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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Logan's Run (1976)

Written by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
Directed by Michael Anderson

Michael York:  Logan-5
Richard Jordan:  Francis-7
Jenny Agutter:  Jessica-6
Peter Ustinov:  Old Man

I turn 40 tomorrow, so of course I'm thinking of the most famous "time is running out" movie in science fiction history. I realize I'm ten years past the expiration date for the timing to work out as it should, but I also don't care. It took me about ten years to decide that it didn't matter whether or not anyone wanted to read my thoughts on movies--I probably should have started Checkpoint Telstar when I was pushing 30, but I didn't. So here we are. Pity the movie isn't better than it is, but movies can be iconic without also being all that good.

In the year 2274, the remnants of human society have been confined to a massive domed city. Some sort of one-size-fits-all cataclysm brought this state of affairs about, as 70s science fiction so often depicted. Inside the domed compound, everyone's wants and needs are catered to by a sophisticated AI that controls every aspect of the citizens' lives, including when new children are gestated in a computer-controlled nursery. There's only so many resources to go around under the dome, after all, and too many people would make the system fall apart and doom everyone. Limiting the births is one way to keep the population stable; the other one used by the computer is a bit more drastic. Everyone in the world is told that when they reach the age of 30, they'll go through the ritual of "Carrousel", where their bodies will be destroyed and their life essence will be transmitted to the newly born infants, so that their souls will live on forever even though their bodies have been vaporized.

This is transparently bullshit to the audience, but it's the kind of religion that could certainly take hold in a futuristic hermetically sealed civilization. There's no point in wishing for a better world in the afterlife if the several dozen square miles of the here-and-now are the only world anyone's ever known. Infinite recycling is probably the most effective made-up story for making people do what the computer wants them to do, including submitting passively to their deaths whenever the magic voice from the loudspeakers says it's your Lastday. There's enough self-seriousness to the movie that I feel lots of terms should be capitalized--Lastday, Sandman, Runner, Carrousel, etc. Enjoy the terminology.

The domed future city looks like EPCOT 1974, complete with a monorail. And the clarity of Blu-Ray really doesn't do this movie any favors whatsoever. It's pretty obviously shot in a big shopping mall with miniatures matted in to make it look more like a city and less like a dystopia that would also have a B. Dalton Bookseller and an Orange Julius stand.

After the prerequisite opening titles that set up the future world situation, we get a ground floor view of Domed Mall World. Our hero, Logan-5, is looking curiously in on a maternity ward with a pair of cute little babies inside. The babies have a clear crystal implanted in the palms of their left hands; Logan's got one that's bright red (the color code will be explained later, but it's just as easy to tell you now if you don't already know about it--the life clock in everyone's hand shifts colors as they grow older; red is the final color and when it starts blinking the future people are ready for their Lastday). Logan's a little more curious than everyone around him, and that draws comment from his colleague Francis-7. Those two, by the way, are wearing black clothes with a big grey stripe across the chest while everyone else is making do with the customary 1970s sci-fi Star Trek Hippie Toga look, in several fashionably bright colors (and it sure seems to me like everyone gets assigned a clothing color and sticks with it for the rest of their lives, but I might be making unwarranted assumptions).

After some talk about how the system keeps everything in balance--"one is terminated, one is born"--(Francis is in favor of that, which does sound pretty sensible), a crowd gathers to watch that night's Carrousel ceremony. A female voice announces that it's Lastday for a subset of the population. About two dozen people in white robes and creepy skull / hockey masks enter a chamber at the bottom of a huge round auditorium that's packed with spectators. They raise their hands to show their blinking red crystals and a force field lowers around them. Everyone cheers as gravity gets reversed and the Lastday celebrants swim through the air acrobatically until they reach the top of the chamber and get destroyed by a disco ball thing hanging from the ceiling. Everyone cheers and chants "Renew! Renew!"; apparently they've got an Aztec-style view of willing sacrifices, and that makes sense if every death means another infant can be born next to the Pier 1 Imports.

