Based on the Stephen King novel, Paul Michael Glaser’s cult Sci-Fi film The Running Man (1987) can be revisited with a certain level of curiosity in 2020, since the film’s story takes place three decades into the future in the year 2017. Though the film gets a passing grade of satisfactory – not quite making it to the average mark – it’s worthy of note to compare and contrast what it got right in regards to contemporary times. The technological advancement known as the internet, is referred to as the “infonet”, in addition to voice-controlled electronics, video meetings, short supplies of food, oil and water. But above all, the state controlled media fueled by propaganda that airs a reality TV show called The Running Man – where convicts get tortured and murdered on-screen as a form of punishment for their horrid crimes – takes over the film’s underlying theme of mass media mind control. Moreover, this film provided an intuitive vision and understanding of what the future could look like, should it be ran underneath a totalitarian regime. Considering the state of affairs in 2020, amid a pandemic in addition to Civil unrest within the United States, the idea of a totalitarian police state imposing their brutalities upon rebellious citizens who engage in rioting and looting isn’t too far from the truth.
Fresh off the successes from The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985) and Predator (1987) which solidified him as an action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays Ben Richards in The Running Man (1987), about a wrongly convicted police officer who gets his chance for freedom once he’s been chosen to survive a public execution gauntlet staged as a reality TV game-show. For that spectacle alone, this film deserves a revisit. The ‘80s electronic synth score accompanying the soundtrack with classic 8-track beats, in addition to the on-screen romance between two immigrant actors – the Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Cuban Maria Conchita Alonso – results in the cult status this film has gained since its release over 30 years ago. Seeing the duo perform with their English accents must have been refreshing in the ‘80s as they recite constant jokes and witty one-liners with dialogue written by Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard, 48 Hrs) who built a reputation of writing silly action/adventure movies throughout his career. Moreover, it’s the dystopian America designed with electronics, washed in pink & blue neon lights and a flair of post-apocalyptic and post-modernism in its philosophy, arts and architecture that make The Running Man a sight to bare – even thirty years after its release.
Despite the fact that this film attempted to convey what ended up becoming accurate insights into the state of the future world as we know it today, it managed to maintain the inevitable air of ‘80s vibes which evoke the tendency to have nostalgia for a remarkable decade. Even with a film that takes place in the next century – which is currently our past – watching The Running Man induces a feeling for a lost time that will never be repeated; unless you live in contemporary Los Angeles, which often feels like it’s stuck in the ‘80s. The epitome of 1980s subculture rests in LA and has somehow magically stayed in LA. This film being shot and set in LA only adds to the magic that the 1980s had to offer. The body building and at-home aerobic video workouts displayed in this film accurately matches the current culture of obsession when it comes to the D.I.Y. fitness routines in 2020. Especially amid a pandemic, where gyms and health clubs are on the brink of filing for bankruptcy.
The outrageous spectacle that is The Running Man is intermixed with silly situations, endless humor and brutal violence. It boils up to an extravagant climax and in the aftermath, the soundtrack single “Restless Heart” by English singer/musician John Parr fades in while Maria Conchita Alonso’s eyes smile in a close-up at Arnold Schwarzenegger amid the game-show set with a bright reddish/pink background. As they embrace and kiss, the films cuts to an exterior wide shot of dystopian LA at night and fades to black as the New Wave/Synth-Pop love song plays its way over rolling end credits. It’s almost a reminder of how these cliched ending techniques aren’t duplicated enough in modern-day films. Had these techniques become more prevalent, perhaps audiences would leave a movie screening feeling just as delighted as filmgoers did in the ’80s. Of course we live in different times considering the current state of the world, let alone Los Angeles – which is exactly what’s conjured up in the plot of The Running Man – a film literally ahead of its time as it attempts to predict what a future world would look like.
The Running Man sparked disappointment and controversy within its creators and stars. The screenplay by Stephen E. de Souza was an adaptation from a Stephen King novel written under the alias – Richard Bachman. Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay adaptation inevitably deviated and changed a course of direction from how Stephen King had written the novel; about a malnourished man who decides to become a contestant in a mortal game-show in order to win money for his deprived family. In De Souza’s script, Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards portrayed a policeman who’s framed and sent into prison as a tortured slave. He doesn’t have a family and sparks a romance with fellow game-show contestant Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso). Due to satisfying the needs of Tri Star Pictures in crafting a story that intertwined violent action with humorous one-liners, Steven E. de Souza did what he does best – mixing hardcore action with comedy. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t fit the bill of a malnourished character, Stephen King was disappointed with the casting choice and his real name wasn’t associated with the credits. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger used the film’s title “The Running Man” to help assist with his political campaign when he was re-elected Governor of California in 2006.
“This is television. That’s all it is. For fifty years we told them what to eat. What to drink, what to wear. Americans love television. They love wrestling. Sports. Violence. We give them what they want. It’s all about the ratings.” Perhaps, what the game-show host Damon (Richard Dawson) says to Ben Richards upon the films climactic showdown couldn’t be closer to the truth. The opening credits displayed a disclaimer with a blood red background and white title cards reading information that rings something hauntingly familiar to the state of affairs in 2020: 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 peoples yearning for freedom, more direct methods become necessary.”
The allegory in the films ending reveals a hidden political message when Ben Richards says to the sadistic game-show host, “I’m going to give the audience what they want.” And then Richards sends Damon on a sliding ride that ends with a crashing death. The allegory here can be interpreted as how the masses are tired of being brain-washed with falsehoods as opposed to being exposed to stone-cold facts. The flipside of the argument is whether state-controlled media believes a populace can handle the truth they seek; so they keep the masses preoccupied with meaningless, mind-numbing television programs. Nevertheless, The Running Man went through a slew of directors – which is a nightmare upon the final product of any given film. The film’s initial director, Andrew Davis, who was fresh off of the action film Code of Silence (1985) with Chuck Norris, hadn’t made the masterpieces he’d become known for just yet – like Under Siege (1992) or The Fugitive (1993) – but Arnold Schwarzenegger knew Davis would have crafted a superior film, had he not left the project. Schwarzenegger admitted in his autobiography “Total Recall” that The Running Man was a disappointment to him, because it had great potential and could have been an excellent film, had there not been so much chaos behind the scenes of production. Paul Michael Glaser, the actor who played in the TV show Starsky & Hutch (1975-1979) came on board as director of The Running Man while it was several weeks into production. Glaser ended up finishing off the chores on a project that wasn’t even his to begin with. Before anybody points a finger at why The Running Man gets a passing grade of satisfactory for a film, it’s important to reconsider the disarray of its production during the filmmaking process. Ultimately, it’s a much better film than we remember.