Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Running Man -- truth, propaganda and reality TV

Director: Paul Michael Glaser, 1987. (R)

Three years after Arnold Schwarzenegger said “I’ll be back” in The Terminator, he says it again here, in this tale of two governors. Arnold and Jesse Ventura, both of whom went on from their storied acting careers to become politicians, appear on opposite sides of the divide. But this is also testament to the quality of this film’s acting. It might be an interesting action flick, but the acting is second rate.

It is 2017 and the world economy has collapsed. America has become a totalitarian society where everything is rigidly controlled by the state and its omnipresent police force. One of these cops is Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger). At the start we see him ordered to massacre an unarmed crowd of civilians. When he refuses, he is arrested and framed for the ensuing slaughter that he tried to prevent. Sent to prison and branded a butcher, he eventually escapes with the help of two fellow prisoners, Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin McIntyre), members of the rebellion. But when he encounters Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a worker at the central TV network headquarters, she turns him in and he is re-arrested.

Into this mix comes Killian (Richard Dawson), the creator and host of the world’s most popular and successful TV show: “The Running Man.” Heinous criminals are offered the choice of going to prison or being on the show, where they are released into an abandoned part of Los Angeles to be tracked by stalkers, killers who hunt them down to kill them on air.

The premise reminded me some of the hugely popular fictional series, “The Hunger Games,” which itself is being turned into a major motion picture set for release in 2012. In both, people are thrown into an arena and forced to kill or be killed. The governments each of these stories control the elements of the arena and herd the participants into locations where the killing can occur in prime view of the watching public. And the TV forms the media for propaganda.

Indeed, propaganda versus truth is a central element of the film (as it is with “The Hunger Games”). The government controls the TV and news media and hence controls the spin of events. Truth is distorted until it disappears in a web of lies. “What is truth” Pilate once said, to another condemned criminal (Jn. 18:38). But that criminal was Christ and he had earlier unequivocally declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6). Truth is real, and truth ultimately cannot be concealed forever. It will emerge.

When Ben is sent into the arena, so are his two friends. Moreover, Amber’s desire for truth and justice backfires when the government sees her as an enemy of the state for seeking truth. She is also condemned to the same fate, showing as the three heroes. While a blood-hungry audience watches them, Killian dispatches stalkers, one at a time, to hunt and kill. Football rushing champion Jim Brown plays fireball, whose weapon is a flamethrower. Buzzsaw and Subzero are earlier stalkers, and overseeing them all is retired stalker, Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura), whose wrestling exploits mirror the actor’s real-life moves.

If anything, though, the film is a strangely prescient parody on TV reality shows. The Running Game is a reality show to the death. Nowadays, reality TV has become the name of the game, from the finding of love (“The Bachelor” / “The Bachelorette”) to the losing of weight (“The Biggest Loser”). People are happier to live life vicariously through watching someone else, a “normal person,” do unscripted things. The concept of seizing life by the horns has been supplanted by the idea of seeing life on the tube. This is not how God designed us. He wants us to live life to the full, and to do so in Jesus Christ (Jn. 10:10). First-hand experience trumps second-hand exposure every time!

Another criticism of modern-day society stems from this. Much of the populace has become dependent on the boob tube. Killian grasps this and tells Ben:
This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear... for Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em *what they want*! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me. I've been in the business for thirty years.
To him, he controls the people and in return is rewarded with ratings that translate into wealth and power for him.

Are we like this? Have we given up our minds to the god of television, allowing it to consume endless hours of our spare time and brainwash our minds? Are we like sheep without a shepherd, sitting lost on our couches until the newscaster or reality show host tells us what to do? We can rise above this. We can take back our lives. We can turn to Jesus and let him wash us with his blood (Rev. 7:14) and give us his mind (1 Cor. 2:16). If we are willing to give up control, better to give it to Christ than Killian. He offers an eternal reward for us, instead of seeking an ephemeral reward for himself.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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