The Running Man

Some sci-fi movies are remarkably prescient. For example, The China Syndrome was about a meltdown at a nuclear reactor and it was released just twelve days before there was a partial meltdown in the Three Mile Island facility. More recently, there was Minority Report which correctly predicted that we would be seeing more and more invasive ads that were specifically targeted towards individual people's preferences. And of course you've got the granddaddy of them all: 2001. That movie correctly predicted that it would be possible to take commercial flights to the moon by the year 2001 and also that a series of brightly colored laser beams would repurpose all of humankind into giant floating space fetuses.

Of course, a lot of sci-fi movies are... less prescient. For example, there's the Running Man, a mid-80's dystopian movie that was supposed to be set in 2019. Most of the movie's early predictions are inaccurate but not necessarily implausible. Sure, the government hasn't taken total control over all of our media - but totalitarian censorship is always a possibility in any society so that isn't too far-fetched. And yeah, food riots aren't regular occurrences in downtown L.A. right now, but if a few things go wrong they could be; as California's recent drought has shown our food network is potentially vulnerable and people are always going to have to eat.

But overall The Running Man's idea of 2019 is wildly off-base. The film's central plot is about a helicopter pilot named Ben Richards (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is framed for a crime he didn't commit. At first he is sentenced to do hard labor in a work camp, but after he escapes and is recaptured he is condemned to star in the Running Man, a program where convicts have to outrun and outwit outlandish killers live on national television.

Now, you could argue that the concept of "the Running Man" correctly predicted the rise of reality television, but that doesn't ring true to me. For one, the Running Man is explicitly a game show, not a reality show, and it follows that outdated formula to a T. (At one point Damon Killian, the show's smarmy host, gives a little old lady in the audience a version of the home game - which is not really something that they do over on Honey Boo-Boo.) But more importantly, none of our current crop of reality shows feels anything like the Running Man, because our culture has a very different relationship to violence than people did in 1987.

When Schwarzenegger made this movie the multiplex was full of super violent movies - films like his own Commando and Rambo whose only purpose was to provide high body counts to soothe bloodthirsty audiences. The Running Man predicted that our culture would double down on that - that we would still get off on violence, but that we would suddenly want that violence to be real. Instead, we've gone the opposite way. Now our entertainments are mostly bloodless affairs, with action films toning all their gore down to get PG-13 ratings and with franchise films refusing to kill anyone off that they might need for a sequel. And as far as reality tv goes - well, those shows are often aggressive, but in a wholly prefabricated way that feels purposefully safe and predictable. We might want a verbal catfight here and there, but those shows never have real stakes because they are meant to be comfort food, and I don't think we find death and destruction as comforting as we used to.

However, I get why the Running Man would get its big picture details so wrong. Like a lot of people I think that our culture's retreat into consequence-free entertainment in the last decade is because we process trauma in a different way after 9/11 , but there's no way that these filmmakers could have predicted that specific tragedy in the mid 80s. That said, most of the Running Man's little details are wrong, too, and they are wrong in ways that would have been obvious to an astute observer back then.

For example, all of the Running Man's "contestants" are killed by "stalkers" - oversize men in ridiculous costumes with trick weapons. There's Buzzsaw, a beefy Minnesota type with an overgrown mustache and some chainsaws; Dynamo, a stocky weirdo wearing a Light Brite looking chest piece who can shoot bolts of electricity from his fingertips; Subzero, an Asian hockey player with a knife tipped hockey stick; and Fireball, a beefy former football player with a jetpack and a flamethrower. Now, let's leave aside the fact that none of these characters make sense on their own - Dynamo apparently sings opera while he's murdering prisoners, even though the correlation between looking like Tron Guy and belting out arias totally escapes me - their collection as a whole makes no sense in our modern corporate synergistic world.

This is for two reasons. One is that modern shows and movies try to stay relentlessly on brand, but these violent weirdos don't make any sort of sense as a unit. I get the connection between fire and ice, but the connection between a guy wearing a flamethrower / jetpack combo and an Asian hockey player makes no sense to me. (Also the Asian hockey player thing makes no sense to me, but that's neither here nor there.) The only thing that really unites these four dudes is that their gimmicks all share a similar sort of goofiness - but that goofiness seems out of place for a show like the Running Man, which is supposed to be gritty and violent.

Well, there is a second thing that unites them - all of the stalkers look similar because they are all barrel chested brawny dudes. But that's the other thing that the Running Man gets wrong, because we don't cast people with those body types on TV anymore. We've become too fitness obsessed for that - now if you want to get cast you need to have six pack abs and 2% body fat. And you'd think that the Running Man could have seen that coming, because that shift is large part due to its leading man's influence - it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe, who brought body building into the mainstream, and it was all downhill after that. 

Although the Running Man failed to accurately predict our overall media landscape, you have to give it credit for at least one thing - it did manage to predict the success of the Hunger Games, which is a very popular modern franchise with an analogous concept. (Although it should be noted that all of the combatants in the Hunger Games' televised gladiatorial contests are all on-brand at all times and that all of them have the bodies of athletes even though they are supposed to be starving peasants.) You might think that the Running Man's low batting average would put it at the back of the pack, but actually its one accurate prediction is enough to put it ahead of a lot of other sci-fi movies which have none at all. Hell, that single true prophecy puts it ahead of a lot of sci-fi auteurs who never managed to get anything right despite having very long careers. After all, Jules Verne predicted in the 1800s that some day we would be able to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days and that we might be able to someday visit to the moon. Yeah, right, Jules, you just keep on dreamin'.

Winner: Draw

The Running Man on IMDB