November, 2002, Volume 10 Nr.
3, Issue 111
In the late 1970s, a science fiction movie, more heroic legend than technotale, hit the big screen with a flourish. It had its own style, like nothing before it, so innovative that it won a special Oscar for visual effects. Sure the acting, writing, directing and editing were uneven. But it was widely lauded as the herald of a new age in science fiction cinema. All this, except the special Oscar, could be about "Star Wars", but I am speaking of "Logans Run". If you remember "Logans Run" or grabbed the video recently, or whooped it up at a party-screening for a friends 30th birthday (a minor ritual among those born between the boom and the X), you may be thinking of the costumes and the Love Shop and the shopping mall City. And Farrah Fawcett. You may be thinking, Cheesy. 70s. Pretty dated for a movie set in 2274.
I like this movie. However flawed the vehicle, the tale is timely, timeless and provocative. Like all the great myth cycle elements, this one, a retelling of the Heros Journey, rewards us with many layers of meaning.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead):
In the twenty-third century, life is perfect, without disease or childbirth. A great Computer runs everything. Beautiful white people are gestated in breeding machines, raised by other machines; few seem to have a job. Sex and drugs and pleasure are the order of the days as The City cares for its inhabitants. No one even grows old anymore! When you reach the age of thirty, you go on Carousel, a sort of dance-circus ritual in which you float and fly and explode! Of course, you assume that most folks "Renew", a reincarnation doctrine you have known all your life. Once in a while, some misfit fools, who want to live longer, try to elude Carousel. These are the Runners, and they are swiftly dispatched by an elite force, the Sandmen.
One Sandman, Logan 5, is recruited/coerced by the Computer for a solo special operation, to infiltrate the Runners and find and destroy the mythic place they are running toward, Sanctuary. Soon Logan is on the run, with Jessica 9, a young woman he tricks into guiding him to the Runner Underground. As evidence mounts of the insanity of the system, the lie of Renewal, and his complicity in mass murder, Logan becomes a Runner in earnest. He and Jessica escape to the labyrinthine, neglected bowels of the machine, through a mad encounter with the ancient food storage robot, Box, and, finally, Outside.
Outside, there are wilderness, bugs, weather, but no Sanctuary. They find the ruins of Washington, DC, and there they find an Old Man. Alone with his cats, but with a great, deep memory, of his parents, the old culture, poetry. From him they learn about parental love, marriage, nuclear family, burial of the dead. But Logans old friend, the Sandman Francis 7, has pursued the couple to eliminate them. Unable to convince Francis of the reality surrounding them, in a fight to the death, Logan kills Francis.
Risking death in the machine, Logan and Jessica return to the City to free the people from the tyranny of the Computer, but are captured and interrogated. The information the Computer pulls from Logans brain, the truth of his experience, the world as it is, contradicts the City myth, which the Computer program was based upon. The contradiction, the truth, destroys the machine. The City and the Computer are one, and they die in fire and explosions, a final Carousel. Most of the inhabitants survive. We are left with the hopeful scene of thousands of curious young people, and one Old Man, all Outside, with the whole adventure of their long lives ahead of them.
A plot synopsis cannot give you the nuance of imagery and ideas presented. And I admit my partiality to dystopian SF as contemporary commentary. We live in a dystopia, that is the human condition, and always has been, but the styles of dystopias vary. Despite its dated look, "Logans Run" is perhaps a more resonant metaphor for today than it was for 1976. As a useful retelling of the Hero cycle, it is descriptive and prescriptive. The deeply didactic tales of the human myth cycles are repeated over and over in different ways. The Hero Journey is one of the primary tales of human culture, and "Logans Run" is a bardic lay. As with other versions of the tale, repeated tellings/viewings reveal more layers and lessons.
Often the most critical task in receiving the Hero tale comes early on: seeing the culture from the perspective of an outsider. This typically happens when a favored son is cast out. Nothing appears as it always had. All the elements remain, but they are seen with the maturing eyes of the Orphan. Logan is questioning the system right from the start of the film, mild curiosity only, but it disturbs Francis, who tells him to "stop skulling out", "you wonder a lot, too much for a Sandman." Thus the viewer is cued to watch the system critically. This is not a movie where we immerse ourselves in the milieu, rather we are encouraged to see it as it is, corrupt. We immerse ourselves in identification with Logan.
"Logans Run" displays the mindless innocence of the subjects of ubiquitous fascism. The children in the City have known nothing else, are swaddled in this shallow, stifling cocoon of a society. They are people without a history, for there are no books or elders to carry history, immersed in a pale, candy culture where no one creates anything. It is a static, lifeless culture, in spite of its chipper appearance. The people are interchangeable as pretty toys, taught to be content to use and be used, without the energy of commitment or creation to bog them down or grow them up. The only signs of human endeavor are in the Runners, whose dissent makes them enemies of the State/City who must be killed, and in the Sandmen, who at least develop skills as hunters.
