The Sci-Fi Movies That Predicted the Modern Sports Apocalypse
The golden age of dystopic sci-fi movies somehow predicted every awful thing about modern sports. No, seriously.
The 1960s saw an explosion of social rebellion in the sports world. Athletes across the country began protesting Jim Crow and the Vietnam War, and supporting the Civil Rights Movement. For a brief time, it was difficult to watch sports without thinking about social issues, player safety, and the stacks of cash being thrown at the game. The next two decades were perhaps the biggest ever for science fiction movies, one of our culture's greatest outlets for social criticism despite its often cartoony aesthetic.
From 1975 through 1990, science fiction movie writers took sports to task. At their best, they revealed the dangerous absurdity of our sports addiction. At worst, they were hilarious excuses to blow up motorcycles. Many of these films were imagined a dystopic early 2000s—as we look back, just how much did they get right?
The 10th Victim
"The idea of killing someone for publicity has always entertained me..."
Released: 1965, in Italy, the seed that started it all.
Dystopic Event: In the "near future," the Department of the Big Hunt has been established in order to prevent individuals with violent tendencies from waging wars by directing their brutality away from the general public. Those who sign up for the Hunt are financially taken care of by the state. The best hunters are huge celebrities, as the Hunt has become one of society's prime modes of entertainment.
The Sport: Hunters who survive 10 hunts—five as predator, five as prey—win their retirement and a $1,000,000 prize. The "hunter" gets full information on the "victim," while the "victim" not only doesn't know who is hunting them, but also get 30 years in prison if they kill the wrong person.
The Conflict: Meredith, representing the United States, is going for her 10th and final kill on Italian victim Marcello Poletti (as portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, a man who played characters named 'Marcello' 13 different times over the course of his career). Things would be simple enough, except Meredith has entered into a contract with the Ming Tea Company to stage the killing as part of a commercial. Poletti attempts to return the favor with a scheme involving a gigantic crocodile for a soda company.
POLETTI: "The TV interview is an excuse to bring me here and kill me for publicity."
FRIEND: "A commercial."
POLETTI: "Yes, sort of."
FRIEND: "Americans are always ahead of us."
Character Who Belongs In The Future: While Poletti is at an outdoor bar, another hunter and victim run through, shooting at each other. A waiter yells and informs them it is no longer legal to shoot in bars. The hunter agrees to give the victim a one-minute head start, and then issues a hot take to end all hot takes to Poletti:
"What kind of a life is this? Can't shoot in hospitals or restaurants... or churches or barber shops... or in nursery schools! We can't shoot anywhere any more. They should stop the hunt altogether."
He could teach Skip Bayless a thing or two.
Crystal Ball Quotient: While the idea that a violent sport would really be enough to distract us from getting into wars seems silly—makes me wonder why the NFL even exists—The 10th Victim is an interesting commentary on humanity's willingness to tolerate violence disguised as sport and an absolutely brilliant satire of how advertising manages to wiggle it's way into every corner of society.
Death Race 2000
"I have also given you the most popular sporting event in the history of mankind, The Transcontinental Road Race, which upholds the American tradition of No Holds Barred!"
Released: 1975, as oil crises in the Middle East were threatening to ruin the world economy. These fears combined with the continuation of the Cold War made the 70s and 80s a ripe time for the dystopia.
Dystopic Event: "The World Crash of '79" has apparently ruined the global economy. America has turned extremely violent since the crash, and the yearly Death Race keeps the citizenry pacified. Racers like reigning champion Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone in his first major role!) have fans who go so far as to worship them.
The Sport: "Death Race" pretty much tells the whole story. Five racers in souped up and themed out cars (there's a bull, an alligator, a Nazi-themed car, and Stallone, with tommy guns and a gigantic blade glued to his grill). Fastest racer wins, but racers can also cut seconds off their time by "scoring" people across the country—that is, brutally murdering them with their cars. The lower the target's ability to protect themselves, the higher the scores—babies and the elderly rack up by far the most points.
"If they scatter, go for the baby and the mother!"
The Conflict: 2000 marks the 20th anniversary of the Death Race, and a group of rebellious Americans led by a descendent of Thomas Paine is planning to sabotage it.
LIEUTENANT FURY: "Mrs. Paine, we're ready to hit them with everything we've got!"
THOMASINA PAINE: "Then let Operation Anti-Race... begin!"
If anything defines Death Race 2000, it is an utter disdain for subtlety. The resistance's first act is to kill racer Ray "Nero the Hero" Lonnegan with a bomb disguised as a baby.
