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Thursday, 11 October 2018 07:18

"The Running Man": An American Allegory

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Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson in The Running Man (1987).Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson in The Running Man (1987). Photo: Braveworld Productions / Taft Entertainment / HBO Pictures

"Post-truth is pre-fascism." –Timothy Snyder 

In the 1987 film, The Running Man, the world of America circa 2017 is a bleak one: Inequality is rampant. The public lives in fear, victims of dishonest news. The main distraction for a numbed citizenry is part of a modern-day version of bread and circuses, which comes in the form of a reality TV show run by a host who is likely the most powerful person in the country. All of this should ring some bells. The Running Man is remembered, if it's remembered at all, as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's last forays into B-movies. However, the film has notable parallels with our own reality. While '80s dystopian films such as Escape From New York, 1990: The Bronx Warriors or Firebird 2015 AD have little to say about our lives today, Schwarzenegger's '80s-esque classic – while also getting a lot wrong – has some startling surprises for the modern viewer. 

Schwarzenegger plays a cop named Ben Richards, serving in a Los Angeles that resembles the urban environment in earlier and later films such Blade Runner and Dark City. He's a man with a conscience that defies the totalitarian government running the country by refusing to fire on hungry civilians during a food riot. For his crime, he soon finds himself incarcerated with a group of budding revolutionaries who are intent on jamming the government network that produces endless amounts of brutal reality TV shows, including a few "reimagined" shows as well. In two particularly corny examples, the '80s hit "The Love Boat" becomes "The Hate Boat" and "Love, American Style" becomes "Pain, American Style." Bloody reality TV shows like "Climbing for Dollars" feature contestants who have to climb up a rope to retrieve money while hungry dogs wait below for them to fall.

But the most popular show running is the "The Running Man," where convicted criminals (contestants) have to navigate through 400 square blocks of abandoned Los Angeles landscape (left over from the big quake of '97!) while being hunted by a squad of professional killers called "stalkers." 

After Richards and company escape from prison, they are eventually recaptured. He comes to the attention of the host of "The Running Man," Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). Killian compels him to star on the show in order to save his revolutionary friends, and he is quickly shunted off into the world of "The Running Man" –  "ready to pay the price for our home audience," as Killian gleefully exclaims. 

Much of the movie hasn't aged well. The hair and wardrobe scream the '80s, and like many films that attempt to portray the future, The Running Man sees 2017 as simply 1987 on steroids. Improbably, cassettes and videotapes are still prevalent. The computers look like glorified versions of the Commodore 64, and the aerobics programs on TV look suspiciously like something from Jane Fonda's Workout.

But important elements of the film translate well today. After Richards kidnaps a woman (Maria Conchita Alonso) in order to help him escape LA, he orders plane tickets for them directly off the "Infonet," which seems to resemble the internet. The network that airs "The Running Man," ICS ("your entertainment and information network," as it's described by the corporate state in the film), represents the melding of the government with the entertainment world. Indeed, contestants on the show are given court-appointed theatrical agents, and when Killian attempts to reach the president, he calls his agent. Of course, today the president himself has an agent. The character of Killian has obvious parallels to Donald Trump, who made his name in the modern era as a reality TV host, one who also favored on-air cruelty. In season six of "The Apprentice," for example, Trump put each week's winning team in a mansion while the losers were relegated to living in a "tent city."

"One of the great rewards is living like a king, as opposed to living like a dog," Trump said of arrangement.  

Yet the most potent element of the film depicts a post-truth era. "The truth isn't very popular these days," Richards remarks early in the film. A post-truth world is a necessary precursor to the type of fascism that one sees in The Running Man.

The government network utilizes false news in order to confuse the citizenry. When Richards appears on the show, doctored footage of him ordering the massacre of civilians is shown to the TV audience. The film also accurately foresaw how digital editing could be used to falsify video, now a real concern.

The film is also an interesting combination of Neil Postman and George Orwell. The US of The Running Man is set in a world where the economy has crashed – something we might soon (again) be facing. The government forces dissidents to undergo "reeducation" or worse, and citizens need a travel pass in order to move around, shades of Orwell's 1984. 

The work of Postman, one of the foremost critics of television and the media during the 1980s, also permeates much of the film. Postman postulated that the world of print encourages one type of thinking (the typographic mind) and that the world of TV represents quite another. While print compels us to analyze arguments in-depth, to contemplate and to reason, the world of TV (images) demands that everything is presented as entertainment. In short, the pillars of American civic and commercial life become "adjuncts of show business," according to Postman. This is something we share in common with the world of The Running Man.

The inherent cruelty that pervades much of reality TV and the Trump administration, not coincidentally, is also – in extreme form – the world of Damon Killian. No, the US is not a totalitarian state that channels 1984. However, notable aspects of our culture are regressing to a post-truth moment – from "fake news" to "alternative facts." Our propensity for cruelty, which manifested itself in recent years in the reality TV world, is now firmly rooted in our politics as well. 

In a strange twist, both Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, who appears in the film as an over-the-hill stalker, went on to become state governors, something that wouldn't have surprised Postman. And after Trump ascended to the presidency, Schwarzenegger took over as host of "The Apprentice."

Further, President Trump, even during some of the worst crises of his presidency, has continued to focus on his ratings. One could see him nodding along when Killian explains the reality of "The Running Man" to Richards at the film's end: "We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."