Movies that Predicted Trump: The Running Man (1987)
The year is 2017 and everything has pretty much gone down the crapper: the world economy is in tatters, food and oil are in ever-decreasing supply, and the United States of America, once a shining beacon of freedom to the world, has turned into a totalitarian police state where the masses are brainwashed in a state of permanent docility by shallow, ultra-competitive game shows. The most popular and cutthroat of these shows is hosted by a charismatic egomaniac with questionable hair, whose wealth, success and position effectively make him the most powerful man in the country.
I know, it sounds totally crazy right?
Admittedly, out of all the Movies that Predicted Trump that I’ve covered on the site, The Running Man is the one that bears the least resemblance to our current situation, but the parallels, however thin, are just too good to ignore, especially now that the very public political disagreements between the Governator and our 45th president have been exacerbated by a hilariously petty Twitter feud over their respective tenures as hosts of The Apprentice. And while any critique of media violence in a Schwarzenegger action vehicle inevitably ends up shooting itself in the foot, the movie’s prediction of competitive reality TV—which Donald Trump played a significant part in popularizing—makes it worth examining.
The Running Man started out as a 1982 dystopian novel Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman” as part of a test to see if he could continue finding success as a writer without the help of his name as a marketing tool. Despite having been outed shortly after The Running Man’s release, King still insisted the film adaptation credit him as Bachman, presumably in a last-ditch effort to remind everybody of the original source material, as the screenplay ended up departing from it almost completely, keeping only the basic premise and the protagonist and antagonist’s names.
The movie was directed by Paul Michael Glaser, best known as the first half of Starsky & Hutch, who helmed other beloved classics such as… um… Kazaam and… that movie where Kevin Bacon recruits an African tribesman onto his basketball team? Okay, so he may not have made the most successful actor-to-director transition, but at least he gave us this sci-fi gem. Does it still hold up after 30 years? Let’s find out.
After an opening scroll that somehow manages to be both comically dated and uncomfortably prescient, we open with our hero Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a military helicopter with four other soldiers, hovering over a food riot taking place in the middle of Bakersfield, California. When ordered by his superiors to fire on the unarmed crowd, Richards indignantly refuses and declares the mission aborted. Predictably, the mission commander then has Richards’ fellow soldiers take over the mission and detain him, after a rather unimpressive scuffle that ends with Arnold hanging out of the helicopter with his arms flailing, doing that “Gaaahaaarrrgh” noise he always makes when he’s in trouble that makes him sound like a Cro-Magnon having an orgasm.
For his disobedience, Richards is sent to a labor camp from which he escapes 18 months later with fellow prisoners Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre). They make it to a resistance camp headed by Mic (played, for some reason, by Mick Fleetwood), where we learn that the official reason given for Richards’ sentence was the massacre at Bakersfield that he refused to commit. Understandably, this makes resistance fighters reluctant to trust him, and the individualistic Richards isn’t exactly impressed with their organization. So instead of joining them, he heads to his brother’s apartment in the hopes that he’ll sneak him out of the city.
We then get properly introduced to our main villain: Damon Killian (Family Feud host Richard Dawson), producer and host of the state-run TV’s most popular show, The Running Man. After being greeted by adoring fans outside the ICS network building, he proceeds to give us a memorable Kick the Dog moment by bumping into a janitor, complimenting him on his work with a friendly smile, then ordering him to be fired as soon as he’s out of earshot. It’s the kind of introductory bad guy moment that’s hard to pull off without coming across as too on-the-nose, and Dawson does it beautifully.
Meanwhile, Richards makes it to his brother’s apartment, only to finds his brother gone and the apartment occupied by an ICS employee named Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), who informs him that the previous tenant was sent to a re-education camp. He learns this, of course, by creeping up behind her while she’s exercising, chasing her around the apartment, tying her to a bench press, and lifting it up to make his point.
At Killian’s office, the production team is busy planning the next show, and it’s here we get the gist of how The Running Man works: basically, the network buys convicts from the government and forces them to fight deadly gladiator matches in front of a live audience. While looking for their next contestant, Dawson spots footage of Richards’ escape, becomes instantly smitten with his musculature, and makes calls to arrange for his purchase upon capture. I know I’m making this sound a bit homoerotic, but Dawson plays it more like a big game hunter who wants to add a rare exotic animal to his collection. It’s little touches like these that make Killian such a wonderful villain.
In the meantime, our heroic ladies’ man has coerced Amber into helping him escape to Hawaii by stealing her travel pass and threatening to break her neck if she doesn’t comply. So it should come as a big shock to you that she seizes the first opportunity to run away screaming for help, causing a chase that ends with Richards captured by the police and brought before Killian. After being shown footage of Laughlin and Weiss also being captured, Richards is offered an ultimatum: Star in the next Running Man show as a contestant, or Laughlin and Weiss will run in his place. Naturally, Richards reluctantly accepts.
