Stories of worker rebellions in science-fiction worlds are certainly nothing new and you can trace many themes of the 'Hunger Games' franchise back to Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece, 'Metropolis.' Set in a world where the rich live in literal pleasure palaces while the poor toil in the bowels of the city, it's a simple but stunningly made allegory for class struggle, managing to work robots and mad scientists into the mix. 'Metropolis' is ultimately a more optimistic film than 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,' but both movies strongly believe in a world where the working man can choose his or her own destiny.
For many movie buffs, the arrival of the 'Hunger Games' movies was met with scorn. After all, haven't we already seen this premise done better in 'Battle Royale'? Both films are ultimately about as different as you can get in terms of execution (pun intended), but there's no denying that Kinji Fukasaku's Japanese horror/sci-fi masterpiece packs a more visceral punch. Set in a near-future where the government regulates the younger population by forcing random classes of children to fight to the death, 'Battle Royale' has few political ideas than 'The Hunger Games' but it's less afraid to get its hands dirty, tackling high school politics and man's capacity for violence with an unblinking, nightmarish eye.
If 'Battle Royale' is the gruesome, shellshocked cousin to 'The Hunger Games,' than Roger Corman's 'Death Race 2000' is its genuinely insane cousin who's been locked in the loony bin. Although it inspired a straight-faced, Jason Statham-starring remake, the 1975 original combines harsh political and media satire with the ultra-violent delivery of a Saturday morning cartoon. Like the Hunger Games, the Death Race is a government-sponsored event that's designed to distract the populace from the realities at hand. However, there's a bigger body count here, since drivers in this cross-country race are given bonus points for running down pedestrians. This is a sick, black-hearted comedy, a sci-fi satire with the subtlety of a brick through a window, but it remains as shocking and weird today as it was 40 years ago.
'The Running Man' exists in a weird place amongst its science fiction brethren. It's goofy, but not as goofy as 'Death Race 2000.' It's violent, but not nearly as gruesome or hard-hitting as 'Battle Royale.' And since it's a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, it's about as dumb as 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is smart. However, the movie is a blast and its wacky universe is similar enough to Panem to be worthy of revisit (because you've surely already seen it before). The Austrian Oak stars as a convicted criminal who is given a chance at freedom by appearing in the government sponsored game show that gives the movie its title. All he has to do is navigate a perilous obstacle course and survive the series of assassins that are sent his way, all while an audience of millions watch from the safety of their own homes. The execution leaves something to be desired, but this goofy movie is a guilty pleasure of the highest order.
If you can't get enough of young people killing young people in dystopian settings, your next rental should be 'Logan's Run.' An undisputed gem of grim '70s sci-fi, this film tells the story of a utopian colony where the youthful population lives in total bliss ... until they're systematically murdered at the age of 30. Naturally, the character of Logan doesn't take this policy lying down and flees, embarking on a quest that combines thoughtful science-fiction with plenty of action derring-do (and sexy, hugely impractical futuristic outfits). Like 'The Hunger Games,' 'Logan's Run' is all about youth being wasted and corrupted by a broken system, making these two otherwise very different films peas in the same pod.
Here's a simple and sad truth: we live in a world where female protagonists are few and far between, and most major movies hopelessly fail the Bechdel test. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen is one of the rare exceptions. There hasn't been a female sci-fi hero this great since Sigourney Weaver faced down the Xenomorphs, which is why you should totally watch 'Aliens' again as a reminder that Katniss/Lawrence is in great company. James Cameron's sci-fi masterpiece isn't quite as good as the original 'Alien' (which is one of the best movies ever made), but it gives Weaver far much more to chew on. Weaver's Ellen Ripley was capable in the first film, but she's a total badass in the sequel, a tough but damaged woman with the raw nerve and vulnerability of Bruce Willis' John McClane. Of course, McClane didn't have to fight aliens. Ripley did. Who's the bigger badass?
One of the craziest things about 'The Hunger Games' franchise is how it delivers a harsh political and social message in the guise of major blockbusters ... and how so many people seem to miss that point altogether. That brings to mind 'V For Vendetta,' the 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novel the smuggled its politics into theaters by placing them in a big comic-book action movie. Like 'The Hunger Games,' 'V For Vendetta' also faced its fair share of sad ironies. 'The Hunger Games' is being used to sell Subway sandwiches and Lionsgate is spearheading a fashion line inspired by the Capitol. The character of V in 'V For Vendetta' has become the symbol of countless desktop revolutionaries, but everyone seems blissfully unaware that their symbol of protest is manufactured by the corporations they (and the film) oppose. Both are thoughtful films, but talk about the studios and fans missing the point!
What would it be like to actually live in the upper crust of a science-fiction dystopia? What would your life look like? What would media look like? The closest we've come to actually experiencing a day in the life of a Panem Capitol citizen on film has got to be Paul Verehoeven's 'Starship Troopers,' a vicious and hilarious satire that some people still think is a serious film. Although it takes place in a militaristic and fascist society, it never condemns its world. In fact, it celebrates it! The movie itself is frequently interrupted by fake channel surging segments, where the audience watches news reports and commercials from this insane world, and the results are as hilarious as they are unsettling. Is this what it would be like to watch the Hunger Games on TV? Seeing such horrible things presented as the happy status quo is uncomfortable, but it gives the film its unexpected and surprising power.
Forget about the lousy remake -- the original 1975 'Rollerball' is not only a good movie, it's literally the exact same movie as 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.' In a horrifying future, the people are distracted by an extremely violent sport that's meant to show the populace that there is no hope ... until one player becomes too popular, too big. Naturally, the powers that be don't take this new superstar as a passing fad and set out to destroy him/her through game that he/she has mastered. Yep, that's the plot of both films, so stop saying 'The Hunger Games' ripped off 'Battle Royale.' If anything, it pretty much copied and pasted 'Rollerball.'
If one were to compile the harshest science-fiction dictatorships, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Panem would certainly rank high. However, those guys have nothing on the baddies from George Lucas' 'THX 1138,' which still feels like the gold standard for portraying ruthless governments onscreen. For everything they do right, the 'Hunger Games' movies are still PG-13 and they deal with their subject matter in a fairly direct fashion. But if you want something a little denser and more complicated, something that will leave you asking questions, 'THX 1138' is the way to go. In fact, for many people, 'The Hunger Games' franchise is their grand introduction to the science-fiction genre. This should be their next stop.