Friday, December 02, 2016

Logan's Run: 40th Anniversary Blogging

In the 23rd century, the survivors of a nuclear war live inside The City of Domes, a paradise of plenty. The world is a hedonist’s delight with the Love Shop and other pleasures, but the metropolis is not without a downside. 

Every citizen must die at age 30, and hope for “renewal” in a state-sponsored ritual called Carousel that keeps the civilization perfectly balanced.  Policing this edict are a cadre of armed law enforcement officials, the Sandmen. 

One such Sandman, Logan 5 (Michael York) is tasked by the city’s controlling Computer with determining if the destination of refugees, called Sanctuary, is real.  Logan enlists the help of a young woman, Jessica (Jenny Agutter) in escaping the city, but is tagged as a “runner” and hunted by his former partner, Francis. 

When Logan and Jessica manage to escape the city, first they find a malevolent robot, Box, and later see the outside world for the first time. 

In the ruins of Washington D.C., they meet an Old Man (Peter Ustinov) who proves that the edict of “death at 30” is not natural.

Logan's Run serves as a critical "bridge" production of the 1970s. It blends the dystopian qualities of such film predecessors as Soylent Green (1973) and Planet of the Apes (1968), with the elaborate, expensive visual effects and action-adventure qualities of the Star Wars (1977) age.

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...), but 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 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 over 50 million dollars on a cost of less than 10 million. 

Specifically, Michael York's Logan 5 (not Logan 3) was the hero of the silver screen version, 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," miraculously reincarnated.

The general setting was altered for the film 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 rather than merely futuristic. Perhaps the most significant change in the movie was that there was no real place of safety and peace for the runners. Instead, Sanctuary was a myth, a fairy tale.

Despite such radical changes from the source material, Logan's Run thrives as a worthwhile, exciting, and intriguing science-fiction artifact of the 1970s for quite a few reasons. The one-of-a-kind disco-era visualizations and tenor of Logan's Run -- the aura of “anything goes” hedonism -- continue to ably support the film’s didactic narrative. The glittering, sexy-but-shallow production design, abundantly rich in neon and mini-skirts, suggests youth and sexuality, even forty years later.

But perhaps the finest aspect of Logan's Run is indeed the film's capacity to build in the viewer's imagination a believable and frightening future dystopia. The City of Domes and its byzantine laws and practices fit the very definition of an authoritarian or totalitarian state.

Let's gaze a little at what the pieces of that definition are, and how Logan's Run successfully conforms to them.

First, according to one definition, 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 which promises immortality. 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 totally de-humanizing. Humans become one in a vast indistinguishable line.

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 transformed 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 the people, here termed in short-hand, "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 mindlessly) 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, 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 faceless boogeyman...not real flesh and blood people. Additionally, the day of a citizen’s death isn't called "Death Day or "Execution Day," but known by the pleasant euphemism Last Day.

This is precisely how Orwell's double-speak, jargon and euphemisms work. 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 defined as 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 detect 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. Furthermore, 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 more palatable. When a runner dies, the corpse is melted down by strange hovering, futuristic machines, but this gory act is euphemistically termed "cleaning up." If people were to see the destroyed human body and count it as such they 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 an 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 personal 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 there is 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.  Its people are occupied entirely with leisure.

This lie 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. Box 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.

Rather, it is cannibalizing itself.

Yet 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.  One way to avoid politics and matters of national import is to focus on materialism, on owning things, or in the vernacular: shopping.  Well, the people of the City of Domes have been told to go shopping 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, this is 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! 

Logan's Run's antidote to dystopia may be naive, however, especially in 2016.

The film espouses, among other things a renewal of the natural order: a return to the re-born outside world, and a prescribed departure from computers, climate-controlled shopping-malls and 24-hour-a-day leisure.

Alas, that's a genie you can put back in the bottle easily.

