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Attacks on Public Institutions: The Running Man (1987)

by Curtis Marez

The year is 2017, the global economy has collapsed, and oil and food are scarce. A police state controls the mass of people, both through military force and with state-controlled TV, especially “the most popular program in history,” a game show called The Running Man, where state prisoners fight to the death against “high-tech gladiators” in an effort to win their freedom. Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a police officer who, in this clip, refuses to fire on a food riot in Bakersfield. Government forces ultimately massacre the crowd but the state TV network blames Richards. Once in prison he escapes with a group of rebels but is caught again by the police and forced to participate in the deadly state prison reality show. By act three, the hero has transformed from police officer to freedom fighter, becoming the leader of the “People’s Network,” a rebel group devoted to destroying the state’s media monopoly. 

Ironically, the future Governor of California began his career starring in dystopian science fiction films such as The Running Man and Total Recall (1990), where evil government forces are the enemy. (Similarly, former professional wrestler and Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura plays a gladiator in the film named “Captain American”).  What are the assumptions or implications of dystopias based in what sf critic Tom Moylan calls “nightmare states”?  Why does The Running Man focus solely on the state as the cause of social problems and what are the strengths and weaknesses of its implied analysis? Do such anti-government dystopias undermine support for state institutions such as public education? What’s the relationship, for example, between anti-government ideology and the recent history of disinvestment in California public education (combined with increasing investments in prisons)?

Dystopian SF and Public Institutions: The Running Man

A policeman is imprisoned after refusing to fire on food rioters in California's San Joaquin Valley.

from The Running Man (1987)
Creator: Paul Michael Glaser
Distributor: Artisan
Posted by Curtis Marez