While he's watching the Carrousel ritual, Logan gets a page on his house-brick sized future phone--a "Runner" is on the loose somewhere near the ear piercing kiosk. He and Francis quietly pursue a man in a red tunic, then shoot at him with their futuristic handguns. It turns out they're Sandmen, and their task in Mega-City One is to hunt down and kill anyone that skips out on their date with the antigravity popcorn popper for Carrousel. They appear to be firing in a way that misses and terrifies the poor son of a bitch--and both Logan and Francis treat his mortal terror as a humorous lark. Eventually they either frighten the Runner into diving off a balcony or actually hit him (the editing is unclear and I'm guessing that rigging sparks and squibs on the walls or floor of the mall were easier and safer than putting them on the stuntman). Logan swipes the dead man's money and a ring from his finger before a hovering cleaner unit sprays the Runner's body with a chemical that causes total decomposition of the corpse and its clothing in seconds. I don't know how this played out in 1976, but watching it in 2015 made my stomach turn--watching the protagonist laugh as he and a pal terrorize a civilian until he dies brought George Zimmerman to mind. ProTip to filmmakers:  If your protagonist makes me think of a jerkoff getting away with murder and bragging about it, I'm not going to like your protagonist. Not that anyone involved in the 1976 dystopian film would have known about our 2015 dystopian life, but a bullying asshole is a bullying asshole no matter who he reminds you of.

Back in his living quarters, Logan models a completely ridiculous lounging caftan in the Sandman color scheme and messes with some kind of "teleport someone to your bachelor pad to have sex" device. He summons the stunningly beautiful Jessica to his lair and macks on her without so much as saying hello, then acts stunned and bemused when she says no. Movie, again, you're not making me like Logan at all. Right now I'm hoping he winds up being attacked by hornets. Lots of them. Although the film at least has some dialogue that clues the audience in to a "circuit" of people willing to ride a transmat beam to a stranger's home so they can screw. I was afraid that it was some kind of perk for being a Sandman, but it looks like everyone in the future city can use it.

Jessica doesn't feel like putting out because one of her friends just went to Carrousel, and she believes that they were killed instead of mystically returned to the great cycle of consciousness. She also lets Logan have it with both barrels when she points out that he kills people as his assigned task (though our hero says instead that Sandmen terminate Runners; again, from the lofty vantage point of post-millenial America I'm thinking of the difference between "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "torturing the shit out of someone until they say what you want them to say". The pair chitchat for a little while (though Logan keeps hinting strongly that the bedroom's right over there in case Jessica wants to just have sex with him instead of talk or feel sad). And for all his earlier questioning nature raised comment from Francis-7, it looks like this is the first time Logan's ever heard a very particular question from anyone:  Why, exactly, do Sandmen have to terminate Runners? (If the future society was worried about resources, people leaving the domed mall wouldn't be taking up any more pretzel dog and blue raspberry Icee rations, after all.)

Logan decides to threaten Jessica with his Sandman gun when she asks this question (really, it's a good thing Michael York is so charismatic, because Logan's characterization is appalling). When Francis shows up with a pair of women in green hippie togas and a globe of laughing gas Jessica decides to make her escape and leave the apartment. Logan utterly fails to pursue, deciding that debauchery is more fun than questioning the system or worrying about the future.

At work at the Hall of Justice and Spencer's Gifts the next day, Francis and Logan drop off the personal effects of the Runners they've terminated so the computer can disintegrate them. Francis happens to go first so the audience can see how the procedure is supposed to work, and when Logan drops off the pocket litter from the previous day's Runner the computer takes much longer to scan the doomed sucker's personal effects. The computer directs Logan to a chair so he can take a meeting with his boss's boss's boss's boss directly and the Sandman looks about as relaxed and confident as you would if Bill Gates showed up for your performance review at Microsoft without warning. Turns out the computer has been keeping track of Runners that have escaped from the domed world, found their car in the 50,000 acre parking lot and gone out into the rest of the world. There have been 1,056 of them so far and the machine wants to make sure that number doesn't get any higher.

