There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The blood-soaked 2000 Japanese thriller Battle Royale. The film follows a group of teenage classmates who are deposited on a small deserted island and compelled to murder each other to survive. Director Kinji Fukasaku and his son, screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku (adapting a Koushun Takami novel) don’t waste much time on setup. Instead, they briefly introduce a few of the kids — in particular, moody orphan Shuya (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara) and diligent student Noriko (Aki Maeda) — and their former teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), who’s collaborating with this government-approved extermination program as part of an earnest effort to counteract juvenile delinquency. Once the major players are on the field, mayhem ensues, as some youngsters form tenuous alliances, while others try to figure out if there’s a way to subvert the system before their former friends stab, shoot, or poison them.
Why watch now?
Because The First Purge is playing in theaters this weekend.
The fourth film in the popular action-horror franchise is a prequel, set as the New Founding Fathers of America experiment with letting the country’s underclass freely commit crimes — preferably against each other — on one night each year. More uncomfortably close to reality than ever, The First Purge suggests that even seemingly upstanding citizens are all too willing to cede power to cruel authoritarians, so long as the people in charge promise to target ethnic minorities and the poor, for the overall benefit of the middle-class majority. Increasingly, this series has become one long case study in how governing based on fear, discrimination, and violence has unpredictable and often catastrophic results.
These have been common themes in science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction over the decades, for about as long as those genres have existed. Logan’s Run, 1984, Escape from New York, George Romero’s zombie movies, and countless other books and films have depicted a terrified, paranoid humanity, struggling to manage real and perceived threats to their survival by imposing a rigid social order that ultimately makes everything worse. In the wake of the international success of Battle Royale, the young-adult literature market exploded with similar sagas about teens fighting each other to the death, by dictatorial edict. The most popular was The Hunger Games — which was criticized at times for being a sanitized version of Battle Royale.
In the Fukasaku film, a cash-strapped Japan has passed the “Millennium Educational Reform Act,” the purpose of which seems to be twofold: to reduce the population of teens about to enter a thin employment market, and to punish those kids for the bad attitudes they’ve developed during a time of national crisis. Battle Royale isn’t as pointed in its social critique as some of the movies, novels, TV series, and comics that have come before or since. But it’s fairly resolute in its opinion that even the most obnoxious of this game’s contestants are being unfairly targeted by insensitive, short-sighted adults.
Who it’s for
People who enjoy debating situational ethics — and who don’t mind watching a slew of fictional folks get slaughtered in entertaining ways.
Battle Royale was controversial when it was originally released, in part because the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School was still fresh in the public memory, and some critics found the idea of turning “kids killing kids” into an over-the-top action-adventure picture appalling, or even dangerous. Unlike later iterations of this premise (The Hunger Games, for example), Battle Royale isn’t especially somber. Fukasaku employs an almost comically melodramatic Masamichi Amano score, and he and his son have fun with the way teen vanity and social hierarchies persist even after all the students are armed.
Perversely, Battle Royale’s lack of concern with socially responsibility or political cogency is what makes it so effective. Because the Fukasakus don’t seem to care overmuch about making any particular point, they’re freed to tell Takami’s story in a way that’s gripping first and foremost, with twists and surprises that at times have viewers actively rooting for something awful to happen. The film has the power to expose its audience’s own tenuous morality.
Where to see it
Netflix. For more dystopian mayhem and deadly teens, the service also offers Battle Royale 2 (directed by Kenta Fukasaku, who took over the production after his father died in 2003), Tag (Sion Sono’s 2015 art-horror film about a Japanese high-school girl stumbling through a surreal landscape where her peers keep dying in spectacularly disgusting ways) and 3% (a Brazilian TV series set in a bleak future Earth where impoverished young people are given a yearly opportunity to compete to join the upper class).