CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Logan's Run (1976)
In many ways, the bicentennial-released Logan's Run serves as a kind of critical "bridge" production of the turbulent disco-decade: blending the Dystopian qualities of such film predecessors as Soylent Green (1973) and Planet of the Apes (1968), with the elaborate, expensive visual effects of the Space:1999 - Star Wars epoch.
Logan's Run is based on the William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson novel of the same name, which was first published in 1967. The novel depicted a bizarre world set post-"Little War," in which the ascendant youth society of the turbulent late 1960s (think student demonstrations and sit-ins) had grown to become the globe's dominant social force. In an attempt to stave off overpopulation, starvation and poverty, a new society of the young was forged in which the mandatory age of death was 21 years of age. It was "never trust anyone over thirty" (or 21 here...) as a governing philosophy.
Citizens of this New World Order had "palm flowers" embedded in their hands which displayed their age and their chronological proximity to "Last Day." On said "Last Day" (their 21st birthday...) they would willingly report for mandatory termination at a local Sleep Shop. Those who didn't choose death would illicitly "run" instead, seeking escape through an underground railroad, in search of a place called "Sanctuary." Policing the populace and destroying these rebellious runners is the bailiwick of a young, fascist military force called "Sandmen."
In the book, a dedicated Sandman named Logan 3 teamed with a female runner named Jessica to locate Sanctuary, but he was secretly a double-agent for the government, tasked with the destruction of Sanctuary. Logan was pursued on his "run" by a Sandman friend named Francis, who also boasted a secret identity...as Ballard, an ally of runners and the man who knew where Sanctuary was actually located. In the book, Sanctuary was but a rocket trip away, on Mars...
Many aspects of Nolan and Johnson's brilliant novel were significantly altered for the blockbuster film (which earned back over 50 million dollars on a cost of less than 10 million...).
Michael York's Logan 5 (not Logan 3) was the new hero of the silver screen, and his Sandman comrade, Francis (Richard Jordan), became a dogged enemy and Agent of the State instead of a secret aide to the Runners. Also, the Sleep Shops (actually seen in Soylent Green....) were replaced with the bizarre but impressive public spectacle of Carousel, a festival in which those aged thirty (not twenty-one) would be blown up before the eyes of excited crowds who believed that the doomed were actually being "renewed" (reincarnated...).
The general setting was changed too. In Logan's Run, the movie, a nuclear war rather than a "Little War" precipitated the creation of the City of Domes, meaning that the world outside the City was almost entirely destroyed....post-apocalyptic rather than merely futuristic.
Perhaps the most significant change in the movie was that there was no real Sanctuary...no place of safety and peace for the runners. Instead, Sanctuary was just a myth...
Despite these radical changes from the excellent source material, Logan's Run survives (and thrives...) as a worthwhile, exciting, and intriguing science-fiction artifact in 2009, for quite a few reasons.
Instead of aging the film and rendering it irrelevant, the disco-era visualization and tenor of Logan's Run -- the aura of hedonism and "anything goes" -- continue to ably support the didactic narrative. The glittering, sexy-but-shallow production design -- abundantly rich in neon and mini-skirts -- originally helped to define the City of Domes culture in terms of "Me Generation"-style self-centeredness. However, in the 21st century and the vanity-driven Age of Facebook, that "Me Generation" looks rather quaint by comparison. Therefore in 2009 viewers can still easily and immediately recognize the City of Dome-ers as a surrogate for "us." In fact, we are much closer to the callow youth culture of Logan's Run today than we were in 1976.
Perhaps more trenchantly, after eight long years dealing with a protean authoritarian state -- years replete with Orwellian double-talk like the "Clear Skies Initiatives" and "Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) -- it is more obvious now how a seemingly benevolent government can actually become totalitarian; working against the very people it is sworn to protect and nourish. Again, given context, Logan's Run seems more in tune with us in the 21st century than it did even in its original bicentennial context.