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, the message of Logan's Run is that with age comes wisdom, but -- heck! -- "older" leaders were the ones the original youngsters of the City of Domes inherited the messed-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, 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 idea -- 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 largely 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 may 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 the beautiful national landmarks there will end up but monuments to irrelevancy; artifacts of an age when liberty and intellect actually meant something. Indeed, they have become in Logan's Run: meaningless, empty ruins from another epoch.

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 is happening in all 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, catechism, and jargon. After their visit to the ruins of Washington D.C., they find that, at the very least, life possesses nuances. And that also -- with human experience and age -- should follow...wisdom.


  1. A very interesting movie, and more importantly a movie with a great idea behind it. It's more than just a chase film.

    It helps that the film is adapted from a novel that also asks big questions. This film was asking a generation just coming out of the hedonistic and idealistic 1960's, who were moving past their 20's and into their 30's, to continue to reject authority and embrace not only a return to something more natural but the very process of aging itself.

    There's something magical about the scene where Logan and Jessica touch the old man's face and ask if his wrinkles hurt. The experiences that Logan and Jessica have outside their happy yet controlled environment literally destroys their society in order to rebuild a better future. I think I'll have to watch this again tonight!

  2. I always thought that Box was programmed so long ago when the city was built and was on a fool's errand. That what he gathered was all still frozen there [including the Runners] and never retrieved by the City of Domes dwellers. Box began collecting the Runners due to his programming for his long forgotten mission. A frozen monument.


  3. Excellent review of Logan's Run, which so many of us loved when it came out! The thing that distinguished it from post-apocalyptic sci-fi films that preceded it was the sense of hope it provided at the end which was missing from the likes of Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Planet of the Apes. Like Star Wars, presents a complex screen universe with a simple story that can be read as allegorical: Adam and Eve (Logan and Jessica) cast out of paradise.

    There are a couple of details that I find important to Logan's Run that your review elided or skipped. It isn't just that runners are hunted down in this totalitarian society, but there's an entire off-the-grid slum that regular citizens aren't even aware of, where the rebel community eliminates people over 15 to preserve resources. Logan is endangered not just from other Sandmen as he searches for Sanctuary, but from rebels who have every reason to kill him. Furthermore, the computer ensures in two ways that Logan can never return to the his safe former life: it advances his life clock so that he MUST die on Carousel if he doesn't locate Sanctuary, and it informs him that no one has been renewed on Carousel--information that he doesn't need to carry out his orders. Whether Logan ever finds Sanctuary or not, he won't be allowed to live should he return!

    It's interesting that the novel was written in 1967, at a time when a lot of the themes underpinning Logan's Run were dramatized by Star Trek. Even Box, with his benign collection programming turning malevolent as his function adapted to new circumstances, is just a version of Nomad! Johnson mashed a bunch of Star Trek tropes together in a marvelous Orwellian setting and gave it a Trekkian positive future which is actually less dark than his own Star Trek episode, "The Man Trap".

    I think Farrah Fawcett got the most career mileage from this movie. She had been doing a lot of television, including a couple of TV movies and guest shots on the Six Million Dollar Man with husband Lee Majors right before this, but I don't think THAT FAMOUS POSTER of Farrah came out until after Logan's Run was released, and then she was cast in Charlie's Angels.

  4. Great analysis. I know that a nuclear war or some other calamity is often what precipitates a totalitarian / dystopian future in science-fiction, and I wonder if in fact that's what it would take to create one-- at least in America. I don't want to sound naive or complacent about freedom and it's high cost and the need to jealously defend it, but is it possible this system, this unique republic that was created so many years ago, foresaw so many of the forces -- actually just the innate urges and tendencies in man-- that would test it continuously? Many of us fear for the future, perhaps now mores than ever, but it seems this republic has been case hardened and immunized against the forces of totalitarianism like no other nation or republic-- as long as we trust in the wisdom of it's creators. As long as we don't attempt to impose our contemporary urges and proclivities on the system and render it impotent to perform it's function: the preservation of liberty.