10 cinematic future sports: would they be ratings hits?

As The Hunger Games arrives in the UK, we look back at a few other future sports movies, and try to decide which, if any, would be a hit with TV audiences…

If sci-fi tells us nothing else about the future, it’s this: decades hence, football will have fallen out of fashion. Tennis will seem passé. Baseball? Horrendously archaic. Instead, the sports of the future will be violent tools of oppression, used by totalitarian governments to keep people off the streets and glued to their televisions.

This is the premise for numerous movies, books and videogames – including Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of novels, in which teen gladiators (or ‘tributes’) are chosen at random and forced to fight to the death on television. The first book, of course, is now a well-received movie, and is the latest entry in a future sports subgenre that appears to have its seeds in the explosion of sci-fi literature that emerged in the late 50s and early 60s.

Author Robert Sheckley wrote two short stories that both appear to have provided the unwitting template for everything from Rollerball and The Running Man to The Hunger Games – and even appear to have presaged the rise of reality TV. The first was Seventh Victim, written in 1953, but the second, and perhaps the best, was The Prize Of Peril, written in 1958.

In an unspecified time in the future, violent reality TV shows, in which ordinary citizens face death in a range of encounters, have replaced sport as a form of mass entertainment. Across a range of these shows, protagonist Jim Raeder has become a celebrity, having survived everything from shark fights to a deadly car race, he’s now the most famous TV star in the world (“Television shows looked like a sure road to riches for a pleasant young fellow with no particular talent or training,” Sheckley writes).

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Raeder meets his biggest challenge in The Prize Of Peril, where he’s mercilessly hunted down by assassins on live TV. Viewers can help Raeder by calling in with advice and donating weapons – or if they choose, they can assist his hunters instead.

The story was later adapted as a German TV movie called Das Millionenspiel in 1970. Shot in the style of a reality TV show, it was so convincing that, according to IMDb, viewers later contacted the television station to see if they could enrol as contestants or their hunters. A further adaptation came from France in 1983 (more on this later), by which time the whole concept of future sports had kicked off in earnest.

With this in mind, here’s our look at a few notable future sports movies. Would they be as popular with real-world viewers as they are in the future societies they depict…?

The 10th Victim (1965)

Humans have hunted humans in the movies ever since The Most Dangerous Game appeared in 1932, a film which has itself been remade many times since. The 10th Victim, adapted from the Sheckley story mentioned earlier, has one major difference: its manhunts are televised, and contestants can be sponsored by corporations.

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Far from the free-for-all slaughter of other future hunting games, The 10th Victim’s sport is quite fair. The game’s broken up into ten rounds, with contestants taking turns as both the hunter and the hunted.

An Italian/French co-production, The 10th Victim is about as 60s a movie as you’re ever likely to see; Ursula Andress cavorts in minimal clothing, and Marcello Mastroianni looks cool in his blonde do and wrap-around shades. Shot as a kitsch comedy rather than hard-edged sci-fi flick, it’s a true 60s oddity.

Would it be a ratings hit?

Compared to many of the other future sports on this list, probably not. The music alone would probably have viewers switching off in short order.

Rollerball (1975)

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One of the earliest future sports movies, and still one of the most ambitious. Adapted from William Harrison’s short story, Roller Ball Murder, Rollerball’s set in a scarily clean future governed by huge corporations. Any burning resentment felt by its citizens is given a cathartic release in Rollerball, which is basically a roller derby with more body armour, a steel ball, and a man riding around on a motorbike.

The sport’s star player is Jonathan E (James Caan) whose status irks the stuffy corporation bosses, who see Rollerball as a metaphor for the state as a whole: the individual is powerless against the might of a stronger group. Jonathan E’s stardom and maverick sportsmanship flies in the face of that, so the powers that be gradually change the rules, until Rollerball’s less of a contact sport and more of a gladiatorial fight to the death on skates.

Director Norman Jewisons’s use of baroque music and Harrison’s lengthy scenes of melodrama may distance Rollerball from the action movie crowd, but the sports sequences are quite remarkable – fast, well-edited, and sometimes painful to watch.

Would it be a ratings hit?

Undoubtedly. And with the sort of tiny digital cameras of the 21st century, you could get some great shots from the pillion of the motorcycles. But remember, no player is greater than the game itself…

Death Race 2000 (1975/2008)

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Arriving in cinemas in the same year as Rollerball, Death Race 2000 was a future sports movie from the other side of the filmmaking fence – produced by Roger Corman, it was made for a fraction of the cost of Norman Jewison’s film. In terms of premise, though, it’s very similar – once again, a violent future sport is an opiate for the masses, only this time the sport involves driving around at top speed and running over pedestrians.