One for One: Dogma, Double-Speak, Euphemisms and Jargon in The City of Domes
First, a totalitarian state "creates myths, catechisms, cults, festivities and rituals" designed to "commemorate" the State.
The central myth of the City of Domes, of course, is "Renewal," the State-supported lie that upon death the souls of the fallen (those who attend Carousel) will transmigrate to new, young bodies.
This lie is reinforced by the numbering system employed to "name" individual citizens (Logan 5, Jessica 6, Francis 7, etc.) These numbers (which replace last names in this future society) explicitly indicate the march of generations; that a new baby is actually a "new" version of a person who has already existed, "died" and "renewed." The numbers are also, as The Prisoner's Number Six would no doubt remind us, totally de-humanizing.
The Carousel "festival" -- a state-sponsored celebration of "Last Day" -- is attended by all citizens of the City of Domes, and is essentially the equivalent of, for example, a contemporary NASCAR race, only govt. run. The people down on the track or field (those who are ostensibly to be renewed...) circle around and around, and many of them "wreck" before our eyes, blown apart by a ceiling-mounted laser device that resembles a crystal.
Spectators watch and cheer for Carousel participants to "renew," but what they are really cheering for is the violent, explosive deaths of friends and fellow citizens. The State has thus turned a mandatory death sentence into the very "ritual" or "festival" inherent in the tradition of totalitarianism, one that actually reinforces (or "commemorates" as the definition goes), the Law of the State: mandatory death at 30. Economically, this ritual of Carousel combines the "bread and circuses" aspect of Rome's gladiator games -- satisfying the blood lust of the crowd -- with a "spiritual" or "religious" church function: the honoring of the dead (or dying); the belief in transmigration or reincarnation.
This ritual of Carousel is also supported by a State-created and encouraged catechism -- an education in the faith meant to indoctrinate -- here termed "One for One." In the film, we witness Logan and Francis debate the dogma/doctrine of "One for One." Francis accepts it blindly (by simply repeating it) while Logan questions it...the first sign of his independent streak.
This easy-to-remember phrase means -- in simple terms -- that one person dies/one person renews. It's the seamless, simple transmigration of the soul or spirit from the dead to the living. From Logan 4 to Logan 5. From Francis 5 to Francis 6. It's so simple that there can be no denying it. It's essentially programming through mnemonics and repetition, though; a phrase/teaching/sound-byte repeated so often and so widely that it is accepted blindly for "truth."
The idea of "One for One" (and catechism) is part and parcel of entrenched absolutism (or totalitarianism) because it is representative of a "cliche-ridden language whose formulaic utterances are designed to impede ambivalence, nuance and complexity." People don't die in the City of Domes, they "renew" (as if they are just TV programs, not living human beings.) The light on your palm which signals your death is not a "death clock" but, tellingly, a "life-clock." Sandmen don't kill. No, they never kill, according to Logan. They simply "terminate" Runners. and Runners are like "Terrorists" aren't they? Just a bogeyman...not real flesh and blood people. And additionally, the day of your death isn't called "Death Day or "Execution Day," but known by the pleasant euphemism of Last Day.
This is exactly how Orwell's double-speak, jargon and euphemisms work, and every single one of us should recognize the nature of them with some sense of shame or anger. For we Americans know them as "Stay the course," "As they stand up, we'll stand down," "We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," "Shock and Awe," "Mission Accomplished," "The New Way Forward," etc. These phrases are widely-disseminated simplifications designed to impede questioning; to preserve and nurture an authoritarian regime and its agenda.
A totalitarian state is also one with a "culture of military solidarity" in which "the pursuit and elimination" of Enemies of the State has become a primary purpose. Again, it's easy to see how Logan's Run fits this aspect of the definition of totalitarianism. In general, the Sandmen lord it over the non-military personnel of the City of Domes, as Francis specifically does when an innocent civilian bumps into him at Arcade. If looks could kill.... And, according to City of Domes-style catechism, the Sandmen (the military of this State) are elevated above other citizens in matters of transmigration too. "Sandmen always Renew," the catechism goes.
