Monday, 9 April 2012

Niche Genres: Dystopian Death Games

In celebration of The Hunger Games' continuing box office success, it is time to look at another of cinema's niche genres: this time, Dystopian Death Games.

What is a Dystopian Death Game? a film set in a deteriorating society whereby random characters are enrolled as contestants in violent games with high stakes: you win or you die.

Not to be confused with... Sporting Movies, which share many of the same motifs (underdogs prevailing, training montages, Machiavellian sporting officials) but have a much lower body count. 

Trademarks of the Genre: a perverse and bleak alternative future; a corrupt government with bizarrely elaborate and expensive ways to keep society in check; an eclectic mix of character types thrown together against their will; ridiculous costumes; ridiculous rules; lots of weapons; underdogs beating the system and prevailing, thus bringing an end to their respective Death Game for good.

Examples: The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Death Race 2000, Rollerball, Gamer, Death Sport, Tron, Game of Death, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire (the Triwizard Tournament is mental).

Highlights of the Genre: cool and unusual concepts; the games provide an excellent excuse for highly original and gruesome death scenes; opportunity for great satire of competitive sport and reality TV if handled by the right screenwriter; random characters thrown together in a desperate situation always makes for interesting consequences.

Limitations of the Genre: film-makers often rush into the games and throw character development out of the window; the wardrobe department often feel the need to give their characters stupid costumes in an attempt to show that the film is set in an alternative time; the heroes usually beat the system and put an end to the game, which means ideas for sequels are forced and nonsensical.

Best Example: Battle Royale - directed by Kinji Fukasaku and based on the novel by Koushun Takami, this is the benchmark for Dystopian Death Games films. Gritty, violent and with a dark sense of humour, this is entirely believable, addictive viewing. Following the chilling opening classroom scene, the contestants are set loose across the island, which both provides a stunning backdrop for the violence and emphasises the isolation of its characters. The young and talented cast is superb, launching Shuya Nanahara's career, and Japanese veteran Takeshi Kitano (yes, from Takeshi's Castle) is ever-watchable as the villainous official overseeing the games. Crucially, the pace never slows and the audience's attention will never waver, as the film is told from multiple perspectives, allowing for a rich variety of characters and, of course, violent deaths. This is captivating film-making and in a different league to the usual Death Game film fodder.

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