Like many Corman movies of the period, it’s over-the-top, and full of cheesy gore effects, but the cast’s great – David Carradine plays Death Race champ Frankenstein, while a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone plays one of his rivals, Joe ‘Machine Gun’ Viterbo. It’s a more accessible and more satirical film than Rollerball, though that may be why it became such a cult hit – it’s far easier to enjoy as a pure action movie, and much of it is quite funny.

The 2008 remake, while still just as daft as the original, contained plenty of explosions and machine gun fire, and Jason Statham on top, scowling form.

Would it be a ratings hit?

Possibly – it’s basically an evil Wacky Races. At any rate, the fact that anyone foolish enough to step out onto the streets could end up being run over might encourage them to remain in the safety of their home and watch Death Race on television. And let’s face it, Death Race would make a great Sunday afternoon replacement for Formula One…

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The Prize Of Peril (1983)

The 10th Victim, Rollerball and Death Race 2000 may have made it to the cinema first, but Robert Sheckley’s short story The Prize Of Peril finally got the wider attention it deserved courtesy of this 1983 French film. Just like the short story, Le Prix Du Danger saw its protagonist (Gérard Lanvin) hunted by a group of killers in front of a bloodthirsty audience.

Not a huge hit on its release, Le Prix Du Danger doesn’t appear to be available on DVD, and to the best of our recollection, hasn’t been on UK television in years. This is a pity since, although it’s not a great film, it’s an interesting entry in the future sports subgenre, and worth watching just to see how much of it predated the next movie on this list…

Would it be a ratings hit?

Worryingly, it probably would. The concept of having audiences ring in to assist (or hinder) the quarry isn’t entirely unlike the phone voting system in reality shows like The X Factor. So if they were given the opportunity, would viewers tune in to see a live manhunt in which they held sway over the contestants’ fate? Millions of people were sadistic enough to phone in and keep Russell Grant on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, so the answer’s probably yes.

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The Running Man (1987)

Ah, The Running Man. The movie that took the concepts outlined in the stories and movies listed above (not to mention Stephen King’s source novel of the same name) and turned it into a splashy vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arn-huld plays Ben Richards, a military pilot falsely convicted for opening fire on innocent civilians, and forced to fight in a televised gladiatorial combat game.

Apparently anticipating the TV show Gladiator, which came along a few years afterwards, The Running Man’s ‘stalkers’ are all charismatic stars, each with their own stage name and signature weapon – among them, there’s Buzzsaw, who specialises in riding around on an armoured motorbike and dismembering contestants (or ‘runners’) with a chainsaw, Subzero, a murderous hockey player, and Fireball, who toasts people with a flamethrower.

Excising much of the novel’s expansive plot and bleak conclusion, The Running Man instead allows Arnie to defeat the stalkers in combat and utter a series of pithy one-liners. It’s a fun, rather silly and very 80s movie, made all the more entertaining by its eclectic cast – Jesse Ventura’s in here as a chap called Captain Freedom (he’d appear alongside Arnie the same year in Predator) and rock musicians Dweezil Zappa and Mick Fleetwood are in there too.

Would it be a ratings hit?

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Its catchy tagline (“It’s hard time… or primetime!”) and charismatic stalkers would probably render it a success, but its limited audience interaction (viewers can only take bets on who they think will win) would probably mean that the lesser-known Prize Of Peril would beat it in the ratings stakes. Unless they could drag Arnold Schwarzenegger in to take over from Jack Killian as presenter, of course…

Arena (1989)

If you were to stage a televised boxing match in the Mos Eisley Cantina out of Star Wars, it would probably look a lot like Arena. A 1989 Italian/American co-production directed by one Peter Manoogian, it’s a futuristic brawling movie full of big rubber aliens. Paul Sattersfield stars as the only human contestant in Arena, and fights a number of wobbly creatures to bag the championship title.

Unfortunately, there’s what feels like an eternity’s worth of drama, overlong gambling sequences and threats from bad guys before the film gets to the fighting– though they’re admittedly fun once you finally get there.

Would it be a ratings hit?

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Until we finally make first contact with an alien race, we’ll struggle to find the contestants. If we did, it’d be rather surprising if a superior extra-terrestrial species were to travel billions of light years only to challenge us to a boxing match.

While we wait for that fateful event to occur, there’s an alternative solution: get a bunch of out-of-work actors together, fit them up in some ungainly rubber alien suits, and let them flail about at one another for our viewing pleasure. We guarantee it’ll be a ratings smash.

Robot Jox (1990)

Stuart Gordon, the genius behind Re-Animator and Fortress, turned his hand to the future sports genre with the mighty Robot Jox in 1990. In a future ravaged by nuclear war, territorial conflicts are decided in the coolest way possible: one-on-one fights between giant robots. Unfortunately, the film’s low budget means that these potentially epic brawls never look much more convincing than an episode of Terrahawks, but there’s still a goofy charm to its rather jittery plastic robots and Godzilla-style miniature sets.