Back at her apartment, Amber watches a news report of Richards’ capture, and sees it’s been embellished with false information about him killing a ticket agent and a security guard. Now suspicious of the official story on Richards, she goes to the ICS building to investigate. As the show begins, Richards is about to be sent tobogganing in a rocket sled to an underground arena when Killian reveals that he’ll be assisted by two other “runners”: Laughlin and Weiss. Meanwhile, in the archives, Amber finds footage of the movie’s opening scene (along with a selectively edited version used for TV) exonerating Richards, but is found and captured.
Inside the arena, Richards, Laughlin, and Weiss have to face off against armed “stalkers” with nothing but their wits and ridiculous spandex jumpsuits. The first of these is Professor Subzero (Professor Toru Tanaka), a crazed man in an ice hockey uniform with a razor-sharp stick and explosive pellets. After a brief chase, Richards shocks the audience by strangling Subzero to death with barbed wire from a fence. Killian retaliates by sending in two more stalkers: A chainsaw-wielding lunatic named Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch) and Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth), an opera-singing Norse warrior who shoots electricity out of his gloves. For extra ratings, he also throws Amber into the mix as a “mystery contestant”.
The runners split up in two groups, with Amber following Weiss to a hidden uplink interface from which they find access codes to the network. Buzzsaw mortally injures Laughlin before Richards kills him by ramming his own chainsaw up his crotch, causing him to sing in a falsetto voice [!] before collapsing. I’ll admit that was pretty funny, but it would have been even funnier if he’d been played by Dynamo’s actor instead. Speaking of which, Dynamo catches up with the other pair, electrocutes Weiss to death, and is about to rape Amber before Richards intervenes to save her. After another chase, Dynamo’s buggy flips over, leaving him entirely at Richards’ mercy. Richards, however, further shocks the audience by sparing him. He and Amber return to Laughlin, who in his dying moments reveals that the resistance has a secret lair nearby. In the face of Richards’ growing popularity, Killian contacts him via camera and tries to bribe him into becoming a new stalker. I give you Richards’ response in all its OTT glory:
“You cold-blooded bastard! I’ll tell you what I think of it: I’ll live to see you eat that contract! But I hope you leave enough room for my fist, because I’m going to ram it into your stomach and break your goddamn SPINE!”
After this cheesy chestnut, Killian and Amber are chased by a flamethrower-wielding stalker named, of course, Fireball (Jim Brown) whom Richards kills in a room filled with the roasted skeletons of previous “winners”. Out of options, Killian turns to fitness guru Captain Freedom (Jessie Ventura) as his last stalker, only for him to refuse out of respect for the “code of the gladiators”. So instead, in one of the film’s most unexpectedly prophetic scenes, Killian has him fight and kill stunt doubles with Richards and Amber’s faces digitally superimposed on their own. The real Richards and Amber, having found the resistance’s secret lair, see all this on TV and react by giving them the network’s access codes as well as the unedited tape of the Bakersfield massacre, which Amber had kept hidden in an undisclosed part of her person.
While Mic hacks into the network, Richards leads an armed group on the show’s main set, while Amber thwarts yet another attempted rape from Dynamo and kills him in a token “girl power” moment. After Mic successfully takes over the airwaves and exposes Killian’s crimes to the world, the audience is evacuated, leaving Richards alone to confront his enemy. Killian gives a big self-justifying speech about how much America loves televised violence and he’s just giving them what they want, to which Richards responds in kind by giving the audience a fittingly ironic death for the bad guy: Forcibly strapped into a rocket sled and propelled full-speed down a long-winding tunnel until he crashes into his own billboard, and of course, explodes. And so our movie ends with Richards and Amber kissing for the cameras before walking away arm in arm as TV monitors go on standby.
The Running Man is a strange beast of a film: Everything from its cast to its soundtrack, plot structure, and costumes positively screams “’80s testosterone cheese”, yet many of its satirical barbs at reality TV, consumerism, and mass media still hold up today. There’s a clear intent to make the audience question their own bloodlust, but it’s undermined by the fun catharsis of watching Arnie off bad guys in creatively violent ways. The film suffers from a fundamental identity crisis between what it is and what it’s about, and Paul Michael Glaser displays neither the wit nor the imagination to resolve it. His best creative decisions lie in the casting department: it’s an absolute blast to watch the late Richard Dawson parody his on-screen persona (as well as, allegedly, his less-flattering off-screen one), and the use of real-life wrestlers and sportsmen as the stalkers is another inspired touch. What this film needed to really make it work was to have a pop culture satirist like John Carpenter or Paul Verhoeven at its helm. Then again, considering the other projects that could have deprived us of, perhaps it’s best they weren’t.
While the movie’s vision of 2017 America is likely influenced by accounts of Soviet totalitarianism (as many 1980s dystopias were), it also foreshadows how our obsession with celebrity, spectacle, and mass entertainment has replaced political thought, something our current president has certainly played a part in but is by no means the first to act upon. Where The Running Man (as well as The Hunger Games) gets it the most wrong is how entertainment is used by power: not to distract people from the wrongdoings of our elected leaders, but to make them more palatable and fun to accept. And in an age where even the smallest comment or event can become a nationwide 24-hour spectacle, it’s hard to imagine that ever changing.