This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
The Running Man, a 1987 sci-fi action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is having a brief resurgence of relevance this year—though not in the way its stars and writers ever really envisioned.
The film is replete with all the cheesy 80s music and smug, action-hero one liners that one might expect from a Schwarzenegger flick (yes, he even drops an "I'll be back"). But the movie about a dystopian America pacified by a deadly reality show in the then-futuristic year of 2017 is still incredibly unsettling to watch on the eve of President Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017.
At the time of its release, Schwarzenegger saw it as nothing more than fiction. "In the movie, civil liberties and civil rights are abandoned," Schwarzenegger said in a 1987 television interview with entertainment reporter Bobbie Wygant. "That's why it's a movie and not reality. It's just a story, you can never forget that."
Although the US Justice Department has yet to establish an 'Entertainment Division' for the transfer of convicted criminals to a game show, watching The Running Man's depiction of the hyper-militarization of America and the blending of reality television with reality hits a little too close to home today.
"Everyday this year, I turn around there's another example of how stuff in the movie is coming true," Steven de Souza, who wrote the screenplay for The Running Man, told Motherboard in a phone interview. "I just want to say, it's not my fault."
Set in Los Angeles circa 2019, The Running Man is based off of a 1982 novel of the same name written by Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It tells the story of America in the aftermath of an economic collapse that happened in 2017.
"Everyday this year, I turn around there's another example of how stuff in the movie is coming true. I just want to say, it's not my fault."
In this post-apocalyptic future, a huge class divide is maintained by military rule—the elite live in fancy, militarized high rises in Los Angeles while the poor are relegated to massive slums on the outskirts of the city, where they are slaughtered indiscriminately by the military. It's tough not to see some parallels here to the real-life economic disparities, gentrification, and near-record high income gap in the United States today.
After escaping from a labor camp where he had been imprisoned for refusing to fire on unarmed civilians, helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger's character) briefly links up with members of a rebellion, before being recaptured by the police during an attempt to escape to Hawaii.
Instead of being sent back to the camps, Richards is offered a chance to compete on 'The Running Man,' America's most popular reality television show, which pits convicted criminals called 'runners' against roided-out mercenaries called 'stalkers' in a futuristic take on gladiator-style blood sports. If he wins by surviving and defeating all of the stalkers, Richards can choose one of three illustrious prizes: a trial by jury, a suspended sentence, or a full pardon—prizes that no contestant has ever won.
In the beginning of the film, Richards is hiding out from the law in a woman's apartment when a television broadcaster announces a "door-to-door" police manhunt for Richards. While knocking down every door in Los Angeles to find a criminal might've seemed over the top in 1987, watching the film again today, it's hard not to think of the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing of 2013, after which, the entire city was shut down while SWAT teams entered neighborhood homes in pursuit of the suspects, all without a warrant.
Then there's the obvious connection between 'The Running Man's' theatrical, cold-blooded host Damon Killian and our president-elect Donald Trump, who hosted a competitive, though not nearly so deadly, reality show himself. In a weird twist, Schwarzenegger recently became the host of The Apprentice, and the two engaged in a Twitter spat after a seemingly possessive Trump suggested Schwarzenegger's debut saw less-than-stellar ratings.
In the film, Killian controls the destitute masses of America by concocting lies that suit his narrative, twisting reality to fit the demands of television ratings. In a particularly telling scene, Killian admits that it was all about the money, justifying himself by saying he was only giving the American people what they wanted—violence, action, spectacle.
Endless lies were something we'd all become familiar with over the course of the most recent election cycle, but ultimately the winning candidate was the one that knew how to turn American politics into a high stakes reality show in its own right. And so Americans are left with a situation that, at least on the surface, resembles the future as seen through The Running Man a little too closely for comfort: a populace enraptured by the mass media spectacles orchestrated by a game show host that has the power to decide between life and death.
"In real life, everyone goes right back to Facebook."
For all its bleakness, The Running Man ultimately ends on a relatively positive note. Although America remains in tatters economically, if Schwarzenegger teaches us anything over the course of an hour and a half of gratuitous violence, it's that the dogged pursuit of truth in the face of tyranny is worth it.
Yet for screenwriter de Souza, that doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending in real life. "The biggest downer of this movie is the idea that when the video tape surfaces showing that Killian has lied, everyone is instantly outraged and rises up," de Souza said. "Apparently, it doesn't work that way. We've heard the tapes and seen the tapes, and it's had no effect. In real life, everyone goes right back to Facebook."
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