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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Logan's Run

MGM released in the summer of 1976, a major sci-fi film: Logan’s Run (LR). It was an A-grade effort and might have been seen as the landmark film for the 70s, had not Star Wars eclipsed it. LR is dystopia and youth-centrism and mod sets/locations, long hair for guys, feathery big hair for the girls. LR is still the pinnacle of 70s sci-fi in many ways that a galaxy far far away is not. Michael York stars as Logan 5. Jennifer Agutter stars as Jessica 6. Peter Ustinov stars as The Old Man. Watch for Farrah Fawcett in a minor role as the lovely medical assistant.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Text on screen sets up the story. “Sometime in the 23rd century, the survivors of war, overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domed city, sealed away from the forgotten world outside. Here, in an ecologically balanced world, mankind lives only for pleasure, freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything. There’s just one catch: Life must end at thirty unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carrousel.” Logan 5 is a Sandman. His job is to track down “runners” — people who turned 30, but do not report for fiery death in the carrousel ritual. He and his co-worker, Francis 7, run down and kill a man who skipped the last ritual. Logan meets Jessica 6, who refuses his advances. Later at Sandman HQ, Logan turns in the personal effects of the runner they terminated. This includes a metal Ankh. The computer (that runs the city) gives Logan a special assignment, to find Sanctuary (where the thousand or so escaped runners are supposed to have gotten to.) By avoiding Logan’s questions about carrousel, he figures out that no one gets “renewed”. Everyone dies at 30. The computer advances his LifeClock (crystal in his left palm) such that it’s now Logan’s LastDay. He must become a runner. Logan seeks out Jessica (since she wears an Ankh). She and her underground railroad friends do not trust Logan and plan to kill him. Logan spares a runner, which wins over Jessica. They continue to escape the city, but are pursued by Francis 7, who thinks Logan is a real runner. Logan and Jessica get out of the city via an elevator to a frozen series of tunnels and chambers. There they meet Box, a robot whose job was to freeze-preserve food. Box has suffered a programming error and frozen/preserved those 1059 runners. None had really escaped. Logan fights Box and wins. He and Jessica escape amid mild cave-ins. They emerge outdoors to see a sunrise, but have no idea what the sun is. They follow a ruined highway to a forest-overgrown Washington DC. In the vine-entangled Senate chamber, they meet The Old Man. He is a kindly, but dottery old man who doesn’t know much. He’s seen no other people for many years, and knows nothing of Sanctuary. Francis followed them there. He and Logan fight to the death, which means Francis’. Logan decides that since there is no Sanctuary, they must return to the domed city and liberate everyone from the fiery doom. They take The Old Man with them, but he can’t swim through the seawater intake ports, so just waits. Inside the city, the people won’t listen to Logan or Jessica. They are captured by Sandmen. The computer interrogates Logan. When his holographic ‘surrogate’ (truth serum-ish) says there is no Sanctuary, the computer suffers a system collapse. In the mayhem of sparks, Logan and Jessica escape. The city starts to explode and burn. People scream and flee. Finally, a wave of young refugees come across The Old Man, fascinated by his white hair and beard. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
LR is fun on a few different levels. For one, the look and feel as so totally 70s. Even the themes are clearly the spawn of 70s points-of-view. Then too, there are many metaphors and analogies which give the story much depth as a social commentary. Add to all that, the performances of York and Agutter are fine. Agutter is particularly easy on the eyes. Ustinov is amusing.

Cultural Connection
The Cult of Youth — Nolan’s story was written back in the mid 60s when America was experiencing a massive shift into the worship of youth. “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Films like Wild in the Streets (’68) and Gassss (’70) were based on the same premise that only the young would somehow be left to rule the world. Old people would be banished or eliminated. Thus was the arrogance of youth given expression in film. If they ruled the world…it wouldn’t actually be any better. Youthful utopia is never attained.

Based on the Book — William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson wrote the novel “Logan’s Run” in 1967. There were plans to produce a movie shortly afterward, though this ran into delays. They penned a script which followed their book, but the producers balked at the projected expenses. The book’s scenes would have required several expensive sets (such as the colony on Mars segment). David Zelag Goodman's screenplay made several revisions, while maintaining the basic premise. In the book, people were terminated when they turned 21, not 30. They were terminated in a Sleep Room, which makes the job title of Sandman more of logical. Logan 3 (not 5) still escapes with Jessica 6, but they eventually do find Sanctuary. This happens to be a colony on Mars. Francis, in the book, turns out to be a key leader in the Underground. Goodman's story is different in key features, but may actually be a better story.

Carrousel — As mentioned above, the book had people terminated via a lethal injection in the Sleep Rooms. As the production of LR was delayed, MGM’s Soylent Green was released in ’73. One of its key scenes is lethal injection rooms as the euthanasia solution to population control. So, LR could not have them too, even if Nolan’s novel had them before Soylent Green did. Enter the elaborate “carrousel” ceremony in which the participants and audience are led to believe they “ascend” to some high plane of “renewal” to be reborn later. In reality, they merely rise to the ceiling and explode. The city’s computer knows that there is no renewal, just obliteration as population control. When the computer refuses to answer Logan’s questions about the carrousel ceremony and Renewal, he comes to realize the truth. This is a key scene in Goldman’s story. This is the moment when a mortal man realizes his own mortality. This neatly matches that threshold event in everyone’s lives (usually while a youth or young adult), that they will not live forever, but will die someday.