Logan doesn't understand anything the computer tells him at first (and doesn't recognize the ankh jewelry that the Runner had on him; by the way, Jessica was wearing one around her throat and that's probably not smart in a system where an AI is monitoring everything). The machine wants a Sandman to find the possibly-mythical Sanctuary out in the rest of the world and destroy it. Logan finds out that he's been volunteered for the job, cannot expect any backup, and has had four years taken off his life crystal so that he'll be a deep cover agent pretending to be a Runner. Right before it tells Logan what to do, the computer also drops enough information that Logan figures out the entire ritual of Carrousel is a fake, and that nobody has ever been Renewed over the course of the city's existence. That's a lot to drop on someone out of the blue. Even though I think Logan-5 is a real dickhead, I feel some sympathy for him here, especially because he's probably smart enough to figure how much use the system has for someone who knows it's all built on a lie and just did something suicidally dangerous, but then came back. The AI doesn't even promise the poor sap that he'll get his four years back when the mission's done. He scoops up the ankh and leaves for his mission.

The electro-skronk noise on the soundtrack during the lifeclock reprogramming scene convinced me that Jerry Goldsmith was trying something in the Dario Argento / John Carpenter electronic film score mode, but trying and succeeding are very different things. As much as I like beeping tones in my listening choices, the synthesizers are not really used well here and distract from the film much more than they add to it.

Back at the Sandman gym and sauna, Logan's shaken to the core about what he's learned about society and what's just happened with his Lifeclock, but Francis is too carefree, hedonistic and incurious to help. So it's time for our hero to look Jessica up and talk to her. Since he doesn't know anyone or anything that could help, he's clutching at straws. He's also gone right back to being an unlikable asshole when he says he didn't care about any hypothetical Runners and what they were thinking before, but now it's him and he's terrified. It's only when Logan drops the word "Sanctuary" that Jessica decides to help him. Or at least that's what it looks like to Logan; the underground atheists of the AI-run system think Logan's much too dangerous to live now that he knows the broad outlines of their plans to escape.

Jessica lures Logan over to the Mrs. Fields cookie stand but before one of her co-conspirators can garrote the Sandman he gets a page from his day job; there's a Runner at Cathedral and he's apparently the one who has to go Take Care of Business there. Logan and Jessica hop on to the local tram car, and are followed by the two guys who were going to strangle Logan earlier (which makes me wonder what kind of chase sequence you can have on a monorail--the movie agrees that it won't be impressive and doesn't really try for one). Even on a PC screen the minatures for this screen would have to improve to be chintzy. I imagine on a full-sized movie screen they're laughable.

Whatever original purpose Cathedral served (I'm guessing it was some kind of cathedral), that location is now the dumping ground for feral children who are too violent to manage in the greater society. Since it's a future mall, I found myself imagining a ball pit surrounded by heads on pikes, but we don't get anything that transgressive or awesome. It's just a low-rent district of the future city; I figure it's got dollar stores, a cell phone accessory kiosk and the airbrushed T-shirt booth in it. A filthy urchin named Mary-2 talks to Jessica for a moment before swiping her bracelet and running off. When Logan calls out for the Runner to show herself he and Jessica get ambushed by a pack of feral youths by the Hot Topic and the stroller rentals; Logan psyches out the leader of the gang and shoots the landscape a few times, frightening the "Cubs" away. They find the Runner and it turns out that Logan showing the blinking red crystal in his own hand does a lot more to calm the hysterical Runner down than any words could do. Just after Logan and Jessica leave the Runner, Francis shows up and executes her (and that's the first time we see a Sandman gun hitting a person--it's not pretty).

Jessica lets Logan know that her friends want to kill him as a threat to their escape plans; she's convinced that he's not like all the others because she saw him let a Runner go, but she's the only one of the Ankh Gang that wouldn't consider it safe policy to murder him on sight. If he's going to make a Run for it, Logan's going to need a new face from one of the plastic surgery boutiques on the second level, next to the Vitamin World. The doctor has the face of a teenager but he's got a red life crystal; apparently his own work is of the highest quality. He's also part of the underground, and Jessica talks him into doing a full-face job on Logan since even the doctor can see that Logan's crystal is blinking. But as it turns out he'd rather use the surgical robot to get rid of his Logan problem; in the ensuing fistfight it turns out Doc thinks like a chessmaster but fights like one as well and he gets sliced and diced by his own surgery drone's lasers. Francis-7 shows up just in time to accuse Logan of letting a Runner go and then get pistol-whipped by his former comrade-in-arms. In the ensuing chaos, Logan and Jessica sneak into the Love Shop (it's next to Sharper Image) and run for the exit while Francis gets delayed for a few crucial moments by the slow-motion gyrating of the dancers in the Love Shop.

