Pure Science Fiction #7–Battle Royale

The invention of the motion picture came as both a blessing and a curse to the world of science fiction. Movies offered the spectacle that couldn’t quite exist in writing. Books don’t have special effects, they don’t have costumes or musical scores. Classic sci-fi stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) were given new life on screen. And little known short stories from the back pages of sci-fi pulp were given the means to become classics in their own right. Harry Bates’s Farewell to the Master was reimagined as The Day the Earth Stood Still, now a staple of sci-fi cinema. George Langelaan’s short story The Fly was ripped from the pages of Playboy magazine and brilliantly filmed twice. So in some ways the movies have empowered science fiction.

But Hollywood also has a history of taking good things and screwing them up, and sci-fi is no exception. In the last century the movies have butchered such stories as The Time Machine, Brave New World, and The Running Man, as well as producing cringe-worthy originals like Armageddon and the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. But what bothers me even more is that people consider movies like Star Wars to be great sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Wars. I still deeply miss my glow-in-the-dark Boba Fett t-shirt, and I still bust out my X-wing model from time to time for a quick jaunt around the house. But ladies and gentlemen, Star Wars isn’t sci-fi. It’s fantasy, a space opera.

I realize I’m on the verge of a real rant here, so I’ll just get to the point–I love sci-fi but I hate the direction I see it heading in Hollywood. So, for this list I will focus on what I consider pure sci-fi. Aliens, time-travel, dystopian futures, robots, deep space, you name it. And you’ll notice most of the movies on my list come from outside the Hollywood system. No surprises there.

So without further ado, here’s #7…

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Battle Royale

Japan, 2000

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Written by Kenta Fukasaku

Based on the novel by Koushun Takami

Available to stream on Netflix


Before The Hunger Games came around and made everyone pee their pants with excitement, Battle Royale told the story of (mostly) unwilling youths pitted against each other in a free-for-all, there-can-be-only-one style death match. No, The Hunger Games is not a ripoff of the earlier story. They are actually quite different. The Hunger Games falls into the cautionary tale category, pointing at the western world’s fascination with violent entertainment. It is also a coming of age story, aimed at an audience of teenagers.

Battle Royale is also cautionary in some way, although it has nothing to do with the media. Director Kinji Fukasaku explicitly stated that the movie is a commentary on the ultra-competitive cultural mores of Japan, specifically within the education system. What Fukasaku has done is taken the cutthroat practices seen in Japanese school settings and made a story about students literally cutting each other throats (and blowing each other up, and gunning each other down, etc).

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The result of it all is an ultra gory, extra campy spectacle. It never feels dark and depressing, but has that Tarantino quality to it, in which the audience finds themselves cheering the over-the-top violence because it’s so far separated from reality that it’s actually amusing. Unlike The Hunger Games, where we feel the pain at the loss of friends, Battle Royale  has us cheering for the loss of blood and limbs.

On the surface, this movie is just a cinematic hack-and-slash, with a body count of 48 and an arsenal on par with The Expendables. But there is actually a lot more to this film, if you’re ready to wade through the blood to find it. Not only is it a dystopian tale of a society gone off the deep end, it’s also a social satire with a lot of bite, willing to address major issues in a culture and ask, “Where are we going with this?” And that’s the kind of question that makes great science fiction.

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