Metaphorical Trap of Youth — Goodman's story creates a neat metaphor for the idealistic island that the narcissism of youth creates. Inside the domed city, the young enjoy their carefree (and meaningless) existence of eating, socializing, sex and little else. Outside of their bubble is a whole wide world, but they are both uninterested in it, and afraid of it. Continuing with the metaphor, after Logan 5 realizes his mortality, he can no longer remain in the bubble of ignorant bliss. For that matter, none of the inhabitants can remain either. Once they come “of age,” they are destroyed. But, they imagine their existence to be perpetual, via Renewal. This cycle of ignorant bliss becomes a deadly trap. Even when Logan returns to tell them the truth, they refuse it. Only when Logan bursts their bubble (makes the city explode) are they forced out into the real world where they encounter “old age”.

Old Age Through Young Eyes — Some viewers find Peter Ustinov’s Old Man character hammy and overplayed. Instead of the wise old man to teach the neophytes (ala Obi wan Kenobi), he is a dottering old fool who recites pointless lines from a T.S. Elliot book about cats. Apparently, he cannot read (or is selectively ignorant), because despite being surrounded with books, he seems to know almost nothing about the world or place he lives in. He’s kindly, benign but simple and pretty much useless. This would be the youthful view of what old people are like. They’re all dottering old fools, prattling on and on about nothing of importance (to the teen mind). In this, the subtle Youth Rules message is upheld.

Sanctuary Lost — A rather nice double twist in LR is the legendary Sanctuary. The disaffected within the city spread word of its existence, even though no one has seen it. Viewers find out that all of the 1056 runners which had escaped the city, were actually still within it — frozen by malfunctioning Box, the food storage robot. Logan and Jessica were actually the first city people to ever make it out. Logan is disappointed to learn from Old Man, that there is no Sanctuary. That is, in the mystical, magical way he had been imagining it. He sees it as Sanctuary Lost. Unrealized by Logan, he was standing in it. He and Jessica were like a new Adam and Eve, “beloved husband” and “beloved wife” in a lush green world all to themselves. When Logan frees the city’s inhabitants, they all end up finding the real Sanctuary — normal mortal lives in the natural world, not the contrived and managed pseudo-childhood existence they had in the city.

City Planning — Reading between the lines, it appears that the city was built by elders long before, with the massive central computer in charge of everything. To balance incoming resources, the computer creates the age limit and termination plans. The computer itself seems to have accepted the existence of Sanctuary as an absolutely necessary component of its city planning program. Discovering that Sanctuary did not exist causes a total system failure. “Input Contrary.” Why? Perhaps having an opponent “outside” was fundamental to the city’s protection plans. Runners had to be terminated, lest they increase the power of the opponent. The city needed to be protected, lest the outsiders jeopardize the city. Tyrants need an “enemy” to justify their tyranny. Another theory is that somehow Logan's having returned from the outside world is a clue to the computer that the outside is habitable again.  With no more need for the protective bubble, the computer self-destructs. The trouble with this theory is how uncontrolled the computer's meltdown was.

Subtle Technophobia — Woven into the background of LR are subtle technophobia themes. Technophobia was a popular theme in the early 70s, less so by the mid to late 70s. (thus pointing to an early 70s writing of Goldman’s screenplay). Note the deadly tyranny of the Computer. The program says everyone must die at 30, so they do. Note too, the Box character — that semi-comic robot in the ice chambers. It appeared to have originally had a job as a food preserver robot. It kept repeating a chant: “Fish, plankton, sea greens and protein from the sea.” But Box noted that at some point, the sea food supply stopped. That is when the people began to try and escape the city. Box, like the stereotypical computer gone amok (ala Hal), begins to freeze the escapees as if they were the food he was supposed to preserve. Automated systems become the deadly overlords. Classic technophobia.

Early 70s Demons — Another hint that Goldman’s screenplay hails from the early 70s, is the triple bogeymen of Overpopulation, Pollution and War. Somewhat undermining those traditional demons is that the outside world is not toxic. Logan and Jessica frolic in Eden-like forests. The pollution problem was, apparently, not so terrible after all.

Iconic Ruins Trope — Several films play with favorite cultural landmarks in ruins as a commentary on the mortality of even a great nation. Planet of the Apes (’68) was an early major landmark in this trope, with the partially buried Statue of Liberty as the surprise ending. Later films, such as Independence Day (’96) and others, would almost gleefully go around blowing up cherished American landmarks. LR’s portrayal of Washington DC as more-or-less intact but abandoned, is a subtle twist on this trope. It’s not so much that America as “destroyed” as that Americans got lost. Their populist capital was still there “for the people” — the books, the paintings, the governmental chambers — but the culture itself had been destroyed.

Bottom line? LR is one of the big sci-fi films of the 70s. It is a more cerebral film, with many thoughtful tangents to muse over. It should be on the viewing list of any serious sci-fi fan. Younger viewers (born after 1970) need to cut the film some slack for being very 70s in style. Don’t kvetch over hair styles or fashions, or the non-CGI special effects. Get over it and get into the story instead. It’s worth it.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Excellent review and analysis. The movie is better than the book, and kudos to Jennifer Agutter, who was one of the better actresses from her age group, but who never really was noticed by the casting directors of Hollywood.