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Film Review: The Running Man

Title: The Running Man

Director(s): Paul Michael Glaser

Screenwriter(s): Steven E. de Souza

Studio: TAFT Entertainment Pictures Released: 1987

Runtime: 1h 41m

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Yaphet Kotto, Marvin J. McIntyre

Based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), this dystopian thriller has mostly predicted today.

It is simpler to reproduce the opening text crawl:

By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called “The Running Man” has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people’s yearning for freedom… …more direct methods become necessary.

It’s arguably a few years off but it is recognizable. But that’s not all.

The Running Man

The opening scene introduces police helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) who refuses to fire on a “food riot” where those present are apparently unarmed. He is then arrested by his crew.

Eighteen months later, Richards is in a labor camp (or a “fun camp” as Hillary Clinton would put it). He escapes along with Harold Weiss (McIntyre) and William Laughlin (Kotto) who both belong to the underground movement. With no intention of joining them, Richards goes to his brother’s apartment. Except his brother has recently been sent to “re-education” and Amber Mendez (Alonso) has moved in. Richards then attempts to leave for Hawaii and takes Amber with him since he needs her travel pass to book and to board.

Interestingly, the system used for such bookings and other transactions is called “Cadre Infonet”. Setting aside the meaning of “cadre”, it is also the same entity that makes cola. The obvious connection is the convenience in advertising but, more fundamentally, it highlights the overarching control a corporation has over the population when it controls information (intellectual), movement (action) and processed food (material needs).

Cadre Infonet. (TAFT 1987)
Cadre Infonet. (TAFT 1987)

At the airport, Amber refuses to go along with it and so Richards is captured. At home, Amber watches the fake news that reports Richards having killed a few people at the airport which does not remotely resemble what happened.

As Killian (Dawson), host and producer of The Running Man, considers criminals to be the next contestants, one of them appears to be a toddler and one man is listed to be guilty of “religious crimes” such as “unsanc.[tioned] worship”. It’s funny because it’s true. But then Killian notices Richards and the potential for record ratings because it’s always about the ratings. A deal is made for Richards to feature as the contestant, the other blatantly obvious joke that the entertainment industry has direct ties to the Department of Justice.

Richards agrees to it so Weiss and Laughlin won’t have to participate except they end up participating anyway. Killian is the stereotypical charismatic two-faced villain: urbane but manipulative. Dawson, who was actually the host of Family Feud, plays Killian perfectly.

The Running Man show starts off very much like a game show in a set with a live audience. Cheesy Vegas-like dancers and quintessential 80s dance-pop are featured and Killian acts as the seemingly perfect host, handing out gifts throughout including board games. The show then shifts into what is today referred to as a reality-show. No doubt both the film and the novel took some inspiration from Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Prize of Peril” about a reality-show, first published in 1958.

Killian introduces Richards by showing a doctored clip of him massacring the unarmed protestors. Amber, who works at the production company and has been woken up by the fake news she saw earlier, finds the original clip (of Richards refusing to commit mass murder). She is caught and later becomes an additional contestant, the announcer dramatically (and comically) emphasizing that she was Richards’s accomplice and “lover” as opposed to “hostage” as reported merely days earlier. Apparently, the narrative can change that quickly and people still fall for it.

The contestants have a large area to run through but they are, of course, forced (or “scripted”) to go into certain areas to be hunted down by “stalkers”. Cameras are everywhere, a reference to the increasingly heavy surveillance in many countries today.

Interestingly, like many shows, the contestants are somewhat diverse, at least superficially for the sake of political correctness: Richards is the big white ex-military guy, Weiss is the skinny nerd, Laughlin is black and Amber is a Hispanic woman.

Whilst dealing with the stalkers which are parodies of themselves, Weiss insists on finding the satellite uplinks that are used to broadcast the show. His intention is to hack the code and provide said code to the underground so they can access the entire system and broadcast the truth. Although a plot convenience since one would expect the satellite uplinks within the game area to be more hidden and secure, it is important to the story and themes.

Uplink code... Looks familiar... (TAFT 1987)
Uplink code... Looks familiar... (TAFT 1987)

In an interesting coincidence, when Weiss is hacking the code, the representing graphic vaguely resembles viral surface proteins, as if to suggest that a virus and the all-encompassing satellite network are linked and/or that a virus is symbolically the key to controlling the network which is also the literal and symbolic net or web that blankets and strangles the population.

The show is clearly popular with the entire population, with the better-off folks in the studio and the less fortunate watching in the streets. What is interesting is that there is an emphasis on older people in the live audience, suggesting that even the older population that presumably grew up in a different world have been brainwashed.

As the game progress, it is clear Richards will actually win. By the time it is for the stalker Captain Freedom (Ventura)—who is also a parody of the 80s TV aerobics instructor—to take the stage, he refuses. Instead, the studio constructs a deep fake of him killing Amber and Richards. This reveals at least one method in which footage is made or doctored.

It is obvious that there is a happy ending with Richards and the underground making their move on the show which simplistically represents the whole system. In many respects, it is a straightforward action film with shameless one-liners that only Arnie can get away with. Although it is not that complex in the absolute sense, it is more complex than it looks, containing quite a bit of satire and accurate predictions, making this a mostly enjoyable film.


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