Life in "The Year of the City, 2274", resembles the perilous somnolence of too many still-comfortable U.S. Americans, content, and able, to drown their doubts in busy pursuit of easy, vapid pleasures that discourage independent thought. Comforted by the assurance that the City will care for them, and by the pale religion promising the salvation of Renewal - a chance to live life after fun, worry-free life - the young people of the mall-City remind me of the many blinkered folks of our culture. People are encouraged by the 21st-century machine to see suffering rarely, and to change the channel if it threatens to awaken them from the padded cells of their colonized minds.
The Sandman Within
The risk of sleepwalking in the dreamworld of friendly fascism is very real. Being complicit by allowing oneself to lulled by the myths, and blameless because one was "doing my duty" eliminating Runners, spying on coworkers, dropping bombs on Dresden and so was everyone else. "Doing my duty", when it involves patiently killing other people, is one of the absurdities of war. Who can stand back and looks at such events in history and quite make sense of them? When the lies are exposed, when the war crimes are named, there is seldom a Nuremberg Trial. So many folks were complicit in war crimes, so many have a secret they want to hide from others and from themselves that they should have done more, that they were afraid, that they turned on their neighbors, that they got caught in the fevers of patriotism and the chills of fear that show trials for war crimes have been few and swift, rituals of psychological projection that allow "regular folks" to distance themselves from the public war criminals, as well as from the private war criminals within themselves.
Amnesia is one of the spoils of war. And who wants to remember anyway? The aftermath of war, for most of those lucky enough to have health and home, to come out relatively unscathed, is like waking after a bad, drunken night. When you were living it, emotions were big, and you loved and hated intensely. Now, you want to forget it, and you would appreciate if others did not bring it up. A few years from now, citizens can remember "our war" with the gauze of crafted memory, and will laugh and cry and even look back with longing on the simple clean certainty they recall. In a few years, there will be a distance, and time for the victors to mythologize the war. After the mess is cleaned up, the physical and historical mess, folks can again pretend a simple clean cause, a noble nationalism. Just in time for the next war. This cycle seems destined to become shorter, a narrowing helix, in the new century. Mechanized techie warfare and tightly controlled information allow the gargantuan war machine of the US, for instance, to pretend that the actions it takes in the Oil-East are glorious wars, proof of heroic soldierly mettle, rather than expensive videogames that actually kill and maim real-people-like-you-and-me.
People want to get on with their lives. A few remain attached to victor or victim status, and these few will eventually foment the next wars, but most folks, on homefronts or battlefronts, grow weary of war when grief outruns euphoria. I think an understudied post-war emotion is embarrassment. Not quite shame, not quite guilt, but an itchy discomfort of embarrassment. I think it should be explored, and exploited, in the cause of national and global maturity.
Myth and Machine
We identify with Logan, with Jessica, with the Runners. We despise or pity the Sandmen, whom we hold responsible for carrying out bad orders. (The Enemy has war criminals, we have only soldiers who were mistaken, but did their job the best they could and thank god they come marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.) Francis 7, even as he follows the same labyrinthine path as Logan and Jessica, and does so alone, does not, ever, disbelieve the mythology of the City. His psychology immunized him to the reality all around him. In his final confrontation with Logan, Francis does not seem to see the Old Man, right in front of him. As he dies in Logans arms, his last words are a happy delusion, "Logan, you renewed".
I suggest we acknowledge our identification with the rest of the people who live in the City, because that is who most of us are. Not heroes, not villains, but just folks getting by from day to day, trying to be as comfortable and friction-free as possible. Short term rewards, conformity. It is not exalting to realize you are, in much of your existence, one of the shallow child-subjects of the City. It is humbling and embarrassing. We are humans, interdependent both physically and emotionally. Perhaps we must recognize our common humanity before we can do heroic acts or think heroic thoughts. The Hero is the one who finds hir unique strength and chooses to use it to serve hir people. The psychological lesson of the Hero Tale is that we all are potential heroes, capable of maturing and of serving one another, as individuals in a culture we are actively creating.
The normalization of violence, the manufacture of consent, indoctrination masquerading as education, the idea of the Other, ritualized killing, and other methods of fascism are perpetuated by the City of Logans Run. The film is a message dressed up as an imagined future, speaking to our present. Didactic dystopian fiction, dressed for success as an adventure flick full of half-dressed women and techie effects.
