades and wanton tree poaching make this movie about as ‘70s as you can get.