Series 7: The Contenders (January 2/02)
Series 7 takes an intriguing topic but essentially beats it to death over the course of about 90 minutes - to the point where it's almost impossible to care about anyone or anything in the movie.
Set in some sort of an alternate universe, Series 7 refers to the title of a popular reality TV show: The Contenders. Now in it's seventh "series," the show pits ordinary people against each other in a fight to the death. The movie unfolds as though you're watching a marathon episode of the show, culminating in the season finale. Through the voice over of an unseen narrator, we meet the six contestants - spearheaded by a tenacious (and brutal) reigning champion. She's in the last stages of her pregnancy and, as she keeps insisting, is playing the game for the welfare of her baby. The other five players are essentially disposable, since we meet them briefly and then they're killed (save one who has an unexpected connection with the champ).
The most striking thing about Series 7 is its look. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, writer/director Daniel Minahan had worked on a variety of different reality-type television programs. It's undoubtedly this background that allowed him to create a film that seems authentic; if the star of the film, Brooke Smith, wasn't so recognizable (she was the girl trapped in the pit in Silence of the Lambs), Series 7 could easily pass for the latest reality craze (albeit in a highly illegal way).
In fact, that brings me to my biggest problem with the film. While most people likely won't be bothered by it, the movie never explains how such a concept could work in any kind of a rational society. Unlike, say, The Running Man, Series 7 doesn't appear to take place in a chaotic future; rather, the movie seems to exist within our universe. This is troubling. How could such a show, in which contestants are made to murder one another, possibly come to be? Although this is surely the sort of thing you're not meant to think about, the wholly implausible nature of this show prevented me from fully accepting the entire film.
But putting that aside, this is a unique concept for a movie and surely can't be that far-fetched in this day and age. Though the other actors are acceptable, this is Smith's show. As the very pregnant contestant, she embodies a sense of desperation and urgency. Her cold-blooded exploits (as covered in a re-cap of previous "episodes") are amazingly brutal and harsh - she strangles one co-contestant with a rope - but through it all, Smith allows her obvious concern for her unborn child to shine through.
Series 7 is the sort of over-the-top satire that most critics tend to love, but its heavy-handed message and overlong running time (not to mention the lack of explanation for how the show could even exist) prevent the movie from becoming anything more than a 90-minute novelty.