4 Things 'The Running Man' Teaches You About Life
Sometime before Christmas I came down with either the flu or the Andromeda Strain and was forced to take a day off work while I died. If you're wondering why I'm still here, and why the world hasn't just emerged from a three-month period of mourning, well, it turns out that my temple-like body (falling apart, mossy) apparently had exactly the right antibodies to fight off this mortal threat, and I emerged stronger than ever. I even managed to write a completely bonkers column during the spell, which I understand now has epidemiologists poring over it for clues.
Along with nearly dying and writing completely insane nonsense, like everyone else who takes a day off sick, I spent much of it on the couch, reacquainting myself with the miracle of daytime television. And, having fortunately slept through the 10 a.m. showing of the bizarre new skinny Drew Carey era of The Price Is Right, I lurched from the bedroom around midday to make the happy discovery that on TV at that very moment was the Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liner delivery vehicle The Running Man.
"Uplink underground! Uplink underground! If you say that one more time, I'll uplink your ass, and you'll be underground!" -Actual quote from the movie.
The Running Man, for those of you who didn't nearly die the same day I did, is a 1987 science fiction movie starring Schwarzenegger at the peak of his scene-chewing talent. Set in the distant year of 2017, in an America under the boot of a fascist police state, the film features Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, a police officer convicted of a crime which, get this, he didn't actually commit. After a failed escape attempt, Richards is caught and forced to compete on The Running Man, an extremely popular game show where criminals are pursued through a massive arena by a group of assassins called stalkers who butcher the contestants with various themed weapons. The central conflict of the movie is whether Richards will somehow manage to murder his way through the stalkers and subject them to thematically appropriate one-liners.
"Killian! Here is your Subzero. Now plain zero." -Yes, it looks like he will.
It is, in short, a completely awesome movie, and like most good people, I've seen it eight or nine times, I think exclusively when I've been home from work sick. This time, however, because of the 8,000-degree fever I was running, my brain was operating on another level entirely, and for some reason I began taking copious notes of my viewing experience. Notes that I've only just managed to decipher, and I've discovered that my fevered brain correctly identified The Running Man as the most profoundly wise movie that ever was.
"I'll 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 goddamn spine!" -Check that flawless lesson in anatomy.
You see, as is the case with all good science fiction, The Running Man uses its setting to explore some deep fundamental truths about how the world works. Most people miss this stuff, distracted as they are by the surface details.
(After strangling Subzero with barbed wire) "What a pain in the neck." -It is, admittedly, hard to get past dialogue this fantastic.
But I did manage to see past it, and I managed to glean four totally real, totally useful life lessons from The Running Man. And here they are.
If We Do Not Study History, We Are Doomed to Repeat It
Although The Running Man is science fiction, its depiction of a public manipulated into condoning and even cheering for horrific acts has occurred many other times in history. It doesn't seem to take much to get us to start baying for the blood of a scapegoat. Nor is it something we've grown out of; there's no reason to think we've gotten wiser, and indeed, when we consider how a non-zero percentage of us are now consuming Four Loko, humanity may actually be dumber and nastier than ever before. If you happen to have a neighbor who's a gay illegal communist Middle Eastern immigrant, ask him how welcome he feels in America today.
"Even the ACLU's been advocating for drone strikes against me."
What's really neat, though, is how this message of history repeating itself is coded into the film's visual grammar. Consider: The Running Man is set is 2017, the same 2017 that's a mere four years away (start planning your Running Man-themed parties now). And this is what 2017 is supposed to look like:
That's right. 2017 will look exactly like 1987, and if you wanted any further proof that history works in cycles and man is doomed to commit the same atrocities again and again and again, like fascism, and state sponsored murder ...
... and whatever the hell this is ...
... it was staring you right in the face the whole movie.
People Want to Be Lied To
How did the world get to the point where people began cheering for people to be put to death? I mean, we have pretty violent sports now, but everyone gets real quiet at an NFL game when a player goes down hurt. We may be drunk monsters, but we're drunk monsters that care.
Well. Except for Eagles fans.
Here seen "raising the roof" for a compound fracture.
This is explained explicitly toward the end of the movie, when a man with one of the greatest names in villainy, Damon Killian, tells Ben how it really is:
"Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want!"
