In 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger was still seen as a one-dimensional action star. He had The Terminator, Commando, and Predator all under his belt. He was still a year away from his transition to comedy (Twins in 1988 and Kindergarten Cop in 1990), but The Running Man marked a significant exception to both genres. Based on a science fiction novel by Stephen King, the film then was probably seen as nothing more than an amusing montage of musclemen beating each other. Now however, it stands as a chillingly accurate predictor for another medium: television.
The basic plot is reasonably reminiscent of the macho Reagan era that made Arnold a star. His character, Ben Richards, is an unjustly imprisoned former police officer given an opportunity to reduce his sentence by going on a game show. The only problem is the game show’s objective is to kill Richards in order to please its blood-crazed fans. Of course, this leads to some wild fight sequences between Arnold and similarly shaped strongmen, but that’s all part of the fun. Even such famous faces as Jim Brown (with a flamethrower) and Jesse Ventura (with cheap tin armor) pop up to give Arnold their best shot.
Yes, the dystopia presented in The Running Man is a tad extreme, but I doubt even King knew how eerily close it mimicked today’s reality television culture. As of now, we have yet to create a show where contestants are actually endangering their lives. There have been deaths on reality television, though, and they usually come with a ratings spike. Without delving too deep into the American psyche, I can safely say The Running Man didn’t miss the mark by much (and that’s without knowing their target).
Even though the television show in the movie is labeled a game show, it’s much closer to reality TV. Audience members have favorite contestants. There are cameras everywhere. Severe vetting of contestants and editing of content takes place. The similarities are pretty scary.
All of these concepts and more are discussed in Game Theory: An Examination of Reality TV a 20-minute documentary included on the blu-ray DVD. A few professors and reality television executives discuss parallels between the film and reality TV in a pretty standard short extra. The content is a little dated, but the behind-the-scenes information is engrossing enough to prove relevant (for 20-minutes). It also leaves its audience with undeniable evidence that The Running Man, as a prediction of the future of entertainment, couldn’t be more accurate.
As a film, though, it runs into a few too many faults of its ’80s movie culture. The pacing is too slow. Each cut feels like it came five seconds too late. Despite killing the quick tempo of the film, it also lets the camera linger even longer on some really cheap-looking Mise-en-scène. The costumes are ridiculous, and the sets look like they were pieced together shortly before each scene. Some may find these idiosyncrasies appealing in a nostalgic kind of way, but they’re really just lazy filmmaking.
There are some fun nostalgic components to be found here, however. Thanks to the influences of Die Hard and other jokey action pictures, The Running Man is packed with referential one-liners and off-the-wall quips. Arnold, of course, squeezes in the now famous “I’ll be back”, but some of his other post-fight quotes are just as priceless. After cutting the throat of an assailant, Richards says “He was a real pain in the neck.” When a tussle forces him to shove a chainsaw between a lunatic’s legs, he tells his inquisitive sidekick the villain “had to split.”
Crass? Possibly, but these wisecracks are almost more important than plot for fans of the genre.
Fans will undoubtedly accept the bad for the good, but the real selling point for the film is its setting. The violent culture centered around a violent television program presents a clear dystopia. No one wants to live here, thus making a compelling argument that our current society is heading in the wrong direction.
Another bonus feature is a documentary entitled Lockdown on Mainstreet, a slightly odd inclusion considering it centers on the Patriot Act. Though the film grazes the edges of the privacy issue, it never takes a side on whether that part of the dystopia is a plus or a minus. Also, the short film was made in 2003 so it fails to mention any of the alterations to the Act since its inception.
The special features are obviously designed to make viewers take note of the film’s relevance. This isn’t necessary. Anyone who has watched television in the last decade would recognize the key similarities (which do not include anything in the Patriot Act). Also, everyone else probably won’t care even if they’re told. Instead, they’ll be able to sit back and enjoy pre-governator Schwarzenegger speak freely.
Take your pick. Either way, The Running Man should provide plenty to chew on in 101-minutes.