Paul Michael Glaser
María Conchita Alonso
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
The Running Man
April 20, 2020
n The Running Man, an unfaithful 1987 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Arnold Schwarzenegger is Benjamin Richards, a police helicopter pilot. The film is set in America, in 2017 — which, in the context of the feature, is a totalitarian nightmare in which all cultural activity is exactingly monitored, every facet of the entertainment industry is manipulated by the government, and the gap between the 1 percent and the rest of the world is
so insurmountably large that a revolution seems inexorable. Richards is introduced to us doing his nightly patrolling — business as usual. But moments into the film, he’s asked to gratuitously massacre with a drone a horde of people participating in a food riot. When Richards refuses, he’s sent to a labor camp; then, he’s framed when the mini-pogrom is nevertheless carried out.
The most popular TV program in The Running Man’s universe is a snuffy reality show from which the movie takes its title. It’s hosted by Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a fascistic Pat Sajak substitute, and is similar to (to pander to millennial readers for a moment) the Hunger Games. The conceit of the series is that convicted criminals are hunted down by WWE-looking assassins — referred to as “stalkers” in the movie — in various locales, with cameras recording the whole thing. The chase itself is meant to be the appetizer, the main course the criminal’s grisly demise. If the prey survives, they will be pardoned by the state. Sometimes they might even receive greater fame in the television industry.
What audiences don’t know is that the vast majority of contestants on the show have actually not committed the crimes for which they are being punished. They are in actuality insurgents deemed threatening by the government, which in turn has the technological prowess to convincingly create false footage in which the innocent party really does seem as bad as they’re said to be. Richards, naturally, is made a contestant on the show after he and two others (Yaphet Kotto, Marvin J. McIntyre) escape from the prison camp at which they’ve been held for the last two or so years.
Though provocatively premised, and in a lot of ways prescient in its satire — namely its imagining of late-2010s-era class divide and the often propagandistic nature of television — The Running Man is so monotonously structured and elsewhere bromidic in its commentary that, cinematically, it resembles a portrait drawing in which the face of the subject is detailed but the body belongs to a stick figure. The action sequences are fundamentally all the same — listless chases in the near pitch-black, fog-machine-choked settings, with the antagonist a living figurine with a silly weapon. And the film’s main talking point — that these days audiences are so hypnotized by their own lurid interests that soon enough watching full-blown snuff will be the pastime du jour — is condescendingly portrayed.
The Running Man generalizes all consumers seen in the movie as breathing vacuums. This of course also means that the film wants to encourage us viewers to take a look at ourselves. But the feature never pauses to consider that there is such a thing as a discerning, critical viewer. Much entertainment is indeed seasoned with brutal violence; that said violence can, in many ways, be entertaining in and of itself if properly aestheticized. (A moral tangle to be unraveled in a different piece of writing.) But it isn't true, I think, that the general populace is drawn to cultural products solely because of their violence, which The Running Man tries to suggest will eventually happen if it hasn't already. What's truer, and what The Running Man should have mulled over, is that desensitization is more complicated than that, often contingent on how banally violence is shown, even temporarily, in the context of an otherwise harmless program.
The most influential of television satires, like 1976's talkative, frequently
deranged Network or 1987's media savvy Broadcast News, worked because they acknowledged that viewers can be drawn toward seedy cultural artifacts while also being skeptical of them. They also didn't portray someone's consumption habits as comprehensively indicative of their ethics. The Running Man is too shortsighted to delve into these nuances. It’s further sabotaged by the miscast Schwarzenegger, whose one-liner-spewing action hero routine, which I usually love, is too jocular for a movie that nowhere else has any interest in doing what he’s doing. At one point in the movie, Killian, with a laugh, tells Richards that he’s "a trifle limited" — an insult that also applies to The Running Man. C