While they're making their way through a service access area that really, really looks like a parking garage Jessica and Logan make a rough plan to get away. They're both pretty sure that Logan will be killed just on general principles by anyone in the underground but better a chance at talking their way out of death than the certainty that Francis or another Sandman will murder them to death. In the chambers of the resistance (or, perhaps, the Resistance) there's a remarkably silly-looking interrogation where Logan and Jessica get smoke sprayed in their faces from glowstick spears. The nurse from the re-facing clinic shows up at the worst time imaginable and almost gets Logan killed, but then mentions Francis' arrival and agrees that Logan's going through with a Run.

The Resistance decides to let Logan out of the mall and he refuses to let Jessica follow him; she's got more than a decade to live if she obeys the rules and he doesn't understand why she wants to be with him (frankly, neither do I). Their argument gets cut short by a Sandman attack; they're homing in on Logan's futurephone--which he activated before finding out the Resistance was going to let him live. Nice going, jerk. The Resistance is a total write-off and the JC Penney will have to be closed for months for cleanup and repairs. Francis confronts his former coworker and tells him to kill Jessica for her connection to the Resistance; Logan shoots some machinery nearby and runs like hell while Francis is distracted instead. It turns out the ankh is a key that a sensor on a computer screen can read; using it means that Jessica and Logan get out of the city via automatic door, and that Francis is only a couple of seconds too late to kill them. He finds the ankh that Logan dropped, though, and pursues momentarily. A missed shot from Francis' pistol punches a hole in a water tank window and just about kills the protagonists until they escape and shut a hatch. One ride on a rickety old freight elevator later and the pair escapes into an ice cave--not the best place in the world to wind up after getting drenched.

After stripping down and covering themselves with animal skins that were left in the ice cave, Logan and Jessica are surprised by the arrival of Box, a stupid-looking robot that has a great voice (Roscoe Lee Brown, the actor, did a ton of cartoon and voiceover work). Logan tries to engage the robot--or possibly cyborg; Box says he's a fusion of man and machine but the costume doesn't show any fleshy bits on it--in conversation. Eventually the robot (or whatever) guides Logan and Jessica to a cavern filled with flash-frozen naked cadavers. Box says that the old food ("fish, plankton and proteins from the sea!") stopped coming, so he froze the new arrivals to serve as food in order to fulfill his programming. When he aims a comically stupid looking freeze gun at Logan it's on like Donkey Kong, and a stray shot from the Sandman pistol busts the ceiling of the ice cave and collapses the whole works (with some pretty badly handled blue-screen debris and ice falling in the foreground of the shot).

Making their way out of the ice cave, Jessica and Logan see the sun for the first time in their lives, and don't know what it is. The score goes all orchestral and swells as they see nature and make their way into the world; meanwhile, Francis has figured out how to get to the ice cave and is close on their trail. He seems more baffled and frightened by the sun than either of the protagonists. It turns out that a lengthy hike over rocky terrain in hippie toga leisure wear takes the fight right out of Jessica, and really, can you blame her? She and Logan rest in the bough of a tree and sleep, wondering if the entire world is going to freeze when that flaming plasma ball in the sky goes away.

The next morning they find a pool of clean drinking water and go for a celebratory swim in the nude. They also find that their lifeclocks have reset themselves; either the computer sends a signal to everyone's palm crystals or the water shorted them out, I guess. While on their travels they also see the green wilds of a forest reclaiming an iconic skyline; Logan and Jessica have no idea that they're looking at the Washington Monument but the audience suddenly knows just where that domed mall must have been located. Jessica thinks it has to be Sanctuary, and Logan thinks it's at least going to be a place where people, shelter and sustenance can be found (he can't conceive of a safe place that is also outside, which is a nice touch). At first they don't find anyone in the city, and just keep exploring. And I have to admit the ivy crawling all over the Lincoln Memorial does a great job of suggesting just how much time has passed while civilization was confined to the kind of place the Blues Brothers would drive through to get away from the police. An even nicer touch is that both Logan and Jessica have to reason out that the face on the statue is what happens when people are older than thirty.

