In the 1987 Arnold-helmed sci-fi thriller, The Running Man, the opening scroll sets up the movie by painting this cheery picture:
“Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people’s yearning for freedom...more direct methods become necessary.”
For those of you who need a slight refresher, this movie is classic Arnold. He moans his catchphrase “AAAYGGHH!!” at least five times in the first two minutes alone — during a totally sensible brawl aboard a CHOPPA, no less.
The setup is pretty simple: In Dystopian 2017, Arnold’s character, policeman Ben Richards, is framed for murder after refusing orders to fire upon an unarmed group of hungry rioters. After escaping prison two years later, he’s caught in 2019 (hey, that’s THIS year) and forced to choose one of two options: Do time in a labor camp, or fight for his life on the gladiator show called “The Running Man,” the most popular show in history, where armed gladiators, aka Stalkers, hunt down and kill “guest runners.”
This is Arnold, so of course he chooses the latter.
Based on a novel penned by legend Stephen King (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), the movie is everything you’d expect from an Arnold film: Violence, muscles, cigars, one-liners (including a fun but seemingly out-of-place “I’ll be back”) and general '80s flare. It also made some bets on things that actually came true.
Here, we’re breaking down five different aspects of the 1987 film that ring true in 2019.
But wait, that’s not what actually happened!
In the opening scene of “The Running Man,” we see the spark that sends Ben Richards on his journey through hellfire when he refuses to massacre a rioting crowd of hungry protesters. Later, the show’s production team is able to use the above “found footage” to prove Richards’ reputation as a butcher when he refuses a direct order to not fire upon the crowd (FAKE NEWS).
It’s fantastic propaganda that riles up the crowd to root against Richards. While it’s clearly the work of some clever editing, in retrospect, it’s an eerie nod to the current situation we find ourselves in with the dawn of deep fakes.
If folks in 1987 can’t discern between real footage and fake footage on a gameshow, what chance do we have 30 years later?
Our Thirst for Reality Programing
Aside from “Candid Camera” and, arguably, wrestling, “The Running Man” was the first to lean into the idea that Americans have an insatiable thirst for reality television. Hell, MTV’s “The Real World,” which ushered in the age of reality programming, didn’t debut until 1992.
Of course, the movie took that addiction for unscripted, on-screen drama to its logical conclusion: Exercising our inner-belief in moral superiority and the desire to see bad things happen to “bad” people.
The question is: If there was a program that set criminals up for death on a weekly basis — a gameshow, if you will — would you tune in? Would it be the most popular television show in history? As loud as the public outrage would be, and as much as you’d have to suspend your disbelief to assume the FCC would allow such programming, I’d reckon we’d have some can’t-miss primetime viewing on our hands.
Lots of movies have imagined what jetpacks might look like, and how we might implement them (“The Rocketeer” being the best), but none got the vision as close to what they ACTUALLY look like in 2019 than this glorious movie. Case-in-point, check out the footage from this year’s Bastille Day in Paris:
What in the actual hell?
Everything is on point: The awkward upright positioning, the weapon wielding, the cheers from the crowd. Send 100 of these armed guys across the English Channel, and you’ll have one hell-of-a show — until the jets, drones and missiles show up to thwart the invasion.
Will jetpacks ever be a realistic means of warfare? Probably not. But it’s nice to know engineers are at least taking inspiration from “The Running Man.” And maybe the Green Goblin.
The Enduring Talent of Paula Abdul
Look at those moves. That’s the hype-squad for the in-movie gameshow “The Running Man.”
Seems familiar, right? If you grew up in the '80s and early '90s, that aesthetic was everywhere, all thanks to Paula Abdul.
That’s right, Abdul — a relative unknown at the time, who was about to release her first demo later that year — began as a choreographer. Those classic '80s outfits and moves int the movie are thanks to the vision of the soon-to-be pop megastar, who would later go on to star in her own game-show-of-attrition, ala “American Idol.”
While “The Running Man” didn’t necessarily predict the inevitable rise of Abdul, it sure did bet on her talent. Abdul would break out as a pop star two years later, while racking up an impressive and exhaustive list of choreography credits along the way.
Per that question above about whether we’d tune into a show where criminals fight for their lives, I give you “American Gladiator.”
While there’s no death in this perfectly '80s show where gladiators named Malibu, Nitro and Ice, destroy every-day contestants on camera, “The Running Man” certainly predicted that we’d love to see folks get taken down in extreme ways by characters who look like they popped out of the pages of a comic book.
In fact, producers of the show were so certain that “The Running Man” struck a nerve with the public, they pitched the concept of the show using footage from the movie —with the caveat that contestants wouldn’t actually die. Considering the popularity of the show, the 2000s reboot, and all the other competitive reality shows that followed, this might have been the most on-point prediction of them all.
To quote “The Running Man” gameshow host Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson:
“This is television, that’s all it is. Nothing to do with people, it’s to do with the ratings. For 50 years, we’ve told them what to eat. What to drink. What to wear .... Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. They love gameshows. They love wrestling. They love sports, violence. So what do we do? We give them what they want. We’re number one, man. That’s all that counts.”
About the author: Chris Staten is a freelance writer focusing on pop culture and the craft beer industry, and loves basking in that awkward moment of silence between movie previews. See his work at www.cmstaten.com.