Series 7: The Contenders (2001) Movie Review

Series 7: The Contenders is the kind of movie that can only be made with a small, even nonexistent, budget, and done in guerilla filmmaking fashion. It’s a take on the “reality TV” that has swamped (or plagued, depending on your perspective on the genre) prime-time network television for the last few years, starting with Survivor. It is the kind of movie that would never survive the critique of a Hollywood suit, and if it did, surely would not have turned out as it did in this instance. It’s the kind of movie where a writer with one credit to his name uses the money earned from that first movie in order to make his directorial debut. And that’s how you get a movie like Series 7.

Series 7’s premise is a simple one: in the not so distant future, America’s #1 game show is a reality show called “Series 7” where 5 random contestants in the same town are picked to compete in a kill-or-be-killed tournament. The five must not only compete with each other, but also compete with the champion from the previous series, making it a total of 6 competitors. The (unlucky) chosen 6 must then hunt each other down with a lone cameraman from the show following and filming their every movement, shot, and doing the sit-down interviews that we’re all familiar with (i.e. characters sit down and talk about what just happened, how they’re feeling, what they think will happen, etc.).

To be sure, Series 7 isn’t the first movie to mine the “reality TV” satire route. The Japanese movie Battle Royale did it as well, and went a step further and used teenagers as competitors instead of adults, as is the case with Series 7. The primary difference between the two movies, besides the obvious utilization of Japanese and American actors, is that Royale had the advantage of a big budget, where Series 7 obviously does not.

Series 7 is filmed using roaming digital video cameras that captures the image in bright light, with all the stark ugliness of reality in full bloom, and is intercut with “character background” set pieces that breaks the reality continuity. Of course, in order to make a movie, the director had to cheat a little, and we sometimes get two-shots in order to capture emotional scenes between two characters that is simply not possible in a “real” moment. In that way, the “reality TV show” facde does come down, but that is insignificant when compared to the many elements that the movie does so well.

The characters are one of Series 7’s biggest draws. They include a perky 18 year old name Lindsay whose parents are so gung-ho for her to win that they buy her new weapons and drives her around for her “kills.” Another competitor, and the movie’s star, is Dawn, a 30-something survivor from the previous game, who must win one more time in order to leave the game (and oh yeah, she was chosen to play the game at a very inappropriate moment in her life — she’s pregnant, and as the game begins, she’s 8 months along and ready to give birth).

There’s Connie, a 60-something nurse who at first seems ill-equipped to deal with the game, but turns out to be far more shrewd and cunning than anyone thought, especially the other competitors. There’s Richard, a crazy old man who lives alone and doesn’t look like he’ll stand much of a chance. Then there’s Jeffrey, a artist dying from testicular cancer, who has a deathwish and a history with Dawn from their High School days when the two were sweethearts. Finally there’s Tony, an out-of-work loudmouth with 3 kids, who brags constantly, but turns out not to be so tough after all, and is the first one to die.

Forget, for one moment, that this is a movie, and you can actually believe everything the characters are saying in their sit-down interviews. The actors are so good in their roles that it’s almost impossible to guess that these people were in a movie and not actually involved in a warped game show. The movie is filmed in a way where we see the 5-second blurbs that proceeds and follows a commercial break if this was actually a TV show; of course this isn’t a TV show, and there are no commercial breaks. In fact, if you actually inserted real commercials where the commercials are supposed to go and show the movie on TV, you could actually believe that this is an actual TV show, split up into different segments, with exiting blurbs to tease you about what’s to come, and introduction blurbs to tell you what’s already happened before the commercial. And, let’s not forget, it’s also a good way to pad the movie, which is already short at just over 80 minutes long.

The movie, as a whole, is well-done, well-acted, and well-scripted. Brooke Smith, as Dawn, is outstanding, and brings vulnerability and a gung-ho mentality to the movie. She’s tough when she has to be and completely delicate when necessary. Glenn Fitzgerald, who plays Jeffrey, Dawn’s former sweetheart, does a good “man on the verge of dying.” But I have to say that the standout is Marylouise Burke as Connie, the church-going nurse who wax poetics about the show’s brutality, the brutality of her fellow competitors, but proves to be far more brutal than all of them combined when the fit hits the shan.

Unlike Battle Royale, Series 7 is not as bloody. In fact, just because of the small number of competitors, the movie’s “kills” are few. By comparison, Battle Royale’s 40-plus competitors allowed the movie to show wholesale slaughter of the most violent kind. Yet, while I sometimes wished the sit-down interviews didn’t last so long, the movie still held my attention, and after a while I really didn’t mind the lack of killing. My personal bloodlust notwithstanding, the movie is a satisfying sit-through, and the twist at the end is quite excellent. I didn’t see it coming at all, and nowadays where I can almost predict a movie plot point by plot point, I appreciate being surprised like that.

Daniel Minahan (director) / Daniel Minahan (screenplay)
CAST: Brooke Smith …. Dawn Lagarto
Marylouise Burke …. Connie Trabucco
Glenn Fitzgerald …. Jeffrey Norman
Michael Kaycheck …. Tony Reilly
Richard Venture …. Franklin James

Buy Series 7: The Contenders on DVD