Character Who Belongs In the Future: "Your buddy-buddy and mine," the Transcontinental Road Race announcer Junior Bruce leads an announcing team that would make the crews at ESPN blush.
Greatest Cinematic Accomplishment: The saboteurs pull off a live-action Coyote vs. Road Runner bit when they get a racer to drive into a fake tunnel and off the side of a cliff.
20/20 Foresight: The government and the television stations attempt to keep the fact American rebels are sabotaging the race under wraps by blaming it on the French. Maybe this is more like 20/40 foresight—we'd pick a country with more brown people, if we're being honest—but France is a pretty good choice, all things considered.
RIVAL NAVIGATOR: "Did you hear it was the French?"
FRANKENSTEIN: "Watch out for the crepes suzettes."
Worst Prediction: The United Provinces of America's top (and only) political party is the "Bipartisan Party." Cute, but that's going to take more than 25 years and only one economic crisis.
Body Count: According to intrepid YouTuber JodoKastRules321: 35. High gore quotient to boot.
"You'll dream you're an executive. You'll have your hands on all the controls. You'll wear a grey suit and you'll make decisions. You know what those executives dream about out there, behind their desks? They dream they're great Rollerballers. They dream they're Jonathan. They have muscles. They bash in faces."
Released: 1975. Truly the glory year for this genre.
Dystopic Event: The Corporate Wars. By the movie's start in 2017, years after the conclusion of the wars, the world is run by a single corporation, with each city dedicated to a specific industry (Houston is an energy city, Chicago is a food city, and so on).
The Sport: The game most resembles roller derby, but it incorporates bits of all four major team sports. And also motorcycles, because fuck it (this will become a theme). A heavy chrome ball is shot out of a cannon at upwards of 120 MPH to open play. Each team has players with baseball mitts to come up and field it, although they have to wait until it comes out of the gutter or else it'll "take your arm clear off." Then the team with the ball tries to blow through the rest of the opposing team and its motorcycling enforcers to score a goal. There are penalties for unnecessary roughness and cheap shots, but the rules constantly change to keep people watching.
"Look, rules or no rules, it's still the same game!"
The Conflict: Jonathan E. (James Caan) is Rollerball's greatest champion. Fans chant his name everywhere his Houston team plays. After a routine win with just two games left in the season, the club's top executive Bartholomew (John Houseman) attempts to force Jonathan into retirement, and when he refuses, the game's executives attempt to manipulate the game to force him out.
"It's not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan. you appreciate that, Jonathan, don't you?"
Character Who Belongs in the Future: An employee of the Energy Corporation has caught on to the growing statistics movement in Rollerball and can't help but gush once he meets Jonathan. He might sound familiar.
"I'm a stat freak myself. Isn't that perverse?"
"Yes. The greatest number of points scored in a game: 18. The highest velocity of a ball when fielded, 120 MPH, most deaths... 9, Rome vs. Pittsburgh, Dec. last year. Greatest number of players and substitutes put out of action by a single player in a single game, 13, a world record, courtesy of your dear self. There have been studies, you know, of stat freaks in Rollerball. Some go to the track but they never take their eyes off the big board."
Worst Prediction: Nothing. This movie is pretty much a documentary. Expect everything depicted in this film to happen within the next two years.
Crystal Ball Quotient: Rollerball absolutely nails the corporate streak that runs through sports about 30 years before Wall Street executives began their exodus to the sports world to make it over in their own image. Rollerball acknowledges issues from drug use to player salaries to player agency to injuries that are still affecting sports today. If you can get past the lack of energy from Caan and the (intentionally) dry, corporate ambience, it's a legitimately good movie.
"In the year 3000, there are no Olympic Games, World Series or Super Bowls. There is only... Deathsport!"
Released: 1978. Three years after Death Race 2000 became one of producer Roger Corman's biggest film successes, he called up David Carradine and decided to see if there was any juice still left in that combination. While Corman made some good movies, his nickname is "The King of B-Movies" for a reason, and Deathsport is about as "B" as it gets.
Dystopic Event: The Neutron Wars. Now it's the year 3000, people live in domed city-states and a bunch of cannibals and vaguely magical people live in the outside world. In the domed cities, in order to keep prisons from overfilling, criminals are sentenced to Deathsport, where they can win their freedom.
"The winners go free, the losers die."
The Sport: Mostly, a bunch of dudes drive motorcycles around while David Carradine hacks off their heads with some half-futuristic, half-medieval, half-assed crystal sword. The Deathsport is mostly an excuse for one of the city-states to show off their badass new Death Machines—dirtbikes with laser beams attached to them. There are also random explosions. Are you not entertained?!
