The movie opens with a bucketload of exposition, but I’m going to lay it on you anyway. It’s the 21st century and the most popular pastime is the Most Dangerous Game. The contestants take turns playing hunter and prey. Hunters get to know everything about who they are hunting; the prey is not even told who is hunting them. The hunt continues until one is dead, after which a computer pairs another two contestants. Once a contestant has won ten times — five as prey, five as hunter, he or she retires with one million dollars. In this way, humanity’s violent impulses are redirected. Had the Game existed in the 20th century, Adolf Hitler would have been a contestant and the world would have been spared World War II.
This armchair geopolitical psychotherapy is as thin as spit on a rock, but OK. We’re not posting on Facebook here, we’re just coming up with a pretext for contestants Caroline (Ursula Andress) and Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) to shoot guns at each other. Which they … proceed to not do. Because there are two complications.
Caroline is hampered by sponsorship deals. As the movie opens, she lures her hunter into a nightclub and kills him in public and gets a nice payout on the side. Afterwards, she’s approached by ad representatives from Ming Tea, who want her to kill her next opponent while they shoot a commercial. This complicates matters enormously; she can’t kill her opponent just any old way, she has to lure him to where the cameras and dancing girls are set up at the Temple of Venus and murder him there.
Marcello, on the other hand, is either literally fatalistic or even borderline suicidal. Convinced he is going to lose this round, he only makes half-assed attempts to protect himself. And although killing your hunter is allowed — necessary for the prey to win, even — killing the wrong person nets you a prison term. So before Marcello takes out Caroline, he has to be sure that she’s the one hunting him. The result is less gunplay and more coy banter as they each deploy their sex appeal to place the other in a compromising position. Occasionally, however, the action is interrupted by the gunplay of other contestants running through city streets. This is the future conservatives want.
There’s room here for biting satire, which never quite materializes. There’s a sprinkling of fake contempt for the public’s infatuation with violence and some handwaving about the commercialization of the same, but Petri spends just about as much time illustrating that Marcello’s ennui stems from his various wives and girlfriends spending all of his prize money. The film is campy, but turned down to background-noise level. So why watch this movie at all?
The sets and the costumes. While the opening of the film is rubble and contemporary city streets — they didn’t even try to swap out the cars for a movie supposedly set at least forty years in the future — the interiors are amazing pieces of minimalist architecture and furniture design. There are several locations where all anyone has to sit on are cubes. And then there’s the café where the chairs are all translucent inflatable bubbles which look awesome but in the real world would be a maintenance nightmare.
There are no old people in this movie; perhaps they are euthanized? Or perhaps they do not go out in public because none of the furniture has back support.
Costume designer Giulio Coltellacci’s decisions are fascinating. In one scene, Andress wears sunglasses with straps that wrap around the head both on either side and the top, prefiguring VR helmet design by nearly fifty years. Marcello is positively Jobsian in his black wardrobe, but his giant sunglasses turn him into a startled Bono. There is also a cow-print pant suit, one weaponized chrome-feathered bikini, translucent robes for the religious types, and strappy dancer outfits that look extra-uncomfortable.
And of course there’s the pink jumpsuit Andress wears for much of the film. It’s very conservative from the front, but the top is entirely backless. She wears this outfit in several cars, and I can only imagine how badly she must have stuck to the naugahyde.
So, lacking in action. The jokes fall flat. The social commentary is strained and occasionally retrograde. But if you are into design, this is absolutely a movie to add to your collection.