The Running Man: Why Schwarzenegger Film is More Timely Than Ever

In light of the news of Edgar Wright hired to direct the remake of the 1985 Stephen King dystopian story The Running Man, made during his Richard Bachman phase, let's look back at the 1987 loose film adaption that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and why it's still relevant today. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser and written by King and Steven E. de Souza, the TriStar Pictures (Sony) film follows Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger), a former law enforcement pilot framed for a mass murder that he didn't commit. Sentenced to hard labor at a prison camp, he and fellow inmates hack into a security terminal to disable collars that explode once the prisoner goes beyond his boundary or just unruly enough to set off a guard's temper.

The Running Man: Why Schwarzenegger Film is More Timely Than Ever
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards in The Running Man (1987). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Not long after Richards' escape, he attempts to flee at an airport with the reluctant help of a woman, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Following Richards' futile attempt, he's recaptured by authorities and forced to carry out his sentence on a reality game show where he's hunted by over-the-top personalities that resemble pro-wrestlers with gimmicks to match. Dubbed stalkers, they often carry a deadly arsenal to match their warrior personas to kill their targets, the runners. As comfortable as the audience is with bloodthirst, they start to turn toward the underdog Richards' side when he starts offing the network's warriors themselves. Sure it's hard to ignore the gladiatorial appeal, the over-the-top 80s violence, and Schwarzenegger's one-liners even if they don't make any sense like "Here's Sub-Zero! Now, plain zero!" as he taunts host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) after finishing off the ice-themed stalker. While that alone stands the test of time, the real, lasting appeal comes from the inherent comfort of manipulation, particularly from the network ICS. ICS throughout the film has real-time video-editing technology that doesn't require motion capture to shape to show what people can do. The film makes Ben look like he purposely shot the people from the sky before he gets taken down, whereas the real events portrayed the opposite and his own reluctance to shoot on innocents.

Another scene in the film is when Killian stages a final fight between Ben and Captain Freedom, played by Jesse Ventura. Despite having no actual presence, their tech allows the audience to see a fight where Captain Freedom being the one to take out Ben in their fight to the death. By faking Richards' death, it allows ICS forces to pursue Richards off-camera relentlessly. With the events unfolding to the climax of the film, Ben and Amber lead the forces of the resistance to its climactic conclusion. How does it translate to 2021? Consider current CG tech right now and their ability to bring back living AND death celebrities back to life. Now consider how easy it is to hire a soundalike and use voice cloning to recreate what that person sounds like. Adding the fact you have Deepfake tech regularly circulating online with face swapping different actors to film and television even as a joke. Now expand that to agenda-driven media sources that frequently manipulate context to fit within their own agenda. As an open society, we have access to unaltered, unedited footage of press conferences from our leaders.

The Running Man: Why Schwarzenegger Film is More Timely Than Ever
Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Richard Dawson in The Running Man (1987). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

At the same time, we have enough of a demographic who won't bother searching from the original source or don't even care. The narrative alone is enough to drive the agenda even when the facts are staring at their face. We reached a point of no return with a significant chunk of the media-consuming audience already rife with misinformation and distrust. Decades of work building trust go out the window when there are those who trust another source, whether if it's someone or some random organization that never got anywhere near the scrutiny of its far more seasoned and experienced brethren. Why will the upcoming remake of The Running Man from Wright be important? Because we are already in part literally living its future. The difference now is which ending will he go with? The 1987 one, the much more depressing King ending or his own because he's Edgar F***ing Wright?

About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.