"We will ride to victory on death machines!"
The Conflict: Unfortunately(?), we only get one solid scene of Deathsport being played. Most of the story revolves around city-state leader Zopola (portrayed by Richard Lynch, who Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans may recognize from the classic Werewolf) chasing Carradine's character, who escaped in the middle of the Deathsport.
"The people saw him escape from the Deathsport, but I will show them no man escapes from my justice!"
20/20 Foresight: As awful as this movie was, a few of its tropes—the ability to win freedom through sports and the constantly exploding motorcycles—became standbys in dystopian science fiction.
Worst Prediction: That we'd still be obsessed with dirtbikes in the year 3000. Or that we ever were.
What The Hell Happened?: It was extremely obvious watching this movie that at least a few things didn't go as planned. The film's second director, Allan Arkush—who was hired after the original director couldn't pull the movie together—explained things for the movie website Trailers From Hell:
"Mostly we just blew up motorcycles. Lots of them. We also set some mutants on fire. And the stunning Claudia Jennings got naked. David Carradine... smoked a lot of high-grade weed and helped us to blow stuff up... Sad to say, I couldn't save the picture."
"He is a man ready to kill or be killed, a responsibility the average soldier carried in the days when differences were settled by wars."
Released: 1983, another Italian flick, this time going with the "let's blow up a shitload of motorcycles" theme.
Dystopic Event: New York City, and we assume the rest of the world, has been decimated by nuclear attacks. What's left of society occupies themselves by watching television and drinking "Lifeplus," a combination protein drink-sexual enhancer-energy booster.
The Sport: Essentially a copy of The 10th Victim's game but more brutal, for every Endgame there is one prey and multiple predators. The winner is either the prey if he survives, or the predator who scores the kill. After surviving seven hunts as the prey, the champions are allowed to retire as rich, famous celebrities. Endgame is broadcast on TV and again is meant as a method to pacify the citizenry.
"Right now there are 5 million people watching tv. Even another nuclear attack wouldn't distract them. No one will notice a thing. The press will be kept out. The government will have nothing to fear. I give you my word. Now gentlemen, we'll watch the game."
The Conflict: While participating in his second-to-last Endgame, Ron Shannon (Al Cliver) is assisted by a telepathic mutant who enlists his assistance in fleeing the city. In a blatant X-Men rip, mutants are an underclass who are hunted and imprisoned or killed by non-mutants. Shannon is enlisted to bring a group of mutants to safety outside the city.
20/20 Foresight: Champion Shannon is greeted after his Endgame victory by a television broadcaster. Talk about native advertising:
"Now after the strain and tension of this sensational victory, Endgame champion Shannon can't wait to drink a glass of Lifeplus, the high protein, easy to assimilate energy drink. Here, drink it up, friend. you deserve it."
Fuck it, let's just blow up some motorcycles, parte seconda: I found the Endgame show concept pretty entertaining—a good mix of Survivor-style reality show production and the violence of pro sports like football, hockey, wrestling, etc. Unfortunately, Endgame no longer matters past the 20-minute mark in the film, as director Joe D'Amato—famous for his work on "sexploitation" films like Emanuelle's Revenge and Sex and Zen—chooses to focus on Shannon's quest to lead the mutants away from the city, which is mostly the group running into a bunch of poorly themed motorcycle gangs. At least a bunch of them get blown up, but the post-apocalyptic NYC the film is set in isn't fleshed out at all. I get the thought process though—when you can copy a masterpiece like Deathsport, you just have to go with it.
The Running Man
"I know a stalker died. Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Yeah, well, it is a contact sport, right? You want ratings, you want people in front of the tv sets instead of picket lines? Well you ain't gonna get that with reruns of Gilligan's Island... Yeah, the one with the boat."
Released: 1987, just two years after the Harris Poll revealed the NFL had overtaken MLB as America's most popular sport. Real live former athletes Jim Brown and Jesse Ventura play minor roles, giving the film a little more of an authentic athletic feel.
Dystopic Event: The "Big Quake of '97" left America devastated and ruined. The Running Man game show is part of the monolithic television network ICS's efforts to reunite the country following the disaster. Other shows include the Captain Freedom's Workout Show and Climbing For Dollars, in which the contestants must try to avoid vicious Rottweilers attempting to tear them limb from limb while catching money that rains from the ceiling. The Running Man gets its contestants from the dystopian society's vast supply of criminals.
"Get me the Justice Department, entertainment division!"
