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Dystopian Science Fiction and the Death of Public Education: 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 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rebels, and, in this clip, one of them helps Richards out of his high-tech chains as he learns that public schools have been replaced by government TV. But he is caught again by the police and forced to participate in the deadly state prison reality show. By the third act of the film the protagonist has transformed from policeman 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 sf films like The Running Man andTotal Recall (1990) where evil government forces represent the enemy his character ultimately triumphs over. (Similarly, former professional wrestler and Minnesota  Governor Jesse Ventura plays a gladiator in the film named “Captain America”). 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 like public education? (The first gladiator Richards faces is introduced as “Professor Sub Zero”). And why in this clip does Richards initially join a group of migrant workers, people who have often been denied access to education and other public goods?

This Commentary is related to the following Clips: