There are a couple of movies I’ve seen recently that made me notice a thematic pattern. I didn’t think of it until I watched the trailer for Gamer due out in September of this year from Lionsgate Films.
With the rise and sustained popularity of reality/ competition television, what happens when people come to their senses and stop taking part in this ridiculous bout of self-humiliation for the sake of “glory” and 15 minutes of fame? Where will the competitors come from? According to the few movies I have in mind, they will come from jail cells.
When you break the law, you go to jail. And all the god-fearing, law-abiding citizens love and respect this system when it works in the most idealistic of situations. However, once you inhabit one of those cement rooms you are at the mercy of the warden, employed officers, and the government at large.
What happens when the compound is bought by the government and the government is running television transmission (which is also a theme in these “prisoner for entertainment” movies)?
In Death Race (2008), convict Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) is tapped by ambitious Warden Hennessey (Joan Allen) to compete as masked driver Frankenstein after he is arrested for his wife’s murder. Tapped may be a light word for the arm-twisting Hennessey incites to get Ames to do her bidding. Frankenstein is the most popular driver in a competition where life-sentence convicts race for their freedom in armored cars or die trying. Whenever a driver is killed, the crowd goes wild and ratings shoot sky-ward. The prisoners have lost their humanity and have become a commodity in raising money for the compound and ultimately the goverment. If they are just going to sit in a jail cell, why not serve a purpose, right?
This is no new concept in action/thriller fiction. Richard Bachman wrote a novel in 1982, much ahead of his time I may say, called The Running Man. Which lead to the 1987 movie of the same name starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The plot of the movie and novel are focused on the game show sharing the novel’s title, but how the main character – Ben Richards – becomes entangled are two different scenarios.
In the novel, Bachman paints Richards as a family man who volunteers for the show to get money for medicine to heal his sick daughter. The film depicts Richards as a former-cop convicted of mass murder who organized a break-out and succeeds. Tape of his escape captures the eye of the host/producer of the show as an audience (and ratings)-grabbing darling for The Running Man competition. Richards has to run for his freedom and elude the show’s hunters, knows as “The Stalkers”. In the novel, the “audience” is encouraged to turn in The Running Man when he is spotted in their neighborhood. While the film depicts the television-studio-bound crowd as blood-thirsty spectators to the fights which ensue between Richards and The Stalkers. While also being a commodity in a dystopian nation, Richards has to fight for his integrity as a human being.
In the newest movie Gamer, Gerard Butler – Kable – is a convict chosen to take part in a “live action” video game where there is no reset button. His chances of winning are based on the “gamer” who he represents in the “game.” While I obviously haven’t seen this yet, I can guess he’s got a life sentence and is at the mercy of a warden who thinks he’s the scum of the Earth. Further, this isn’t a reality tv situation where the station is run by the government. This entire game is the brain child of a reclusive millionare Ken Castle played by Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall. I just wonder who decided to use convicts as the avatars for the game?
This all got me thinking about how it’s so easy for all of us to see the “less fortunate” or “untouchable” people in our society as ultimately “less than human.” Because a man is homeless (see Extreme Measures ) or has broken the law he or she deserves less than humane treatment. There are groups in record numbers to protect defenseless animals, but nothing recognizing the fact that prisoners are still human beings.
“But, Melissa, those assholes rape, steal, murder, and take advantage the God-fearing, law-abiding citizens!”
Sure, but aren’t we all just one act of passion or moment of insanity away from being behind bars? If you end up in a jail cell, wouldn’t you want to be treated like the “person” you were before acting on a bad decision or even on impulse?
Being human means you are fragile, your mind rests in a precarious balance easily upset by any source of trauma. Some of us are inherently evil, some of us just can’t help being destructive to ourself or others. Does that mean we aren’t entitled to humane treatment? Should it mean we can’t care about the people who make mistakes? Granted, people need punishment. It’s necessary to learn from mistakes and teach others what will happen when you break the rules. But rule breakers are still people and entitled to at least a basic level of human respect.
Isn’t a country really only as good as the treatment it gives its “lowliest” citizens?
These movies, while good for action-packed scenes, can also teach us to remember that humanity stretches to all humans not just the pretty, rich, un-catchable law breakers…