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The Future is a Game You Just Can’t Win

Exploring gladiatorial combat in the post apocalyptic world setting.

It seems that no matter how bleak the post apocalyptic world might be, there’s always a need for entertainment. As true as it was during the Roman Empire, bread and circuses remain necessities to help keep any population in control. This is no more evident than in the overwhelming number of incredible films that entertain the idea of using some form of blood sport to keep the future masses at bay.

There’s just something universally appealing about the nature of gladiatorial combat. For whatever reason, audiences continue to share some level of primal connection with the sport and it’s a large reason why it continues to remain so prevalent throughout pop culture, whether that be in books, movies or every corner of video games. The fascination with Roman gladiatorial games continues to excite and fascinate audiences. It’s even gone so far as to become one of the more popular themes among the games written about on Gambling.com. On the site, they note that there’s a Gladiator game based on the Oscar-winning movie of the same name and sure enough, one of its key features is the colosseum (aka the realm of the deathmatch). And it’s that same, classic deathmatch that has become a staple throughout gaming.

Deathmatch Gaming and The Post Apocalyptic World

And the classic deathmatch has become a staple throughout gaming. Quake and Unreal Tournament redefined the modern deathmatch during the 1990s through their innovative use of arena battles and now the mode has become practically a requirement for modern multiplayer titles. There’s simply some kind of base-level connection that allows people to so easily connect with such brutal entertainment and it’s been that way for quite a while. Beyond interactive entertainment, there are a number of cult-classic movies featuring gladiatorial death matches and blood sport that have become hallmarks of the post-apocalyptic genre.

Gladiatorial Combat in a Movie Post Apocalyptic World

Death Race 2000, set in a post apocalyptic world

Check Out Death Race 2000 on Amazon, Photo Courtesy of New World Pictures

One of the first prominent uses of this plot device can be found in the 1975 film, Death Race 2000. The cult classic takes place in a dystopian America where the government and economy have collapsed. The most popular event is a cross-country race featuring tricked out automobiles of destruction driven by a colorful cast of characters that isn’t unlike a live-action version of Wacky Races. Death Race 2000 holds up today as an excellent low-budget, exploitation satire buoyed by excellent performances from the late David Carradine and a very young Sylvester Stallone. Death Race 2000 actually went on to spawn its own video game of the same name with Gamespot noting a controversial arcade machine released in 1976 that managed to cause some incredible moral outcry over its violence despite its block pixel graphics.

The sports apocalypse theme of 1975 continued with Rollerball. It focused on the use of entertainment as a tool of social control, with the sport specifically designed to dismiss the idea of individuality in society. Here, not unlike in Death Race 2000, the odds are stacked against the hero but the evil corporate overlords are unable to overcome the indomitable spirit of James Caan (in one of his finest roles). There was an ill-fated attempt to remake the film by John McTiernan (of Die Hard fame) but it was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish that was lambasted by critics and fans alike.

While the ’70s might have gotten post-apocalyptic bloodsport off to a great start, the 1980s took the (roller)ball and ran with it. This is no more clearly seen than in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, The Running Man. In The Running Man, the titular sport is a popular game show that not only serves as entertainment but also as a method of prison control.

Image from the Running Man movie, set in a post apocalyptic world

Check Out The Running Man on Amazon, Photo Courtesy of Tri-Star Pictures

Convicted criminals are forced to evade death at the hands of government-employed “stalkers” for the opportunity at a pardon. Of course, as with most of these futuristic sports, the odds are stacked against the competitors and even the “winners” don’t make it out alive.

The Running Man is peak Schwarzenegger, coming three years after the actor became a bonafide star with The Terminator. The film would also be a high-mark of sci-fi satire, setting the stage for Schwarzenegger in 1990’s Total Recall. The movie also went on to directly inspire the 1990 classic hit video game, Smash T.V.

There’s no question that The Hunger Games was a runaway success with the not so subtle recreation of many of the themes of televised young adult death matches as laid out in Koushun Takami’s 1999 dystopian novel, Battle Royale. Originality notwithstanding, the films were wildly successful, enough that Hollywood sought to make lightning strike twice by jumping on every dystopian novel aimed at teens available. The next big franchise was the Divergent series but it sadly failed to achieve even a modicum of the same success as The Hunger Games. In fact, the series faltered so much at the box office that the anticipated fourth film will be released straight to TV and will skip theaters entirely.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the bigger examples of post apocalyptic world bloodsport on the big screen. And thanks to their success, Hollywood continues to gamble on the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. The theme of dystopian sports still connects with audiences well enough that it likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Steven Spielberg will be the next director exploring a combination of both post-apocalyptic sports and video games with Ready Player One set for a 2018 release. The movie has already started filming in London. With the box office clout of Spielberg behind the project, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the film start the trend all over again.

The bloodsport of the future isn’t going anywhere anytime soon in regard to speculative fiction and in many ways we’re already seeing it in our lives today. Boxing has become a relatively quaint pastime when compared to the sheer brutality of mixed martial arts and the overwhelming popularity of MMA as entertainment, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see it evolve to become even more violent in the future. While it might be entertaining to see now remember to be careful; in the future, it could be you that’s forced to fight for your life.

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