I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on.
Schwarzenegger continues his impressive string of action movies from the 1980s with The Running Man, a satirical look at society and media based on the work of acclaimed horror writer, Stephen King.
The trailer for this film seems like a simple premise: Arnold Schwarzenegger is placed onto a game show where he must fight for survival. As the announcer says, the prize is his life. People with all sorts of weapons come for him in his spandex costume and he has to literally run for survival. Keep in mind that this film was made prior to the advent of reality game shows like Survivor or Big Brother. So let’s see what they get right about the genre and how dystopian this becomes.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the year 2017, Los Angeles–and the rest of the country–are a dystopian police state after the world economic collapse. Media is censored, leading to the ultra-popular mass marketed television game show called “The Running Man,” which pits societal dissidents against well-armed and trained stalkers, all broadcast to placate the populace. Benjamin Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a police helicopter pilot, is framed for a “massacre” in Bakersfield and sentenced to a penal colony. He escapes with two partners, Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J McIntyre), and finds help with one of the Resistance underground movements led by Mick (Mick Fleetwood).
The explosive collars worn by the prisoners are removed and they all go their separate ways. Richards visits his brother’s apartment, finding it now occupied by a jingle writer for the ICS Network, named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards abducts her and uses her travel pass to get through the airport, but Amber frees herself and identifies the “butcher of Bakersfield” to the airport police who take him back into custody. He is then transferred to the custody of the Running Man show, at the request of host and producer Damon Killian (Richard Dawson).
Killian blackmails Richards into “performing” on the show, intimating that his co-escapees will be freed if he cooperates. Richards is prepped for the show with various tracking implants while scantily clad dancers entertain the studio audience. Killian talks to members of the crowd including an old woman that attends every episode. Richards is provided with a contract from a lawyer which he signs on the man’s back, ending by stabbing the pen through the contract and into the legal advisor’s shoulder. Killian welcomes the crowd and showcases last year’s big winners, Whitman, Price and Haddad.
Richards is introduced to the audience, who boo him, and instructed on the rules. He must reach four different game quads, spread out over 400 square blocks of game zone while avoiding various Stalkers. He is placed in a rocket sled and blasted into the ruins of Old Los Angeles, devastated by the 1997 quake, and told to run. Killian introduces the first Stalker, SubZero (Professor Toru Tanaka), a large man with a hockey motif complete with scythe-like stick. As Richards runs from the large Japanese stalker, Killian introduces two more contestants: Laughlin and Weiss.
In a shocking moment, SubZero is killed by Richards–something that has never happened before. The trio of runners realize that the uplink to the network satellite, something that Mick’s resistance group has been unable to locate, is here in the game grid. Weiss plans to find and exploit it to provide the truth about what is going on. Meanwhile, Amber is arrested and put into the game when she discovers the original and doctored footage of Richards’ Bakersfield riot. Two new Stalkers are put into the game, Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch)–a chainsaw wielding, motorcycle riding man, and Dynamo (Erland van Lidth)–a rotund operatic singer that uses electricity.
Buzzsaw kills Laughlin, and Dynamo kills Weiss, but not before the hacker secured the code to the satellite, which he relays to Amber. Richards kills Buzzsaw, but refuses to kill Dynamo, an unarmed opponent. The network uses special effects and facial replacement technology to make it appear that Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura) kills Amber and Richards, while secretly sending Fireball (Jim Brown) in to take care of the runners. Richards and Amber get the secret uplink code to Mick’s resistance group, who broadcast the truth to audiences, agitating an already anxious public. Richards returns to the studio and sends Killian into the game zone where his rocket sled crashes into a wall and explodes. The former-runner then grabs and kisses Amber, having revealed the truth to the world, and killed the men trying to hurt him.
