‘This is no game’: A Review of The Running Man

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It has been a long week. After the disappointment that was Ghost in the Shell, I had to perk myself up with a classic—The Running Man. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man rounds off my reviews for previous sports-themed cyberpunk films (Rollerball and Death Race 2000). Ostensibly, it doesn’t appear too cyberpunky, but I assure you, it does, eerily enough, fulfill a niche that we have more in common with than the late 80’s in which this film was conceived.

Loosely adapted from Stephen King’s (as Richard Bachman) novel of the same name, the plot is as follows:

‘In the year 2019, America is a totalitarian state where the favourite television program is The Running Man—a game show in which prisoners must run to freedom to avoid a brutal death. Having been made a scapegoat by the government, an imprisoned Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has the opportunity to make it back to the outside again by being a contestant on the deadly show, although the twisted host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), has no intention of letting him escape.’

Unlike Rollerball, The Running Man’s tone throughout the film is more akin to the 80’s action film. It is loud, bombastic, filled to the brim with one-liners, clunky, ill-conceived and brilliant. It is a film that knows what it is, and what it is, is a shameless variant of Rollerball. And that is all we need. And Arnold Schwarzenegger. We always need more Schwarzenegger.

Also unlike Rollerball, there is no clashing of corporations, but a world dominated by one reality television show, and that is something that is perhaps more dangerous for it leads to an uncanny dictatorship whereby the viewers are gorged and desensitised in a world where violence is nothing more than a delectable source of nutrition; and the players are but gladiators sparring in “high-tech” armour and spandex.

And this is something I enjoyed, greatly.

‘Who do you think will make the next kill?’

The costuming of the “chasers” (stars that obviously chase the runners) is a visual treat, ranging from a rednecky chainsaw-wielding biker to an opera singing lightbulb man, and perfectly suits the tone of this film. Whilst the majority of the actors ham their roles, I especially admire Richard Dawson’s portrayal as the wicked Killian (get it, Kill-ian, he’s so evil), Dawson having perfected the personification of the vile game show host.  Having said that, this film is meant to be absurd.

And this is what frightens me—our world has become this absurdity. At its core, cyberpunk is a genre that revels in this insanity only to warn its readers/viewers that this alleged future is just around the corner. Gibson’s Neuromancer warns of a highly technological society that is far more concerned with gadgetry and information. Stephenson warned of franchise-owned conglomerates. And what is it that Glaser predicted with his film?

‘This is television, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with people; it’s to do with ratings!’

In the film, Schwarzenegger’s character, Ben Richards’ is labeled a liar and a murderer, a story that is contorted and twisted by the government to cover up a massacre of innocent and hungry bystanders. Using Richards as a scapegoat, the government imprisons him, only for him to escape, get recaptured and participate in The Running Man charade not only for his life but the life of his allies.

In his article, ‘the violent, post-truth 2017 predicted in The Running Man? We’re living in it’, lecturer of Creative Writing, David Bishop, claims that whilst the film is a product of its time, this notion of a world that is plastered with “fake news” is ever-present. A world where “viewers” are but manipulated with the lies spun by expert moguls. A world in which presidents and politicians only need experience with television and film rather than policy. Is this what our world has become? Partially, and that’s why writing about The Running Man is more prudent than ever. Instead of normalising such insanity, one only need to watch Glaser’s film.

‘I live to see you eat that contract, but I hope you leave enough room for my fist because I’m going to ram it into your stomach and break your god-damn spine!’

The film does have its problems, primarily the happy rebellion finale (though John Parr’s Restless Heart is an amazing song for the credits), which is something I’m not fond of and think Rollerball pulls off much better (though this is still not as problematic as Death Race 2000). One could also agree with Schwarzenegger, and despise the way it was shot by Glaser to appear more “reality TV show-like”, and I think that’s a fair assessment. But as a child of the nineties, I grew up with films like this, and have grown fond of all kinds of schlock and absurdities. It is also my opinion that the “reality TV show-like” quality creates a bleak dissonance that only adds to the charm of this film.  If you want a far more serious film, The Running Man is not for you, though it does contain a rather prophetic warning, and that is to be wary of corporations and conglomerates that warp information for their own benefit. Whether it be for clicks or to swing the presidency, we are living in a post-truth society, and that is something that truly frightens me.

I cannot recommend this film enough, flaws and all, it’s still a great watch and definitely something I’d add to my 80’s action collection.

You can purchase a copy of the movie here, or if reveling in King’s original story is more your thing, you can find the book here.

The Running Man – 7/10

 

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