The enemies of the state are termed "Runners," but they are those, simply, who question the status quo and consequently opt out of Carousel, attempting to live longer than their allotted thirty years. The Sandmen are in place to destroy the Runners and prevent all knowledge of "Sanctuary" from the distracted populace. Runners can't be imprisoned (that would imbalance the population control system); they have to be "terminated" on sight. And again, the State employs euphemisms like terminate (instead of "kill") to make the act palatable. When a runner dies, the corpse is melted down by strange hovering, futuristic machines, but this gory act is euphemistically termed "cleaning up." As in "clean-up in Arcade" or as we know it from our super markets "clean up in Aisle 6." It's just a mess, after all...not a human body. If we were to see the destroyed human body and count it as such (as we were forbidden from seeing our dead return home from Iraq...) we might begin to question the government's simplifications and slogans, not to mention the status quo.
Logan's Run succeeds as a film in no small part because of the carefully designed and constructed totalitarian state that our protagonists, Logan and Jessica flee. This world -- run by unfeeling computer -- is so inhuman, so callous, that it does not even permit mothers and fathers to raise children. No, families create a sense of loyalty outside of loyalty to government, and that cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian state. A good villain goes a long way towards making an effective movie, and in Logan's Run we have a great one; a 23rd century Big Brother ordering mandatory executions and destroying humanity's spirit.
Note too, that like many real life dictatorships, the City of Domes is carefully erected on lies and deceit. Inherent in the system of the City is the belief that one does not need to work or produce (the people are occupied entirely with leisure). This lie (one even beyond the lie of Carousel/Renewal...) is laid bare when Logan visits the outer workings of the city and finds that a mad robot called "Box" has frozen the 1,056 unaccounted for runners to be used as...food for the city goers. He ran out of plankton and animals some time ago, and now has resorted to capturing and storing unlucky humans in stasis. So the City of Domes is actually feeding on itself to survive. The self-sufficient system (which demands death at 30) is not so self-sufficient after all.
Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty: Life in A 23rd Century Shopping Mall
If the City of Domes is a cage for its people, it's rather definitively a gilded cage. The people who dwell there, according to the film's opening card "live only for pleasure." And that's another core aspect of the Totalitarian/Absolute State: distraction. The government wants your mind on "other things," not the government, not the way things are.
Again, we can detect this aspect of life creeping into modern America. Remember what we were told to do as patriotic Americans after 9/11? Were we called to greatness? To military service? To higher taxes (so as to pay for our soldiers' body armor or health care)? To energy conservation so as to deny our terrorist enemies in the Middle East funding?
Nah, we were to told to...go shopping.
The people of the City of Domes have been told to go shopping too: in perpetuity. Their beautiful City is actually a colossal shopping mall, and the film was, in fact, shot in a shopping mall in Texas. This Arcade offers every manner of distraction and entertainment imaginable. So if you're feeling vain, why not head over to the New You Shop, where you can get a quickie face lift (or tummy tuck) and come out looking absolutely fabulous? If you hurry, you can make your work-out at the gym this afternoon too (as Logan and Francis do during one critical scene...).
If you seek companionship, head over to another part of the mall: the Love Shop -- the 23rd Century equivalent of Studio 54. There you can take legal (and safe!) mood-altering drugs called "lifts" (think Prozac or Xanax). Then, you can have casual sex with gorgeous strangers (all under 30!).
If you want to stay in your deluxe Sandman apartment tonight instead (conveniently located right off the mall's promenade...), Logan's Run even offers the 23rd century corollary to our Internet Porn: the so called computer "circuit" which materializes sexual partners (male or female), right at your doorstep.
What does all this mean? Well, clearly the City of Domes is consumed with youth, beauty, sex, and hedonism. Again, a pointed reflection of our culture in the 1970s, and even more so today. Who cares if the world is burning. We want our MTV!
