Thursday, July 12, 2007

Series 7: The Contenders

The verdict: Subversive, clever and with a knowingly dark sense of humour, the low-budget hand-held style belies is a deceptively good movie.

The rating: 7/10

'Reality tv' tends to provoke strong reactions. Water cooler conversations on the subject can start innocently enough with questions like: 'were you watching that [insert reality show name here] last night?'. The thing is, this question is very likely to be met with sniffy responses such as "Oh, I'll watch 'Most Dangerous Celebrity Tiddlywinks with Ant and Dec' alright, but I just couldn't watch that 'Big Brother' shite... but I do like that 'Celebrity Big Brother'"..

The genuine reality proposed by this so-called 'reality television' is challenged by this movie, a fictional fly on the wall game show in which the contenders must kill each other, and the last one standing is the winner. It's kind of like 'Battle Royale' meets 'The Running Man'. In this game show, contestants are selected at random, armed by anonymous balaclava-clad visitors, and dropped into the 'playing field', a town also apparently chosen at random. Once in the 'game', the objective is simple: kill the other contenders to win.

The movie centers around the story of current champion Dawn, who also happens to be nine months pregnant. Dawn is only a few kills away from being allowed retire as champion contender, but irritatingly, the playing field for what may be her last contest is her home town, somewhere in Hicksville USA, and one of the other contestants randomly happens to be an old flame from high school...

Series 7: The Contenders lampoons the one-upmanship of so-called 'reality television' (a classic term of unspeak by the way), especially when it comes to the desire to shock, to be the most extreme. In this movie, the contestants must murder each other to win, and the fact that we can blithely accept such a concept, perhaps without initially being 100% certain as to whether the show is real or not, puts the audience in an interesting frame of mind. As the movie unfolds, it is loaded with moral dilemmas, and packed with darkly comic moments. Having a heavily pregnant woman as the champion of a show where you need to kill to survive tickled me, and the movie is loaded with wickedly funny moments like this.

Quickly and effortlessly, the movie makes the point that reality television is ominously moving towards a place where audiences can watch a movie like this and genuinely ask 'is this actually a real show?' Just as Chris Morris managed with 'Brass Eye', in this case writer/director Daniel Minahan creates an environment where the audience is enveloped in the trappings of a familiar format, but whereas Brass Eye targeted televised news, 'The Contenders' has its sights set on the Cops-style, cameraman-tracking-real-people shows, the ones that have gravelly-voiced narrators intervening every ten minutes to summarise what has gone before, and give you a tantalising glimpse of the bloody violence soon to come.

As a result, this movie succeeds by pointing out the over-the-top nature of television shows such as this, and their capacity to create unreal, alien situations for its participants, thus distorting what we understand as normal reality. But the success is due to the format in which the message is packaged. I enjoyed this movie because it put its finger on so many of the reasons why I dislike the vast majority of unscripted fly-on-the-wall television shows, while still retaining a tongue-in-cheek style, and never taking itself all that seriously.

When Dawn spoke directly to the cameramen - as she does regularly - and nearly shoots one of them in a chase sequence, I thought of the far darker 'Man Bites Dog', and I have a sneaky feeling that that movie was part of the inspiration for this.

So I have to say, I really enjoyed 'Series Seven: The Contenders'. It's clever, original, genuinely funny and well paced at a running time of just under an hour and a half. Also, the cheekily subversive ending will leave you wanting more.. Series 8 perhaps? Anyway, switch off that 'Big Brother', I recommend you catch this movie instead if you can get your hands on it.

1 comment:

Dave said...

I loved this movie when I watched it. I really enjoyed that although it was shot to look like cheap/amateurish/reality tv show, I ended up feeling more for these characters then I have for any *real* reality TV , although in fairness I haven't watched more than a couple of episodes in years now. And for some reason the "love will tear us apart" video really struck a cord.

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