The Top 15 Best Sci-Fi Gladiator Movies
Have you ever noticed that when we tell stories about the distant future, they tend to reflect the distant past? Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, an innate inability to predict the unpredictable, or perhaps it’s just in our cynical nature to assume that the mistakes of the past will inevitably be repeated. Even truly disgusting mistakes like deadly gladiator games.
Gladiator arenas are most commonly associated with Ancient Rome, of course, and Oscar-winning movies like Spartacus and Gladiator, but more often than not nowadays they end up in sci-fi movies. Even the superhero sequel Thor: Ragnarok throws its title superhero, and The Hulk no less, into a coliseum to pummel each other for the sake of a roaring crowd.
And if it’s good enough for the God of Thunder, it’s good enough for a bunch of other movies. Some are blockbusters, some cult favorites, some truly obscure (but totally awesome). So take a look at the best films in one of our favorite subgenres! Here are our picks for The Top 15 Best Sci-Fi Gladiator Movies (actually sixteen, if you count our honorable mention).
The Top 15 Best Sci-Fi Gladiator Movies
Shawn Levy's Real Steel is a smart, creative, well-crafted family story about an estranged father and son who become underdog heroes in the robot gladiator arena. But since only robots are in danger, not the humans operating them, Real Steel feels more like an honorable mention than a proper contender for the list. So an honorable mention it is!
Photo: Walt Disney Studios
Steven Lisberger's original Tron was ahead of its time, creating a visually dazzling world of computer programs who, like the video games they represent, are forced to compete with each other in games of death. The film is stodgy by any standard, and slower than it needs to be, but it's still a noteworthy and influential sci-fi film with memorable gladiator fights and light cycle races.
Photo: Buena Vista
Thor is trapped on an alien planet in Thor: Ragnarok, and forced to compete against his fellow Avenger, Hulk, in a gladiatorial arena. It's a very entertaining film, even though it's siller than it needs to be, and it would probably be higher on the list if the gladiator matches had more screen time.
Photo: Marvel Studios
Criminally underseen, Peter Manoogian's Arena stars several cast members from Star Trek and Babylon 5 as people and aliens on a space station competing and betting on futuristic gladiator fights. The effects are practical and inventive, the fights are fun, and the connections to other, bigger sci-fi shows make it a real treat for fans of the genre.
Photo: Empire Pictures
Paul Bartel's satirical, ultraviolent cross-country Death Race 2000 stars David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov as costumed competitors who have to kill pedestrians - and each other - to win the big prize. The low-low-low budget is all part of this kooky cult favorite's charm.
Photo: New World Pictures
Norman Jewison took a break from classy musicals and dramas to direct the dystopian sci-fi classic Rollerball, starring James Caan as a competitor in a violent sport that has swept the nation. Though mired in the look and feel of the 1970s, much of Jewison's film feels ahead of its time. (And if nothing else, it's WAY better than John McTiernan's 2002 remake.)
Photo: United Artists
Robot Jox envisions in a future where wars are a thing of the past, and differences between nations are settled by giant robot fights. Implausible, but pretty danged cool, Robot Jox features impressive stop-motion animation, broad and memorable characters, and weird moments that stick with you long after you've already forgotten the cookie cutter plot.
Photo: Trans World Entertainment
The children of the future are forced to kill each other to pay for the sins of the past in The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins' blockbuster series of novels. Jennifer Lawrence steals the film as the charismatic Katniss, but the film's vision of futuristic publicity is ultimately a little more engaging than the actual gladiator bout, which wasn't particularly excitingly filmed.
Joseph Kosinski revisited the world of Tron with the underrated Tron: Legacy, an exhilarating and gorgeous sequel that adds philosophical depth to the series, along with incredible music and even more impressive action than ever before.
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures
Another sequel that outdoes the original, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire builds more suspense, adds more interesting characters, and really goes bananas once the games officially begin, with pulse-pounding action galore. Only the somewhat anticlimactic ending keeps Catching Fire from the upper echelon of this list.
In the post-apocalyptic world of The Blood of Heroes, the only sport anyone cares about is Jugger, a game not unlike rugby, but deadlier... and played with a dog skull. Rutger Hauer and Joan Chen headline this gritty cult classic.
Photo: New Line Cinema
There's a reason we can't get beyond Thunderdome. George Miller and George Ogilvie's post-apocalyptic action spectacular features one of the best gladiator matches in movie history. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome only stumbles after the epic fight, when it gets weirdly kid-friendly, and feels like another movie altogether. It's an entertaining ride regardless, it's just too disjointed to ranked higher on the list.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Gamer takes place in a futuristic world where gamers control other human beings, and use them compete in death matches and behave very, very badly. It's a fascinating conceit and Neveldine/Taylor's action-packed, cynical film explores as many facets of it as possible. Gamer is a smart, weird and exciting sci-fi gladiator film that deserves a bigger fanbase.
A reality tv show where the contestants are literally forced to kill each other? It hardly seems outside the realm of possibility nowadays, but back in 2001, Series 7: The Contenders was ahead of its time. This mean-spirited and fascinating low-budget thriller is one of the best films of its kind.
Photo: USA Films
Prescient, action-packed and totally bizarre, The Running Man - starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and based on a Stephen King novel - is about a game show where criminals are forced to fight colorful supervillains for their freedom. It's just as gaudy as The Price is Right, just as fun as any superhero flick, and just as clever and mean-spirited about the future as other sci-fi flicks with more vaunted reputations.
Photo: TriStar Pictures
Before The Hunger Games there was Kinji Fukusaku's bloody, insightful, painful and oddly beautiful Battle Royale. The story of a class of teenagers trapped on an island, outfitted with exploding collars, and told to kill each other off is lurid in concept but ingenious in execution, exploding every notion we have about adolescent angst, adult superiority and the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
Photo: Toei Company
Top Photos: TriStar Pictures / Marvel Studios / Lionsgate
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.