“Who loves you, and who do you love?” – Killian
History in the Making
Of the ten films Arnold Schwarzenegger made in the 80s, The Running Man was his third and final sci-fi film, after The Terminator and Predator. It marks the point in his career where he began to switch from straight action films to comedic roles. While films like Raw Deal and Predator had Arnold sporting some humorous one liners, The Running Man made better use of his infamous quips when killing off bad guys (“Here is Subzero. Now plain zero!”). This transition comes just before he plays the straight man to Jim Belushi in Red Heat (1988), and then takes a chance at more broader comedy in Twins (also 1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990). While no one can accuse Schwarzenegger of being overtly funny, his one-liners fit in well with the satirical nature of the film, playing as more of a tongue in cheek moment. He reuses his most famous quote, “I’ll be back,” from The Terminator (which would become a continued catchphrase in other films) and has at least half a dozen other pun-infused lines that elicit chuckles from the audience. After using Buzzsaw’s chainsaw to kill the stalker (by running it up between his legs) Schwarzenegger quips that “he had to split.” Or his final line, when Killian’s rocket sled crashes into the advertisement for Cadre Cola, “well that hit the spot,” aping the tag line for the soda emblazoned on the board.
Based on a 1982 novella, also called The Running Man, by “Richard Bachman” (a pseudonym of horror writer Stephen King), the film uses an extreme dystopian future as the backdrop for a satirical look at modern media culture, specifically game shows. The satire is obvious from the beginning as a title crawl outlines everything that a 2017 world is facing including global economic collapse, the short supply of food, oil and other natural resources, a militarized police state, and the censorship of media, art and commerce. In short, a totalitarian world where the public is kept placid through an immensely popular, and violent, game show called the Running Man. The inspiration for this world-setting and film can be found in previous action oriented sci-fi dystopias with a sports theme such as Death Race 2000 and Rollerball, both from 1975. The Running Man shares more in common with Rollerball, both being set as popular game shows in struggling worlds, and both having colorfully clad contestants in futuristic looking garb, but the state run world is slightly more evident in the exploration of the society in Death Race 2000. Some may even compare the film to Robocop, a dystopian satire from the previous year. But while both films feature satirical content on television media, Robocop takes it much further than The Running Man.
The parallels to Rollerball are notable and may very well have been an inspiration to King when he wrote the original story. But where the James Caan roller derby film exists in a peaceful corporately controlled world, this Schwarzenegger vehicle is a gritty and dirty, poverty torn world where the gaps between the rich and poor have been exaggerated to extremes. In the former film, Jonathan E. (Caan’s character) is a star player in the league who is looking for his individuality and the ability to make choices for himself. Richards, on the other hand, is only looking to survive. He gets caught up in the desires of others to expose the hypocrisy of the state, specifically Damian and his game show.
The Running Man also takes its cues from other recent dystopian projections of the future. Being set in 2017 (which was 30 years away at the time) it looked at current trends and fears of the 80s and took them to an extreme. Aping the somewhat dingy look of Blade Runner and Robocop the film creates a Los Angeles destroyed by a monumental earthquake in 1997 (coincidentally about three years prior to this date a large quake did hit the Southern California area, centered in Northridge), and complete with populations of underground dwellers (possible homeless, but some as resistance members). It imagines a large detention center in the Wilshire District, which now looks like a rock quarry, and features faceless, and slightly inept, militarized security personnel. Overall, it created a pinnacle of 80s dystopia which would also be parodied or satirized in films like Sylvester Stallone’s The Demolition Man (which bears an exceedingly similar name) and the John Carpenter sequel, Escape from LA.
The biggest thematic element of The Running Man is hands-down, the satire of American television and the genre of the game show. Critiques against media had been around in different forms for decades, with some popular films being Network (1975) and the sci-fi horror film Videodrome (1983). Here the film takes the quintessential American game show host, played by real-life Family Feud host Richard Dawson, and makes him a sadistic puppet master in a series of death sports designed to subjugate the populace and help them to ignore the racial, social, and financial disparities of the real world. As with Robocop, there are some small “ad-breaks” in the film to showcase in-universe video of the other shows that people might watch. These include Climbing for Dollars, in which people try to escape a death pit, complete with vicious dobermans with as much cash as they can carry. Posters around the ICS hallways (the television conglomerate responsible for the show) showcase other totalitarian rating “hits” for the studio including Confess, The Hate Boat and Pain American Style, satirizing current popular 70s and 80s TV shows.
