Here are some of the things that The Running Man, the 1987 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, features in its dystopian vision of the America of 2017:
- voice-controlled electronics
- an internet known as the “infonet”
- a cultural obsession with cheekily choreographed aerobics numbers
- a short supply of food, oil, and other natural resources
- a totalitarian police state where rioters and rebels are either killed or taken away to labor camps
- a state-controlled media apparatus that revolves around propaganda
- a spate of reality TV shows that come courtesy of that media apparatus
- The Running Man, one such show, which pits criminals and political prisoners against weapon-wielding mercenaries—an urban version of The Hunger Games’s course that almost always ends with the violent and live-televised deaths of its contestants
As is often the case with films that predict a dystopian future, The Running Man—based loosely on the book of the same name by Richard Bachman, better known as Stephen King—gets a little bit right, and a very lot wrong, about the United States of 2017. Most obviously: No jetpacks yet, sigh. But also: No totalitarian police state. No immediate shortage of food or water or oil. No federalized infotainment system. No gladiatorial reality show that televises the grisly deaths of criminals to the delight of bloodthirsty masses.
And yet, for all those errors in imagination, The Running Man was prescient in one particular way: It has insights to share about the cultural consequences of life under a totalitarian regime. Everything, here, from food to fun, falls under the control of the state. And that means that, in this dystopian universe, news and entertainment are blurred—intentionally, by a savvy and sadistic political regime—to such an extent that it’s impossible to tell where the one ends and the other begins. The Running Man explores, in its campy way, how easily propaganda can be empowered, and how effectively a world that blends information and entertainment can destabilize the very notion of facts themselves. “The truth hasn’t been very popular lately,” one political prisoner tells another, at the outset of The Running Man’s action, and the rest of the movie goes about proving that.
Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a former policeman who is imprisoned for rebelling against the state and then—’80s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger being what he is—forced to compete in The Running Man’s contest of wit and brute strength. Richards finds himself in that predicament in the first place because, as a policeman patrolling his district, he refused to open fire on a group of unarmed civilians who were protesting the district’s lack of food. When he is introduced to viewers in his episode of The Running Man, the show’s producers use edited footage to claim that he had gone crazy and, himself, fired on those civilians—including “innocent women and children.”
Richards is branded “The Butcher of Bakersfield.” When he appears on the reality show that will depict him fighting for his life—and, presumably, dying a violent death at the hands of The Running Man’s appointed Stalkers—the crowds watching it jeer at him. And then they cheer his impending (and, the doctored footage suggests, well-deserved) demise.
The Running Man, to be clear, is not a good movie. Its acting is stilted. The world the film builds is not terribly consistent, in its aesthetics or its politics. (One of the films this totalitarian America has produced is titled, oh-so-onthenose-ily, The Hate Boat.) And, perhaps most predictably, The Running Man falls victim to the trap that so many movies about the future, whatever the decade that created them, have fallen into: It fails to stretch its imagination beyond the aesthetics and the assumptions of its own time. The clothing of 2017, per The Running Man of 1987, features the angular cuts and fluorescent colors of the American ’80s (only, because The Future, with more metallics thrown into the mix). The tech of 2017 revolves around cassette tapes and analog phones. Computers are clunky desktops. Apple may have claimed the year 1984; this 1987 film, though, offers little evidence of the changes that would result from that.
The entertainment of 2017, too, is narrow-minded in the film’s vision. The intro to The Running Man, the TV show, features the same choreographed aerobics numbers—complete with high-cut leotards and sheer pantyhose—that were popular in the ’80s and the ’80s alone. (Those numbers were choreographed, though, by someone who would have staying power far beyond the age of hairspray and tube socks: Paula Abdul.)
For all this, though, The Running Man offers insights that are much more subtle than its seeking-freedom-within-oppression framing would suggest. This is a film that arose during the early days of CNN and 24-hour news, during a time when fashionable intellectuals were looking to the television as a source both of narcissism and nihilism. It’s a movie that is keenly aware of the pitfalls of infotainment, and—in the manner of Trow and Postman and Minow—acutely suspicious of what can happen when people, indeed, amuse themselves to death.
As David Bishop, writing for The Conversation, put it, “Welcome to a world where fake news stories are used to manipulate public opinion. Dissent is no longer tolerated and all your communications are monitored; the economy is not functioning and reality TV is used to distract you from harsher realities.”
It’s not quite 2017, but it’s disturbingly 2017-adjacent. In The Running Man’s dystopian world, people are willing accomplices to their own subservience: They trade political freedom for the conveniences of conformity and easy distraction. In the film’s version of 2017, the nation’s means of understanding itself—journalism, arts, escapist cultural products—originate from one central body: the Justice Department, in the guise of a conglomerate called ICS.
At the outset of the film, streaming on a JumboTron in the middle of the “Wilshire” militarized zone, an anchorwoman announces to the zone’s “Cadre Kids” (an apparent and unsubtle play on the Hitler Youth of the previous century) that “October is bonus recruitment month”: Children, she shares, will earn “double bonus for reporting a family member.” The anchorwoman concludes her announcement with a chipper addendum: “ICS, your entertainment and information network, reminds you: Seeing Is Believing.”
Seeing is believing is a theme that runs through the film. Here, mistruths aggregate and accrete to become, for the compliant American citizens who are at once the lies’ producers and their consumers, a series of convenient “truths.” “America’s favorite game show” is, in the film, not simply an anticipation of “reality TV,” but a tool of violent propaganda. (Even the contestants presented, for drama’s sake, as having escaped the game’s Stalkers are executed as soon as the cameras turn off.) Nobody much cares, though: The show satisfies people’s cravings for drama and spectacle. It’s a futuristic version of the Roman circus, with all its ritualized bloodlust. And, run as it is under the auspices of the Justice Department, the show doesn’t offer violence for its own sake; it also promises a kind of lower-j administration of justice. The Running Man will, as the show’s wacky and sadistic host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), puts it, “give criminals, rapers, and enemies of the state exactly what they deserve.” Even if those enemies—especially if those enemies—must be manufactured.
The Running Man didn’t predict the truths of 2017—far from it. What it did do, though, is anticipate the fact that truth itself might be a matter of political controversy in the United States. The film understood the ways that celebrity and politics would mingle and muddle this year, in ways both harmlessly entertaining and potentially dangerous for democracy.
In 1987’s version of 2017, the president has a theatrical agent, and the state exerts control with the help of a reality show. In the actual 2017, the president-elect is someone who solidified his fame with, yes, the help of a reality show. And that reality show is now being hosted, of course, by the star of the film whose fictional version of this year warned against the dangers of celebritized politics. On the new version of The Celebrity Apprentice, which is set, like the running man, in 2017, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have the brash presence that Donald Trump once effected on the show. Still, though, the actor-turned-politician insists that the celebrities whose fate he determines on the show refer to him, at least so long as the cameras are rolling, as “Governor.”