During these pessimistic times, people throw around the idea of which dystopia we are heading for. Last spring I threw out the obscure comic book series American Flagg. Chaykin had a great eye on the problems of both the high and the low. He skewers them both. That is something missed in a lot of dystopian works where liberal tendencies romanticize the low or focus on only the lives of the high. There is actually a really good probable future coming our way that no one mentions, "The Running Man". Not the Stephen King book version that is a bit preachy and set in New England. That is an incredible dystopian novel that is even more violent than the movie. Look at the inferior but more enjoyable Arnold Schwarzenegger '80s action film version of "The Running Man". Look at the movie, listen to the dialogue and look at today or even just a bit in the future.
Here is the set up: 2017, world economy has collapsed, natural resources, food and oil are tapped, America had an economic cataclysm, the Big One hit California, a totalitarian police state (Cadre) exists with heavy security at airports, cultural activity is heavily censored except for the broadcast reality competition game shows. Most of America seems to live in squalid, third world conditions, there are political prisoners mixed in with regular prisoners, there are re-education camps, heavily armed helicopters are used to pacify rioters, but there is also a small number of people living a decent life with nice apartments, travel options, and spiffy clothes. There is a play on patriotism. Los Angeles has shiny towers and plenty of squalor with armed police members everywhere, resembling a Brazilian city. That is pretty horrifyingly close to today.
One major difference is that a strong streak of traditional morality is at play. Maybe antibiotics are unavailable, so we have to go back to Victorian morality? The schools are also closed, which plays into the myth pushed by the media and academia that schools subvert the regime instead of being one of the best tools of any regime. The reality competition game shows are all violent, but the object is money or freedom for prisoners. There are posters on the wall for fictional game shows (Confess, The Hate Boat) and funny previews for money based ones (Climbing for Dollars). There is a resistance headed by Mick Fleetwood. Not just the actor, listen to his lines. He plays himself. Protagonist Ben Richards (Arnold) finds a way to defeat the evil stalkers, rejects a seductive offer to join the Cadre's prime time show The Running Man as a stalker, and helps the resistance throw the Cadre over by messing with their ultimate weapon: the television broadcast.
Buried beneath the one liners are real gems in the script. Besides the tremendous Richard Dawson as game show host Killian, which was basically his Family Feud persona turned up to "11", the script is tremendous. This is an action movie that could have just gone the stupid action movie route like "Commando". Admit it, "Commando" is awesome but stupid. The movie really pushes the synthesis of the police state with television as a salve for the masses. The Justice Department has an entertainment division. The president has an agent. As Arnold is getting ready for the show, he meets his court appointed theatrical agent. How much of our judicial system and media work together for these modern spectacles? Lawyer Benjamin Crump has now been involved in two made for television crime spectacles (Trayvon and Mike Brown), and what better title to call him that theatrical agent? Crump has taken small town crime stories now twice and boosted them up to national media spectacles. There is obviously a synthesis between his involvement and the national media, but ABC News is not going to reveal it since his leads are progressive narrative shows. Got to manage that black underclass emotional constipation somehow.
The media is part of molding opinion, but in Running Man, they let it be open and overt. Arnold's character was framed as the terrible Butcher of Bakersfield, massacring peaceful food protestors. They used digital video edited to make him look like the bad guy. Raw video proved him innocent. Later, they trump up fake crimes to manipulate the audience. Sound familiar? George Zimmerman heard his 911 call be carefully edited by NBC to make him sound like an evil, racist stalker. It added to the narrative. It made him the bad guy, not just for the trial, but for all of America to hear. Raw audio of the call revealed that Zimmerman sounded like any other guy calling 911 in the rain slightly confused and very concerned with what or who he thought was out there. In the Running Man, they make you the villain by using fake video and audio to build up your negative profile for the viewers at home to hate you. We are already there.
There are nuggets about how easy people accept violence and even sadomasochism in their lives. The television aerobics show continuously mentions the need for pain. One of the weirder lines is from a female coworker of the love interest, Amber Mendez, who sees Arnold walking by and is visibly excited by him. She then says, "You're lucky he didn't kill you, too. Or rape you, then kill you. Or kill you, then rape you." She then takes a drag off her cigarette looking turned on and says how a man like that could do anything. In 1987, that was a parody of decadent women needing sex and violence to be turned on. Sounds like your very large pool of 50 Shades of Grey readers in 2014. The expectation is for the kill, and the audience disapproves of Arnold showing mercy on the stalker Dynamo. A simple human act of mercy does not resonate with the crowd. They want the blood. Mercy is a long standing concept, yet these people are so devolved as to not consider it an option. The police state is awful, but the people are not angels, too.
At the very end, Killian gives Arnold the talk. It is television. We have been telling them what to believe, think, eat, like for over 50 years. They give the people what they want. This is the insider's view, and the view that absolves them of pushing depraved behavior. "It's not me, I was forced to by the filthy masses." This is revealed by the amazement expressed by Hollywood executives and pundits at the success of Duck Dynasty when it is patently obvious. Duck Dynasty is the one sliver of television that reflects a core American audience's beliefs (God, family, loving marriages) and structure (family, gender roles, family business, small town). The media knows it has this power, but it never talks about it unless it is behind closed doors. When the truth leaks out like Vice President Biden saying gay marriage would never have happened without the media, it gets hushed up and off the pages. The Running Man is social satire that is rapidly becoming social reality. You cannot parody our world anymore because you would never be able to go far enough. The progressive steamroller never ever stops and is always looking for new targets. A proper satire today would have to involve transgender Muslim polygamists trying to marry a horse bride. Only problem with that script pitch is that Hollywood would never allow the criticism of their side.