The Sport: "400 square blocks of destruction!" Following a theme from the previous movies, the sport is less an equal competition and more of a hunt. The prisoner-contestants can win their freedom if they can get through the entire course, but hunting them are the Stalkers, the real athletes of the game. Captain Freedom (Ventura) is a retired "10-time world champion." Contemporaries like Dynamo, Buzzsaw, and SubZero are huge fan favorites—the crowd badly wants to see the American Gladiator-esque stalkers make the kill, and among the poor people in the streets, massive betting rings have started predicting which stalker will kill which victim.
The runners are participating for "our fabulous prizes like a trial by jury, suspended sentence, maybe even a full pardon!" Only three have ever survived, and they're held up as justification for why somebody would willingly participate in the game—the crowd has no idea the contestants have been forced into playing.
The Conflict: Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a Los Angeles cop who refuses orders from superiors to fire on poor people rioting in the streets for food. His fellow cops restrain him, kill hundreds of the rioters, and the blame is pinned on Richards. He escapes from prison, but upon his capture, he is enlisted as one of the highest-profile Running Man contestants ever.
Worst Prediction: In one early scene, Richards is able to get somebody through airport security without flashing an ID card or anything. The Running Man takes place in a strict surveillance state, except, of course, around airplanes.
20/20 Foresight: After Richards beats the first wave of stalkers and it becomes apparent Captain Freedom will need to come out of retirement, we see him move away from the Network party and down a few pills. When Captain Freedom rejects his new futuristic outfit and wants to go out and rip Richards apart with his bare hands, host Damon Killian rebukes him: "What's the matter? Steroids make you deaf? Get him out of here now!"
Crystal Ball Quotient: While a few of the above movies tackle the broadcast nature of sports, something that really took off with the development of cable TV in the 1970s, none comes close to the brilliant satire of TV sports production in The Running Man. Killian is a super charismatic mix between a late-night talk show host and a sportscaster, and as the movie progresses, we see the way he and his production crew disguises the truth, uses propaganda to direct the crowd's anger and excitement, and lies about everything from the contestants' lives to the outcomes of the game to the actions of the police.
"For 50 years we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear!"
The Blood of Heroes
"I don't like brutality. I like heroics. I like the blood of heroes."
Released: 1989. Apparently it took a few extra years for the dystopian sports craze to reach Australia's distant shores.
Dystopic Event: The wars of the 20th century have left the world barren. Cities have moved underground and the overworld is little but desert. City life is prohibitively expensive for the masses, and only aristocrats are able to enjoy the comfort of the nine remaining world cities. Enter The Game. It is one of the only avenues of entertainment in the overworld, and the top players in the cities are allowed entrance into The Game's official League and the aristocratic class.
The Sport: It's a combination of football, soccer, and the American Gladiator competition where they beat the shit out of each other with giant Q-Tips, and it's played with a dog skull. Each team has one unarmed player who tries to run the dog skull past the armed opponents and drive it onto a stake to win the game. It's pretty much a gruesome, bloody, violent version of Quidditch.
"I never hurt a soul for any reason other than to put a dog skull on a stake!"
The Conflict: Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame plays Sallow, a former League player, who has been cast out of the league for sleeping with an aristocrat's concubine. He now plays with one of the better traveling teams, and once they fully assemble their squad, they go underground to play for the right to enter the League.
20/20 Foresight: One of our heroes' opponents in the city remembers Sallow has a bad eye. The aristocrat running the team orders him to go after his bad eye and blind him and offers a bounty if he succeeds.
Video Game It Totally Looked Like: Remember Mutant League Football? That was pretty much all I could think of while this movie was on. That game ruled. Really, you should just play it instead of watching this movie.
Crystal Ball Quotient: If this movie was really going to be a cutting satire, it needed to go deeper into the aristocratic society. Everything that made The Running Man brilliant is conspicuously absent from The Blood of Heroes. In the end, The Blood of Heroes, somewhat like Endgame, felt like little more than an ode to violence and the glory it can bring you in a beaten-down society. Perhaps that is prophetic in a sense, but it's hardly a profound point.
Unsurprisingly, a few of these movies missed the point, thinking all this genre needed was a fake sport, some exploding motorcycles and a bunch of blood. But when these movies targeted the absurd and the terrifying in sports—the violence we accept without thinking, the hold these sports have on the people through the media, and the vast amounts of money and power held by those who run the game—they produced fascinating images of what the world of sports could be in the near future. Some of these images were hilarious and over-the-top cartoony, others were stark reminders of just how similar today's sports world is to the ones predicted by the sci-fi writers of the 1970s and 1980s. Also: they blew up a shit ton of motorcycles real good.