It’s always fascinating when genre films like The Running Man become incredibly prescient as time goes on. The ones that seem a bit silly or odd in the moment, but no longer feel that way years (sometimes decades) later when we look at our own current social issues. In 2002, many thought it weird that Paramount changed the villains of The Sum of All Fears from tje Middle Eastern terrorists of the novel to Neo-Nazis in the wake of 9/11. Some even accused the filmmakers of softening the source material in favor of going with an unlikely group of antagonists. Fifteen years on, we now have events like Charlottesville taking place. So much for unlikely villains!
Escape from L.A. turned 20 years old last year and despite its sometimes silly nature, it too was proved prescient. Within the United States of EFLA, numerous peoples are expelled from the country just for having beliefs or life practices that are different from a fearful chunk of the population. John Carpenter has all too often been right on point (and ahead of the curve) with his cinematic criticisms of society, even when he’s aiming for wackiness.
Why bring up Carpenter? Because The Running Man desperately wanted to be a John Carpenter movie. Everything about it screams Carpenter, from the catchy synth score to the production design to the socio-political commentary permeating it from top to bottom. It might be (loosely) based on a novel by Stephen King, but it’s one of the biggest Carpenter riffs of the 1980s. This is a good thing.
For those who haven’t witnessed this over-the-top science fiction actioner before, I’ll allow the film’s opening crawl to give you the set-up for the world it showcases within…
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.
A good chunk of this comes from King’s novel that he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The crawl itself is pure Carpenter, however, and so are the changes to the story’s protagonist, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Richards is a bit of an everyman in the novel, but we all know that Arnold is everything BUT an everyman. In the film, Richards is a police helicopter pilot who is framed for a state-sanctioned massacre of protesters. He is tried for a crime he actually attempted to prevent, locked up, and forced to work at a prison rock quarry. Why? Because audiences needed to see Arnold’s sweaty muscular physique in the film as soon as possible!
Arnold being Arnold, he manages to escape the prison camp, along with the aid of a few resistance members. The resistance aims to “wake up” the populace by exposing all of the governments lies. Like Snake Plissken, Richards wants no part in their righteous crusade. Hell, this easily could have been turned into an Escape film. Also like Snake, Richards just craves freedom. Naturally, he is captured later on and that’s when the titular game comes into play.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know the drill here. Contestants, who are often unwilling, are tossed into a dangerous environment where they are forced to battle for their lives against those hunting them for sport and entertainment. It’s not a particularly new premise and it is one that has repeatedly been used again in the likes of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.
The contestants are called “runners” and they are hunted by the “stalkers”, professional athletes who are beloved by the public for killing people who have been labeled criminals by their tyrannical government. Like any good pulp sci-fi actioner, each stalker has a distinctive personality, ramping up the archness of it all.
We could talk about how The Running Man is a pitch-perfect example of ‘80s genre-mashing action cinema, particularly of the Arnold variety. It very much is. Instead, I’d rather take a look at all of the ways this 2017-set film actually managed to reflect the modern society it is satirizing amidst its violent, futuristic stylings. The police force is militarized? Check. Whether you agree with the tactics of law enforcement these days, there’s no arguing that it hasn’t become more and more militarized over the past 30 years.
Media that is filled with lies is the biggest comparison, of course. The movie might not have envisioned the misinformation-filled invention that is the internet, but it definitely nailed the overall direction that things were headed in. Technology is being wielded against a weapon against the populace in this tale and its insidious use is the spread of confusion and lies. Truth is still shouted by those who care, but a vast majority of the public seems content to sit back and be “ruled with an iron hand”.
The audience seems way more upset about what’s going on with their favorite TV program here than with the injustices going on around them. Shades of the recent NFL controversy? The world of The Running Man even has a president who has a talent agent! While such a throwaway line was clearly meant as a jab at Ronald Reagan when the movie was made three decades ago, it is sadly 100% on point again in 2017. Especially in a film where the primary villain is the host of a TV show. It doesn’t stop there either. There’s even a gag involving a popular show where viewers literally watch poor people trying to get money while being torn apart by dogs. The war on the poor perfectly distilled.
30 years later, The Running Man’s social satire hits harder now than it did upon arrival. That alone makes it worthy of remembrance. Once you throw in a pulpy premise, a fun cast, adrenaline-fueled action, hilarious lines, a pulse-pounding synth score, and Arnold at the top of his game. If you haven’t seen it before, now’s the time to change that. If you have? Well, there’s no better time for a “rerun”.