The audience wants sports and violence and justice, so Killian gives it to them. More importantly, the audience also wants to be told they're right for wanting sports and violence and justice. No one likes thinking they're a monster. We'll go through our whole lives with ourselves mentally cast as the protagonist, the good guy. Killian understands this. The people want to believe that the criminals they're cheering to the death deserve it. That they're the ones to blame for all the problems in the world. It's why the audience eats up Ben Richards' framing so easily.
In the real world, we call this confirmation bias. It's a totally natural reaction to living in a complicated world. If you happen to be out of a job, the list of people who could be responsible for this is vast: The managers at your former company. The managers at competing companies. Executives in every company. Every politician at every level of government. Cracked writers. All of us could have had a part in you losing your job, and many of us in fact did, although none of us knew it at the time.
"Boy, I sure hope this list of badass things doesn't take food off anyone's table. But what am I going to do? Check first?"
But knowing that no one specific is to blame is really unsatisfying, and it seems to be all too easy to instead blame your job loss on Obama, or Bush, or illegal immigrants, or the Ents. And once we've set ourselves up with this simplistic view of the world, we'll gravitate toward media that tell us what we already know. It explains why you keep reading the same three websites for all your news, and why most of television news is such a shit-reeking cesspool.
"This administration's insistence on providing a legal path to citizenship for Ents is OUTRAGEOUS. They are taking jobs from honest Americans, and lacking wives, they're probably going to be after our women, too."
People Like Winners
Part of the game show within The Running Man involves audience members betting on which stalker will get the next kill. And when Ben Richards obliterates the stalkers sent after him, the first few audience members walk away with nothing more than salty tears and The Running Man Home Game.
Also an actual thing. This is a rad movie.
Eventually, after Schwarzenegger has delivered a half-dozen increasingly belabored one-liners, a sweet little old lady is brought onstage and asked to place a bet. After thinking about this for a few seconds, she picks Richards to get the next kill. "That boy's one mean motherfucker," she explains, not inaccurately.
Keep in mind that at this point, she thinks Ben Richards is a mass murderer, and she has actually just watched him kill two men and then joked about it. She's picking him purely because he's really good at murdering, and if she can profit a little bit by the murder of another stalker (from her perspective, an "innocent" man), well shit. Why not?
For all the talk we have about rooting for the underdog, the bandwagon effect is probably an even more powerful phenomenon. Once someone starts winning, it becomes more acceptable to support him, which often only causes him to win harder. This is a big deal in politics; Bill Clinton is said to have benefited from this during the 1992 election, shortly after he murdered a man with a chainsaw to the ravenous approval of a crowd.
Success begets success; it's one of the cruelest lessons that losers have to learn, as my eighth or ninth viewing of The Running Man while missing work dramatically showed me.
There's No Such Thing as a Happy Ending
When the film finally, sadly, comes to an end, Ben Richards straps Killian into a rocket and fires him through a wall, because this is exactly that kind of movie.
"Well that hit the spot." -I seriously love this movie so much.
Richards then takes his love interest in his arms and gives her a big kiss before some inspirational guitar-driven rock plays him off the stage. The world is saved. Nice!
At which point everyone watching the movie stands up and screams, "Wait, what? What about that dystopia? Isn't he still a wanted criminal? How does killing evil Pat Sajak solve anything?"
Well. Eviler Pat Sajak.
Obviously it doesn't. There are still starving people out there, underneath the guns of thousands of police officers. Richards is still a wanted criminal who will probably be shot in the spine within minutes of the credits rolling. Yes, a very popular television show has just been torn down, and the country's population might be a little upset at the fraud perpetrated against them. Would that be enough to make them rise up and throw off their oppressors? That seems pretty iffy. And that would, at minimum, lead to a bloody revolution. This is the best case scenario we're talking about here, and a river of blood in the streets isn't quite the image this inspirational guitar-driven rock seems to be trying to evoke. Seriously, listen to it; it's like something Rocky should be improving himself to.
The obvious falseness of this "happy ending" is the final lesson The Running Man offers, and it was, to my fever-addled brain at least, totally mind-blowing. In the same way that the game show within the movie featured "happy endings" for its previous contestants (probably not orgasms ... probably), the movie has given us a happy ending that is also completely and obviously contrived. Which means that we're not supposed to buy this ending. There are no happy endings. Really, no endings at all. There's always an epilogue, which is itself really just the prologue of another story.
The lesson is clear. If you want a happy ending, you can't ever stop. You can't ever stop working for it. Your happy ending will require constant, continuous effort, and dammit, did I just end another column by appealing for perpetual masturbation?
I swear this isn't what I do on my sick days.