I love watching those sweet, dumb kids, Logan and Jessica, progress through the slow satori of this movie. They must pass classical mythic elements of labyrinths, secret doors, vaginal cave openings, underworld, pinnacle and other symbolic elements which are scattered all through the film. These adult children, who seem to lack even fairy tales, traverse the same psychic landscape fairy tales illuminate in other cultures, but do so in real physical peril. Whether it was the intention of the filmmakers or inevitable when retelling one of the classic Hero motives, there are layers of meaning in "Logans Run". Consider the emotional triangle of Logan with Francis and Jessica; the way hardship creates interdependence and interdependence fosters maturity; the vitality of the Old Man (he walks with a confident stride, while the pampered Jessica and Logan stumble to keep up); the analogy of being cast from Eden, Jessica and Logan as Adam and Eve; instant gratification stunts moral growth; the underground railroad for Runners represents a maturing group, giving up comforts to help one another; City inhabitants as interchangeable, immature people who do not have any challenges, intellectual or emotional, on which to hone themselves; "there is no Sanctuary" and "no one is renewed", are the humanistic, atheistic realizations which free us to develop a mature culture.
This movie is not hard science fiction, it is fable. Because it is a myth, another version of the ancient tale humans have told for centuries, it could have survived more poetic dialogue, more theatre. By attempting to make a contemporary adventure yarn, the filmmakers eclipsed its power as myth.
There is a critical distinction between "Logans Run" and "Star Wars" in the presentation of various fascisms. Arendts "banality of evil" is seen in the City, perpetual and unchanging for centuries, the naïve dream of youthful planners. There is no imperialist motive in the City, no interest in Outside, which was abandoned long ago. The City is small compared to the world, as viewers know, but to the inhabitants it is the world entire. The Empire is named for its primary motivation, to expand and subjugate all other worlds. Ruthless, violent imperialism is personified by Palpatine and his great servant, Darth Vader. The evil Empire of Star Wars is an open oppressor, inspiring rebellion. The City of Logan's Run, by contrast, is a mindless, benevolent dictator, inspiring nothing, assuring risk-free consumerism forever. Which rebellion is more difficult: to rebel against the Empire, or the City, the monster machine, or the mother machine?
For Those Who Prefer the Novel
Anyone who compares this movie to the William F. Nolan novel, "Logans Run", especially in highlighting differences as a failure to be true to the authors' vision, is making a mistake. The book and the film share a title, and some other elements, but the tone and even the conflicts are distinct. Take each alone and appreciate the very different minds they each explore.
The society of the novel is noir-dark, worldwide and consciously cynical. Though folks only live to 21 (versus 30 in the film), there are lots of doubters. Logan listens to a citizen on Last Day nervously chatter, working up the courage to go to the Sweet Shop, where he will take the painless oblivion of Deep Sleep. Most do not rebel, but many question. And the book explores many methods of controlling citizens, including mind-altering drugs, historic pageantry, and the brutal final exam of Sandman training, where one is left outside in the desert alone to die or survive.
The Thinker (the Computer) is winding down, the systems are failing, the machine and all it controls are in decline. Arcade is a gritty, carny marketplace (in the movie it is just another clean, bright level of the pleasure mall). The New You Shop cosmetic surgery salon is drab and worn, with a tired Holly wearing stained whites, a far cry from the immaculate, flirtatious Holly (Farrah) of the film. Think Old Times Square (book) versus New Times Square (film), carny versus Disney. Nolans story has many little subcultures, such as the Pleasure Gypsies, perfumed Goth kids who ride flying scooters, and the culture of one who is the terrifying Box. Yes, there is a Box in the film, but only some details, and the name, were kept as a nod to the book; the Box in the movie is a machine acting on programming, dangerous but not evil, a contrast to the damaged human psychopath artist of the book.
When Star Wars arrived, it was a bigger visual surprise than Logans Run, partly because it set the stage for realism in settings. Star Wars had a gritty, rusty, busy, lived-in look. But Star Wars was not a realistic tale, it was a romantic swashbuckler. Not a dystopia, but, as the title said, "A New Hope". The detailed visual realism informed virtually every science fiction movie that followed. "Blade Runner" explored some similar themes to the Nolan novel. I could argue that "Blade Runner" has more in common with "Logans Run" the novel than "Logans Run" the movie has.
There are plans, and a script, to film a "Logans Run" based on the novel. That doesnt mean it will happen. It would be nice to have some thoughtful, challenging science fiction films, but I am not holding my breath. When producers think "Sci-Fi", dreams of "Star Wars", "Terminator", and "ET" receipts compete in their heads with "Waterworld" and "Mission to Mars" losses. I do not expect them to take a chance on the intelligence of their audience, nor to option an Ellison or a Bradbury. So I will read. Science fiction is still the best bet for unabashed intellect and idea-mongering in literature.
© 2002 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN