The mid-70s were a stranger time for SF films than most of us realize. Nowadays we see that pre-Star Wars decade through a screen called 2001: A Space Odyssey, forgetting how much that film (like Star Wars after it) polarized opinion, only assuming the status of Unassailable Classic after the stoned teenagers who loved it became filmmakers themselves. Before that, the Big Name in successful sci-fi films from 1968 was Planet of the Apes. Which deserves to be examined in its own time. So let’s just skim over its superficial attributes real fast.
Apes is a big budget ($5 million went a lot further back then) Major Studio SF picture based on a novel few bothered to read with a well-known piece of beefcake in the lead role and supporting actors doing much better jobs. So I’m not surprised William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s novel got its own time in the limelight. Logan’s Run-the-book hit shelves in 1967…the same year our beefcake, Michael York, hit screens in The Taming of the Shrew. By the time he won the lead in this big budget ($9 million) Major Studio SF picture, he’d become internationally famous as D’Artagnan in both of Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies. As to the supporting cast…yep. We’re in the pipe, five by five.
Might as well come out with it: I’ve never liked Logan’s Run. It’s too slow, too cliched (even when it came out), and nowhere near as profound as it thinks it is. Worse, it’s a bad adaption of its source novel, with details large and small changed for nonsensical and/or arbitrary reasons that, rather than help the story thrive in a new medium for which it was not originally designed, wind up completely undermining it.
Either way, both book and film take place in a dystopian future where everyone is legally obliged to die at a certain age. Both follow a main character charged with enforcing this law who, eventually, grows to recognize its inherent injustice and aid the very rebels he’s spent his life gunning down. Both main characters are cut right out of a standard antihero mold, and if you put a gun to my head and forced me to name their nearest ancestor, I’d pick Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451.
That’s where the similarities end and Logan’s Run-the-film dives right into its only selling point: lavish production design. What, did you think they spent those nine million dollars on script doctoring?
So in the Year of The City 2274, the remains of humanity live inside a dome, their every want and need supplied through the wall by a fantastically advanced and fucking enormous computer system. (Because that’s original.) Everyone inside MegaCity One gets thirty years to the day before the little Lifeclock jewel in their palm begins flashing. On their Lastday, The Computer calls them to Carrousel, a “fiery ritual” that’s half Circus Maximus, half Cirque du Soleil and all public execution. Who knew the word “renew” could sound so much like “Sieg Heil“? Most things do when shouted in unison by a crowd. Even this bunch of red-and-green toga wearers started to look a little intimidating…until I noticed this movie takes place in a future without bras.
Obviously some “misfits” refuse to report to Carrousel, necessitating the need for Sandmen – the black-and-gray clad enforcers of law and order who seem to do nothing but chase down Runners. Our antihero is Logan 5 (Michael York) a Sandman who likes to play with his prey. The movie contrasts our first view of Carrousel with a down-right sadistic sequence as Logan purposefully misses the Runner his aiming for. The Riggs to Logan’s Murtaugh, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), eventually puts the poor bastard out of his misery. In the jovial afterglow of their murder, Francis insists, “I had to do something: you kept missing.”
There’s nothing wrong with making your main character a murderous asshole with moral tunnel vision. If there were, whole genres of fiction would cease to exist. But I better have an easy way to get into that murdering asshole’s head or he’s just going to be another murdering asshole and I’m just going to be bored, waiting for him to complete his Hero’s Journey. There are dozens of different ways for a novel to do this – techniques film does not have, because the screen will always form a barrier between the character’s interior lives and the audience…until someone invents PsychicVision. It’s a permeable barrier, don’t get me wrong…but its a barrier you need real skill to penetrate.
And speaking of penetration: like Winston Smith (a literary ancestor of both Logan and Guy Montag) Logan’s brought around to his awakening by an open-minded lady-person he’s immediately attracted to because…well, she has breasts. Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) also has what her society would consider serious emotional problems – she feels loss for those “renewed” in Carrousel, accuses Logan of being a killer (“I’ve never killed anyone in my life; Sandmen terminate runners.”) and has the one Ultimate Signifier of Goodness in any Sci-Fi Dystopia: curiosity.
“Why is it wrong to run?”
“You shouldn’t even be thinking such things – let alone talking about them.”
Nice sentiment, Logan…but that’s probably the first question on any kid’s mind once they become smart enough to ask (assuming they don’t turn into feral Lords of the Flies, like the “Cubs” down in Cathedral). And if this society can crack-up under such a basic question’s weight, I start questioning how it’s lasted two hundred years.
Logan completes the crack-up when The Computer informs him that one thousand fifty-six Runners are currently unaccounted for. His mission: become an undercover Runner and infiltrate the resistance group ferrying them out of The City to some legendary Sanctuary…somewhere…Completing the illusion, The Computer runs Logan’s Lifeclock down and refuses to say if he’ll get his four years back. Because that’s logical. And smart. Great way to keep your agent loyal, female Hal 9000. Anyone else want to bet this is “her” first undercover op?
You know what pisses me off the most? There’s no reason in the film to call these people “Sandmen.” It makes perfect sense in the novel, where there is no Carrousel – citizens report to conveniently located “Sleepshops,” the agents of which are called Deep Sleep Operatives…or colloquially, Sandmen. Simple, little pieces of story logic (like that) can mean the difference between SF worlds that make sense and SF worlds that were Obviously Built to Fail (like the Old Republic of the Star Wars prequels).
This City is the latter. I don’t know what kind of educational programs this thing runs, but they obviously haven’t done their jobs. Logan in particular – who’s apparently awesome enough to win himself an undercover job – seems incredibly naive about everything, to the point where his every utterance causes suspicion.
“Francis, did you…did you ever see anybody renew?”
“I think you’ve been skulling-out too much. First nursery, now silly questions.”
Well, you have to admit, Francis, you’re in an incredibly silly place: its interiors look more like a swank luxury hotel than a Domed City of the Future: ugly ultramodernism clashing with the citizen’s age-coded togas. The City’s industrial underbelly looks a bit better, but it’s still a Ken Adam-inspired collection of pipes, catwalks, staircases and stagnant pools of…something green. (Soylent Green, perhaps?) None of it looks near rusty or dank enough for my taste, though it certainly presages the “gritty” SF and “used” futures of the Star Wars and Alien. Even with that, evrything’s still too clean, too bound by its own sets.
This persists through the ice cave sequence, nice as that is for introducing the truly insane android, BOX. He is quite overwhelming and I was startled. He’s quite removed from my kin.
Logan and Jessica’s journey outside is more “whelming,” (to borrow a phrase) because here the film descends into one long sequence of Michael York and Jenny Agutter looking at things. While they have idiotic exchanges like
“What is it?”
“I don’t know…whatever it is, it’s warm.”
“They’ve all got names and numbers on them. I wonder what they are.”
” ‘Beloved husband’, ‘beloved wife.'” I wonder what it means.”
which is the most annoying kind of sci-fi writing, immediately putting your characters at a disadvantage. Bad enough when they’re “normal” people in some fantastical world, stopping the action every five minutes to ask someone else, “What the hell was that?” When they’re fantastical people dealing with the mundane, post-apocalyptic wreckage of our modern world, I loose any patience with them.
Plus this entire sequence – culminating in a whole lot of York and Agutter looking at the overgrown-but-not-bad-for-200-years-in-the-rain ruins of Washington D.C. They look at Lincoln, they look at Washington’s giant cock…and they stare slack jawed at the Crazy Old Cat Dude (Peter “he’ll always be Prince John to me” Ustinov) living in the Senate chambers and quoting T.S. Elliot to his Cat Army. For me, Ustinov is the best thing in this movie: the one thing that’s intentionally hilarious.
Plus Ustinov’s the best actor in the cast, followed closely by Richard Jordan, who clearly had fun being the Inspector Javert. In the novel, his character’s revealed to have been the leader of the resistance All This Time. Here he’s…not…which means he has no character arc whatsoever, but at least he keeps the chase moving. If it were up to York and Agutter, we’d spend the entire last hour of the film looking at things. Or falling in Movie Love, since…um…yeah…did Taylor and Nova need a reason?
This was sold to us as a Chase Film, after all. Except MGM didn’t hire the makers of chase movies. Michael Anderson’s previous two movies were about popes. (No, really.) His next movie would be…oh sweet Geezus…Orca…excuse me…
(ten minutes of shivering later)
Screenwriter David Zelag Goodman helped Sam Peckinpah write Straw Dogs. I’ll pause to let that sink in, since…fucking Straw Dogs?! Who goes from Straw Dogs to this? In between, he did Farewell My Lovely, which is closer to this, in that both are adaptions of books…but still, that was Raymond Chandler. This is out there, Big Idea Sci-Fi that might’ve held actual social relevance upon its first published. It seems dated here because the people who brought it to the screen had no idea what they were doing. They were hired guns, and they did a mercenary job on this story.
Ah well. At least they hired a great production designer – Dale Hennesy, the man who made Fantastic Voyage, Young Frankenstein and Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong look the way they do. And a great musician in Jerry Goldsmith, who plays around with synthesizers far more than he’d ever do again…though only in The City (so take heart, Jerry: at least I noticed.) Good job, there. Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography is fantastic, and his colors are only going to get brighter now that we’ve digitized his film and cleaned up the print as best we can…but you know I’m reaching when I’m praising the DP.
In the end, Logan’s Run is a stiff but colorful bit of factory-pressed cheese. No one could escape the obvious truth that they were working on a silly, silly movie and so refused to do anything strenuous, like really go for it. They hollowed out a novel in the hope that filling it would pretty things (and people) would distract us from how little thought they put into this thing…as if the initial hook of the premise could carry us past the nonsense. I suspect MGM consciously tried to create a giant SF franchise…like Fox’s Planet of the Apes…and didn’t care very much about the particulars.
To a certain extent, it worked. Logan’s Run is one of those mass marketed Cult Classics (as opposed to actual cult classics, like The Room or Reefer Madness) that spawned its own one-season TV series and is constantly being almost remade. The director of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, is the latest name attached to the project and…it’ll probably suck.
I’m not saying the original sucks, but it is dull and deathly predictable…unless you’re one of those misfits who’s never read a sci-fi story before. In which case…run, Runner!