In the vine-overgrown but otherwise largely undamaged ruins of the White House, they hear something (which turns out to be a Spring-Loaded Cat; even more than a dozen decades after the apocalypse there will be cats around to startle people in movies). But the room the cat ran out of contains a man older than Jessica or Logan would have ever imagined possible. Once they get over their mutual shock, conversation ensues. Logan and Jessica seem like fascinated children as they ask the man what it means to have wrinkles and white hair; the man tells them what he can, but he doesn't remember his own name any more (the implication is that he's been isolated for so long that he never had a reason to use it). The old man can't really remember anything other than his existence at this point; he's got enough hints at information to fascinate Logan and Jessica with a tiny glimpse of the way the world used to be but not enough for them to understand a tenth of what he's saying.

The old man is just as fascinated by the Lifeclocks in Jessica and Logan's palms as they are by everything they see in his living space; there's a mordantly funny moment where he mutters about it being unfair that he can't get one. He wanders off mumbling to himself and Logan and Jessica have an argument about Sanctuary--she thinks it's somewhere in the ruins of Washington, D.C. and he realizes that it's just as fictitious as Carrousel's promises of rebirth and renewal (and amazingly enough, that means this is a major-studio movie that's in favor of atheism, even if it's couched in deeply metaphorical terms).

While the old man goes through his collection of oil paintings of past Presidents with Logan, Francis shows up and accosts Jessica. Logan, weaponless and about to die, tells his former colleague to look at his own hand; everyone's Lifeclock is reset outside the dome. Francis can't take it. He's used to hedonism, easy sex, no questions and a job that lets him kill people frequently and the idea of freedom and a lack of order and control snaps his mind. He decides to engage Logan in a fistfight full of 1930s-style full body tackles, face pushing, and broken furniture; Francis eventually tries to spear Logan with a flagpole in a scene possibly meant to suggest a famous news photograph called "The Soiling of Old Glory". Concussed and dying, Francis sees the reset Lifeclock on his friend's hand and wonderingly states that he must have Renewed before he goes into the great unknown.

In the wake of the fight, Jessica realizes that she and Logan will be alive and safe in the weird old world; Logan wants to go back to the city and tell everyone what he's learned about the system and the world. Jessica realizes that bringing the man back to the city would be living proof that the system could be ignored and possibly bring about a completely new way of living. The shots of the journey back to the city are stitched together with a long, rambling series of anecdotes from the old man that make me wonder if Logan was questioning the wisdom of bringing him along (and I kept expecting him to mention he was wearing an onion on his belt, as was the style at the time).

They eventually make it back to the city, with Logan and Jessica picking the old man's brains for clues to the way things used to be done in the past (although they mostly get semi-relevant fragments from the guy; I assume if he knew there would be a quiz when he was in his seventies the old man would have taken better notes). The only way they can figure out to get into the city is via a water-driven power system of some kind; the old man would never be able to make it and Logan's not too sure about his own chances, come to think of it. But he and Jessica do manage to get into the mechanical bowels of the mall via a really cool looking water feature and sneak back into the city right next to the Cheesecake Factory. He addresses the throng going to another Carrousel in a manner that can best be described as "Shatnerian". The crowds ignore the pair and Sandmen jump them, hauling them back to the AI's headquarters and Men's Wearhouse, where the master computer interrogates Logan to find out how successful he was in that whole "find and destroy Sanctuary" mission that he got bullied into accepting.

The computer interrogates him via some kind of brain scanning device; unfortunately, the input from Logan's memories is incompatible with what the AI expected to hear and it has a fatal exception error upon hearing that there never was a Sanctuary and that the escaped Runners were all corpsicles in Box's ice cave. Logan makes short work of the Sandmen in the interrogation chamber and the computer goes up in a series of Star Trek-influences sparks. For some reason, this also causes the main headquarters to fall apart into massive chunks of rubble and the entire domed city to experience a Biblical cataclysm as well as the complete destruction of the Foot Locker, Glow Golf and GameStop franchises.

