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If you're like most Americans (heck, like most humans with the ability to watch television or access the Internet), then at least some part of your time in the last week has been spent obsessively poring over the results from the Olympics, the competition of athletic skill that has its roots in classical Greece and which in its current form has been going on for over a century. (Me, personally? I've been busy with other things. I'm playing catch up at the moment.)
The occasion of the Olympics, however, has put me in a mind to consider the plight of sports in science fiction movies. It's perhaps not entirely surprising that sports do not play a huge role in the history of science fiction film; comedy has quite a passel, like Bull Durham or The Longest Yard, and dramas have everything from Pride of the Yankees to Million Dollar Baby. But in science fiction, once you get past Rollerball, The Running Man and this year's Speed Racer, SF movies with an explicit sport-oriented theme get thin on the ground. You have to look toward B-movies (The Blood of Heroes would be a favorite of mine here), or consider films that have a sports sub-element, like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace or Tron.
Why aren't sports represented in science fiction film? I suspect several reasons. First is simply that real sports are generally not science fictional enough; while one can certainly imagine people playing baseball or basketball a hundred years from now, the sport itself is not likely to be changed in a massively science fictional fashion. Therefore, why bother making a movie about the 2108 World Series, or the 2208 Super Bowl? From a film producer's point of view, all that science fiction will just be a distraction. The second reason (and somewhat more shaky, logically speaking) is that the core audience for science fiction, whether film or otherwise, is not precisely the group most fascinated with athletic events.
Be that as it may, there are enough science fiction films out there with a sports element to make a few general observations about how the subject is treated in the genre. Here's what I've noticed:
1. Science fiction sports films are dystopic: A common theme in science fiction sports films is that the sports are used by the autocratic government to distract the masses from the fact the world stinks and is falling down around them; a sort of "bread and circuses" tactic, without a whole lot of bread. This is most explicit in Rollerball, where the popularity of Rollerball athlete Johnny E threatens the corporations who rule the world, and in The Running Man, where things have gotten so bad that you can see minor characters lusting after the crumbs of food that Running Man emcee Damon Killien leaves behind. The fact that science fiction movies see sports as an opiate of the people -- something to distract them rather than ennoble them, as other genres do -- speaks volumes about the science fiction mindset.
2. Science fiction sports are unspeakably violent and as often as not, end in death: Once again, Rollerball takes the cake here, as the sport starts off incredibly violent, and gets worse as the film goes along; the corporations controlling the game start shaving off rules and limits to get to Johnny E. Death is the least horrible thing that happens to some of the players. In my favorite science fiction sports B-movie The Blood of Heroes, the players go after each other with spears and knives, and if you lose an eye while playing, well, that's quite all right. And Tron (another candidate for dystopia, albeit in your computer) pits computer programs against each other with killer frisbees and the much-lusted-after-by-geeks lightcycles, and to lose results in "derezzing," which in this case is just fake computerese for "death."
Tron's vaguely gladiatorial bent is something a number of other science fiction films share; dystopic films in particular enjoy having two or more players beat the crap out of each other -- see Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for the canonical example of this. The number of geeks who can chant "Two men enter! One man leaves!" without much prompting is truly terrifying to consider.
3. There's usually something significant riding on the outcome: We're not talking about winning the World Series or the World Cup here; we're talking something independent of the game itself. In The Phantom Menace, Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn was betting on Anakin's freedom; in the Running Man, the world was prepped for a proletarian revolution pending the outcome of the game; and in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Max was engaging in a little bit of score-settling between warring powers in exchange for his freedom. To this extent, the sport these folks are engaging in is immaterial; the only thing that matters is simply that there is a winner.
What do we learn from the portrayal of sports in science fiction? Well, that sports are a method of control, that our descendants will love blood as much as the Romans did, and that after every game, something momentous will happen that has nothing to do with what's going on down on the playing field. It's not a particularly encouraging picture, is it? On the whole, I prefer the Olympics.
Have a favorite science fiction sports film or scene? Bring it on in the comments.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man's War and the upcoming Zoe's Tale. His column appears every Thursday.