So we can be at war with two foreign countries, our economy economy can be in tatters...but did Jennifer Aniston get a face lift? Did Miss California get a breast enhancement? Meanwhile, our movie and TV icons grow younger and younger too, whether it's Superman (Smallville), Captain Kirk (Star Trek), the Doctor (Doctor Who), Or Darth Vader (Star Wars).
In fact, the City of Domes may actually be the old WB Network gone wild: Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, James Van Der Beek and Michele Williams can have anything they want...except they can't be renewed after their thirtieth birthdays...
While the City of Domes government kills its citizens, forbids families, and squashes the truth, it asks its people to have a good time. Live for the now. Live for today. Just have fun. Fuck everybody else (literally). Again, go shopping, dude! Take a Xanax. man!
What I find affecting about all this is that in many cases totalitarianism arises out of what appear to be good intentions. And make no mistake, Logan's Run is about a leftist power grab (and I've used examples of a right wing power grab here).
In both cases, however, good intentions have had disastrous results. In real life, we've fought two wars we can't afford, broken the Geneva Conventions and seen a lapse in Civil Liberties...but the original cause was surely just: protecting the country from harm. In the world of Logan's Run, overpopulation was the motivating problem, but de-humanization was the outcome. In both cases, ideological over-reach led to disaster (either a world at War and the Great Recession or a New World Order.) This may be Logan's Run's most important lesson.
Logan's Run's solution to the dystopia may be naive, however, especially today. The film espouses, among other things a renewal of the natural order: a return to the re-born outside world, and a prscribed departure from computers, climate-controlled, shopping-malls and 24-hour-a-day leisure. I don't think that's a genie you can put back in the bottle (which is one reason I found the last episode of Battlestar Galactica so utterly intellectually dishonest: no one who has enjoyed running water and air-conditioning is going to willingly turn his back on all technology). Although Logan literally sees the "light of day" when he leaves the City of Domes (his first vision of the natural world is an apricot-colored sun rise...), it is not until he encounters The Old Man (Peter Ustinov) that the pieces of a re-born future start to come together. In the end, I think the message of Logan's Run is that with age might come wisdom, but - heck! - "older" leaders were the ones the original youngsters of the City of Domes inherited the mess-up Earth from in the first place.
One thing is for certain: Logan's Run favors humanity over machines. When faced with the reality that Sanctuary is but a fairy tale...a dream, Logan and the humans go on to (hopefully) construct a better society, a new "Sanctuary" where death is not mandatory at 30. By contrast, the Computer that runs the City of Domes is not able to conceive of such a silly ideal -- a fantasy utopia and paradise -- and it goes haywire in response; short-circuited Once again, we see imagination as a critical human quality; but it is a heritage that Logan's people have flargely neglected for hedonism. It takes the odyssey outside by Logan and the return visit to the City by the Old Man to rekindle it.
Those who watch Logan's Run and deride it as cheesy or outdated have missed the point. Perhaps they have not gazed deeply enough at the world it so confidently creates. The film -- for all its silliness and outdated special effects -- reveals what might happen to a society that finally turns irrevocably inward; becoming obsessed with youth and beauty at the expense of wisdom.
If we let that future become reality, then Washington D.C. and all those beautiful national landmarks there will end up but monuments to irrelevancy; artifacts of an age when liberty and intellect actually meant something. Indeed, that's what they have become in Logan's Run: meaningless, empty ruins from another epoch.
So in the final analysis, Logan's Run is a good cautionary science fiction film, one that reminds us to hold Big Brother accountable. And to -- at least every now and then -- peer out of our happy little gilded cages and ask, precisely, what the hell is going on in our names. Totalitarian States believe you are either with them (and Carousel) or against them (Runners), but Logan and Jessica find that a rich life exists beyond dogma, sound-bytes and jargon. After their visit to the ruins of Washington D.C., they find that, at the very least, life has...nuances. And that -- with human experience and age -- again, should follow...wisdom.