As everything blows up and falls apart, the shell-shocked people of the domed city escape to the water feature somehow, and everyone makes their way towards the old man. The first tentative connection is made, and it looks like the remnants of humanity will spread out over the ruined world to live on. Although, given that they don't know how to do anything and haven't acquired any practical skills, it's going to be a rough first winter for them at best. We're probably not supposed to ask questions about how they're going to feed themselves in the absence of the AI providing for their needs, but it's a really valid question and one the film doesn't even remotely feel like addressing.

Well, I said earlier that the film is iconic without being all that good, and that's the best way to describe it. The performances are all quite credible but there's so little thought put into the story that it just refuses to make any kind of sense from start to finish. It's certainly worth watching once (and I'm glad I finally saw it, although part of that is the impending odometer rollover, I'm sure) but for the most part it's a series of vignettes strung together that don't add up to a heck of a lot and not enough time is spent explaining the backstory or the world--perhaps one more caption screen at the beginning could have helped the narrative hold together a bit more.

And I don't even want to think about the implications of the population control resulting in an exclusively white future domed city world. But that's where the movie is set, and if the filmmakers aren't going to address diversity I'm going to decide that the computer was programmed by a team of genocidal bigots back when the program was first set up.


  1. Based on... shaky, at best... memories of having seen this in the theatre when it was first released, eleven months before Star Wars showed everyone what throwing a butt-load of money at SFX could manage the slightly rickety model-work in this film wasn't note worthy. Not as good as what Gerry Anderson managed for "Captain Scarlet", perhaps, but passable.

    I certainly wasn't, at that tender age, able to spot the dark implications at the end of the film, but little me of then agrees with you (and current me, too) that the Runner clean-up was profoundly horrible.

    Also, I might as well share my own unfounded speculation about the colour of clothes on non-Sandmen; I've long assumed it had some connection with the Lifeclock's colour. You wake up one morning, look at your hand, and suddenly that whole green wardrobe has to go....

  2. Poking through the IMDB trivia section on the film, it turns out that everyone's supposed to wear clothes that match their Lifeclock but the movie doesn't just do a bad job explaining that, it abdicates from even bringing it up. There's lots of shots of various color coded things (and one scene where Logan-5 walks past a display that corresponds to the Lifeclock colors) but unless you're paying closer attention than I was you'll probably miss it.

    And I just wrote 4800 words on the movie, so I was paying quite a bit of attention.

  3. Not unexpectedly, the book is significantly different from the movie, though in this case the scriptwriters had little choice but to make changes--in the book, people were "renewed" on their 21st birthday, meaning they became adults around age 14. Hard to do in a story as full of sex and drugs as Logan's Run.

    Aside from the absurd backstory (the youth of the world rebel and kill all the people over 21...) the book is pretty entertaining, much more so than the movie.

  4. I read the book fifteen years ago or so, but didn't remember the differences well enough to mention them in the review. There's also two book sequels, which probably means that the city doesn't explode in a BSOD at the end of the first novel.

    I'm sure the logistics of finding a couple dozen child actors that would be able to handle the material helped with the alteration of the age limit as well; also, isn't Box supposed to be a half-human, half-machine cyborg split down the middle? We wound up with Davros in tinfoil, more or less, on stilts.

  5. Yes, Box is a rather grotesque cyborg. One of the major plot threads of the book is that the reason the civilization works at all is that it is all automated--computers and machines provide everything, leaving the humans to spend their time amusing themselves. The problem is, the machines are slowly breaking down, and nobody knows how to fix it (hell, few people realize things are falling apart.)

    The biggest change, perhaps, is the ending--I won't spoil it, just in case somebody wants to read the book (recommended for fans of 60s SF), but it is much more interesting than the movie ending.
    /rant on
    In fact, this is a classic example of moviemakers "basing" their movie on a book and then completely re-writing the story. Why bother making "Logan's Run" if you aren't going to use the plot from the book?
    /rant off