The roles of the Stalkers are also parodies of the lives of modern sports stars. The colorful personas of each stalker, like SubZero and Dynamo are all based on television wrestlers, even using actual wrestlers from the WWF (now WWE) shows like Prof. Toru Tanaka and Erland Van Lidth. But the film also pulls inspiration from the NFL with some of its superstars, like Fireball, who is credited as “the leading rusher.” He was portrayed by Jim Brown, a football star and leading rusher for the Cleveland Browns. And when the career of a Stalker ends, they turn to being locker-room commentators, as with Jesse Ventura’s Captain Freedom; hawking soda pop and leading exercise shows in their off hours.
The film also comments on the censorship of music and entertainment by casting Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa as two of the main figures in the resistance. Mick mentions to Richards that he was one of the cops that burned his music, intimating that this older man is actually Mick Fleetwood. The subtext of this exchange is probably meant as a commentary on the efforts of the 1980s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), led by Tipper Gore, which sought to censor music that they felt was inappropriate, including artists like Dweezil’s father Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister, and John Denver.
The Science in The Fiction
The Running Man introduces many elements of futuristic technology, mainly in the areas of policing and control. As was the fashion at the time, new technology that seemed suitably futuristic was created to give the film the guise of being an advanced society. There were different trackers implanted into Richards so that he could be followed during the game, presumably to know what he was up to when out of camera range. Unfortunately this was ignored later when he found his way into the resistance base; which would have been a great opportunity for ICS and the police to bust up their competition. There were also explosive collars used at the detention facility, in conjunction with an electronic gate, which if crossed would cause the prisoners heard to explode from their body. Again, an interesting use of sadistic technology that might have also been useful to keep runners on the game grid. Why they chose to ignore this technology later in the film is also strange.
But the most interesting aspect of the film, and the one that presages modern technology, is the facial replacement technology ICS uses to create the “perfect” storylines. As Richards becomes a popular star on the show, eliminating several of the Stalkers, Killian wants Captain Freedom to enter the grid and take care of the runner. The retired star refuses, so ICS utilizes software that places Richards’ and Freedom’s faces on “stunt” doubles that go through the motions of a battle (presumably even with one double killing the other) and create a believable, yet false narrative, for the show. The special effects were not available to filmmakers at the time to create this effect for real, but in the real 2017 this technology exists and is used to great effect in films and television. There is also the real-world technology of “deep fakes” which can take footage of one individual and place it over another person, creating “mashups” of one person saying the words of another. It is apparent that we are living more in this future society than some may initially believe.
The Final Frontier
The other big thing that The Running Man predicted, or more likely inspired, was the rise of reality television game shows. Debuting two years after this film was a TV series modeled on the movie, minus the killing, called American Gladiators. The popularity of this show was very real and gave televised wrestling a run for its money, a chilling thought that people gravitated to the series. But in honesty, no contestants were hurt or killed. That show led to shows like American Ninja Warrior and Survivor which both pit contestants against one another in more of a Hunger Games style series. And thanks to The Running Man, this entire genre of reality game show may not have existed. There was also a video game called Smash TV that was inspired by the film as well. This stand-up arcade game was a sidescroller that featured a hero with various weapons trying to escape from the television studio in a very violent way.
The Running Man could have been a better film, both in terms of content and satire. Directed by Paul Michale Glaser (better known as Detective Starsky from the popular 70s series Starsky and Hutch), the film itself looks a little bit like a television show, and sometimes feels like it’s pulling its punches. It was definitely a vehicle for Schwarzenegger to further his career and provides some memorable moments, but in retrospect it seems a little watered down, repeating many moments over and over again as the hero runs from everything (hence the title). There is currently talk of a reboot of the film being in production by Edgar Wright. It would be interesting to see what a modern version of this film could look like.
From Sci-Fi Saturdays and our home here at RetroZap.com, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone out there. This series will return next year with more iconic science-fiction films from the rest of the 80s and beyond!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.