It was by sheerest coincidence that I posted a review of Massacre At Central High the day a pro-trump mob stormed the Capitol. No manifesto, no wresting democracy from the hands of the corrupt. None of that. Just a gaggle of incompetent, chest-beating bullies and knuckle-dragging dude-bros too stupid to organize a garage sale let alone an actual insurrection.
A friend of mine observed that some of these neanderthals looked like extras from a bad ripoff of Mad Max. Ironically, this set my mind wandering through some other dystopian visions.
One of the more recent of these, obviously, is the much-loved but equally overhyped Hunger Games.
I harbor nothing personally against The Hunger Games (other than the whole Battle Royale issue which I won’t discuss here). It just got pre-ruined for me when people started treating it like some fresh, visionary take on dystopia.
Maybe, as has often been suggested, I’m just a contrarian. Maybe it’s some variant of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. When something gets overhyped and overpraised, I get suspicious. Sadly, my suspicions almost always hold up.
True Hunger Games features a twisted competition. So did Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (for me the gold standard). Sadly, nobody has handled “The Lottery” successfully on film since Larry Yust (which I still remember–thanks, Mr. Wayman, and high school English).
There is an impressive body of fiction, however, that has tackled this dystopian contest idea in one form or another then made it to the big screen. Here are three that made lasting impressions on me.
(1976, Michael Anderson, based on Logan’s Run, William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson)
One of the problems/dangers/horrors of dystopia is that all too often it starts as a utopia and devolves. Or worse, it’s packaged as utopia to begin with. Welcome to Logan’s Run. Society is locked away under a mass of geodesic domes and administered by a computer.
To control population (often a major dystopian problem), people are implanted with timers in the palms of their hands. Near your 30th birthday (21st in the book), it turns red and starts to blink. You now have a choice. Face the ritual called Carrousel for “renewal,” or run. The people who chase down the Runners are, appropriately, Sandmen who work for an outfit called Deep Sleep, also appropriate as that’s what one is ultimately sent to. Forever.
(1975, Norman Jewison, based on “Roller Ball Murder,” William Harrison)
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Jefferson said that. Ironically, what he probably didn’t say is, “A government big enough to give you everything you need is big enough to take everything away.” The point is, if you take both and substitute the word “corporation” for “government,” you end up with the world of Rollerball. Rollerball is what culture becomes when run by corporations. Uneasy yet?
There is no national anthem, but a Corporate Hymn. The game of Rollerball is in reality a sham, or supposed to be. Here’s how Bartholomew (John Houseman), one of the corporate heads, puts it: “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose.” Yikes.
Unfortunately James Caan excels at Rollerball and realizes that we chose comfort over freedom, that “Them privileges just buy us off.” Turns out that Rollerball becomes prophetic. As Bartholomew makes clear, “Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” Chilling.
Death Race 2000
(1975, Paul Bartel, based on “The Racer,” Ib Melchior)
I saved my very favorite of these three for last. First, cuz David Carradine. Second, Paul Bartel who directed the screamingly (I think) hilarious Eating Raoul. Death Race 2000 is screamingly funny in its own right. It’s demolition derby, Road Warrior, Cannonball Run, road rage chaos. The United States has fallen into totalitarian rule and has essentially reawakened the bread-and-circus idea of the Romans. Only with cars. The object is to drive cross country and rack up points by killing people (with a system of bonus points applied to various types of fatalities and victims).
Oh, and it’s a wildly popular, nationally televised event. Cynical? Twisted? Sick? Yes, yes, and yes. And funny as hell. And below it all, there’s even a plot. Frankenstein (David Carradine) plans to eliminate the president using a special “hand” grenade, literally a grenade mounted in his always gloved prosthetic hand. What’s not to love?
Honorable Mention 1: The Running Man
I’ve read that Stephen King was let’s say less than satisfied with this adaptation, and rightly so, but as a movie on its own, I kinda liked it. Not really as far gone a dystopia as others on this list, but come on, a lethal game show? How isn’t that another precursor to The Hunger Games?
Honorable Mention 2: Mad Max–Beyond Thunderdome
Disputes settled by one-on-one combat? I’d pay to see that. And after yesterday, well… “Now when two men get to fighting, it happens here, and it ends here! Two men enter! One man leaves!”