Respected sci-fi writer Joe Haldeman, who was hired to co-write the story, was rather less impressed with the results, and dismissed the film as “Saturday morning cartoon stuff.” Sadly, the broad family audience Gordon sought in his PG-rated robot gladiator extravaganza never showed up, though unofficial sequels did – Crash And Burn and Robot Wars both featured giant robots, but had nothing to do with Gordon’s movie.

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Would it be a ratings hit?

How could gigantic robots hitting each other not be popular? The expense of actually building the giant robots would be a bit of a problem, but the show’s producers could always do what the BBC did with Robot Wars, and get the contestants to build the mecha themselves. Then all we’d need is Craig Charles to step in as the presenter…

Battle Royale (2000)

It’s interesting to note that most of the better future sports movies started off as either short stories or novels, and Battle Royale is another, adapted from Koushun Takami’s book of the same name. Again, it’s sci-fi dystopia, in which school children are forced to fight each other to the death on a remote island. To coax them into conflict, each child is fitted with an electronic collar which explodes if the rules of the game aren’t followed, if they try to escape, or if they wander into randomly-generated ‘death zones’ dotted around the island – similar exploding neck devices appeared in The Running Man and Rutger Hauer TV movie, Wedlock.

As a future sports movie, Battle Royale only loosely fits into the genre; unlike, say, The Running Man, it’s seldom obvious whether what’s happening on the island is being watched by an audience. It goes without saying, though, that Battle Royale’s the best film on this list; a disturbing, horrifying and unforgettable piece of filmmaking, and surely among the finest sci-fi movies ever.

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The truthful way director Kinji Fukasaku depicts his characters, as each reacts differently to their awful situation, is what makes Battle Royale more than merely a mindlessly violent twist on Lord Of The Flies. It’s a savage meditation on human nature, a satire about government control and the competitive nature of Japanese schools, and an involving teen drama. Hollywood’s been threatening to produce an English-language version for years, but it’s hard to imagine a remake capturing the original’s ferocious energy.

Would it be a ratings hit?

For most well-adjusted readers, the thought of watching a group of high school kids fight one another to the death should sound like an awful premise for a future sport. Then again, surely it depends what collection of high school kids we’re talking about. If we could send the cast of Glee to Battle Royale island, that might get quite a few people tuning in…

Real Steel (2011)

Punch-drunk boxers are replaced by shiny humanoid mecha in last year’s Rocky-with-robots flick, Real Steel. Just as fathers and sons once bonded over the construction of soapbox racers, so useless dad Charlie (Hugh Jackman) reacquaints himself with his cocky young lad Max (Dakota Goyo) over a broken-down, sad-eyed robot, Atom.  

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In dire financial straits, the pair enter Atom into a series of increasingly flashy robot boxing matches, gradually climbing the ranks until they can fight undefeated champion, Zeus. One of the cosier films on this list, there are none of the dystopian musings of Rollerball or Battle Royale in Real Steel – instead, there’s the rather bizarre sight of Hugh Jackman shadow boxing with a CG robot.Would it be a ratings hit?

As a junior league version of Robot Jox, maybe it would. With the robots in Real Steel much smaller than those in Stuart Gordon’s movie, there’s less of a chance of the studio audience getting crushed (though they may have to avoid the occasional flying rivet), and they’d be cheaper to make, too.

What we’d really like to see, though, is a kind of Celebrity Deathmatch with robots. Could C3PO defeat a Cylon in the ring? Could Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot punch the head off Metal Mickey? These are the questions we need answers to.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel arrives on the big screen, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s really good. Much has been made of its premise’s similarity to Battle Royale, but as this list proves, the idea of state-sponsored gladiatorial combat goes back way beyond that 2000 classic and into the mists of time. Besides, Katniss Everdeen is a great literary heroine, and Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast.

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It’s also fair to say that The Hunger Games movie, freed from the novel’s first-person perspective, makes more of its reality TV backstory, and spends more time exploring what fame and the sensation of being constantly watched does to Katniss and her fellow combatants. The Hunger Games is also the most flamboyant sci-fi dystopia yet conceived, with the more decadent members of its future society indulging in all manner of corsetry, powdered wigs and gold eyeliner – this is Orwell via Vivienne Westwood.Would it be a ratings hit?

The same moral concerns about Battle Royale’s warring kids apply here. Putting those aside, The Hunger Games would make for incredibly cheap TV – essentially, all you’re doing is giving the contestants of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here a selection of weapons and leaving them to it.

After all, if the TV watching public will sit and watch Freddie Starr chew a kangaroo testicle for their entertainment, they’ll probably watch anything.

Honourable mentions: Solarbabies (1986), Salute Of The Jugger (1989), Futuresport (1998), Series 7: The Contenders (2001), Pokémon (various).

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