Many, if not most, of the movies I talk about in this column are schlockier than they are awesome, though a few certainly are what I’d consider terrific. Today’s movie is an example of a movie that’s almost no schlock at all, but is worth talking about because it’s a good sci-fi movie that is so very close to being a great sci-fi movie. It’s a movie that, for some reason, I’d never seen before the other night, and one that, I think, perfectly sits on the cusp of pre- and post-Star Wars science fiction cinema. But, because Star Wars came out less than a year later, it got immediately overshadowed and looks rather quaint in comparison. I’m speaking, of course, of director Michael Anderson (no relation)’s film Logan’s Run, which starts very strong and ends very not.
The general story is fairly well implanted on the zeitgeist: an idyllic future world in which people do whatever they want, but as soon as any member of the population turns 30, they have to be disposed of, either in a floaty renewal ceremony or, if they try to run, in an unceremonious zapping and disintegration. There have certainly been many other stories to either reference or spoof this premise. The actual genesis of the idea is from the novel Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, although in their novel, it’s 21 when people are ended, though that surely would have been more difficult to film in the mid-’70s, given the subject matter.
The actual plot of the movie is this: Logan 5 (Michael York) is a Sandman, the domed city’s version of a police officer, called such because it is their responsibility to track down runners, those who’ve turned 30 and don’t want to accept their fate. Each citizen of the city has a crystal on his or her left palm that has a color corresponding to the age of the person. If it turns black, you’ve reached LastDay and you gon’ die. Logan’s partner is the overzealous Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), who seems to really enjoy the hunt. The rest of the populace do various things, but always with the knowledge that they can just have sex any time they want, produce offspring they don’t have to meet or take care of, and get the opportunity for renewal when they turn 30.
Renewal, in this world, is a strange ceremony in which those about to die put on weird masks and robes, walk into the center of an arena, and float around inside a force field until some electrical thing occurs and they disappear. The spectators cheer, as they apparently believe the electrical thing is the renewal taking place. There are some who don’t believe in the ritual, of course; there is an underground resistance group who are trying to help people reach “sanctuary,” a place that may or may not even exist.
While going in for debriefing, Logan’s boss, a computer, tells him he must find Sanctuary by posing as a runner. Though he’s only 26, his palm jewel begins to flash, meaning he has only a limited time remaining. He meets up with a young resistance member, Jessica 3 (Jenny Agutter), who he has to convince that he means to run, even though no Sandman ever has. They eventually make their way out of the city, with Francis chasing them all the way, and find the world outside the dome isn’t exactly what they thought it would be, nor do they wish to allow the people in the dome to continue their life knowing the truth is vastly different.
There’s a lot of “the world” to get through and learn about when watching this movie, and for the most part Anderson, working from a script by David Zelag Goodman, does a really good job of integrating it into the actual story and characters. We get an idea of how this society exists right away, and we quickly see the seedier or more nefarious side in the form of the Sandmen and the computer who seems to be in charge.
This is, partially, where I think the movie falters. It’s one thing to have this unseen, Big Brother-like organization or entity controlling the way things are done, but we never actually find out who’s doing it or why. This isn’t always a problem, but if by the end of the movie we find out that there’s no kind of civilization outside the dome, who then is behind the dead-at-thirty thing? And why? If it’s a case of there once being a reason for it but that reason is gone and for some reason it just kept on going, it would have been cool to know that.
At one point in their escape, Logan and Jessica come across a robot called Box (played by Roscoe Lee Browne) who lives in an frigid Arctic tunnel where he keeps would-be escapees frozen to eventually be turned into food, owing to the fact that all the animals they once kept are dead. He is a really fascinating character who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and is gotten rid of pretty quickly. It’s also one of the only times we get a sense that “the system” has been preparing for escape attempts and used their need to continue the way of life as a good melding of two ideas.
Regardless, easily the best stuff in the movie is inside the dome. It’s so weird and ’70s-futuristic, and I just love stuff like that. It looks like it was shot in and around a mall or a new-age office park. The people get around in little cars that travel on tracks. The shots of the city in its entirety were obtained using a massive model, which looks great though at no point are you in danger of thinking it’s a real cityscape. This is the kind of thing I love that nobody does anymore. Why can’t we make models? Models are so cool!! I’d rather see something that looks like Thomas the Tank Engine than a CGI nothing any day of the week. Including Sundays.
The other great thing about this movie that makes it so very of it its time is that this movie was rated PG upon its initial release and yet there’s all kinds of nudity, talk of open sex, an orgy scene that actually had to be edited down fairly extensively, murder, violence, a scene of a guy getting slowly dissolved (using a camera dissolve, fittingly enough), a scene in which Logan is sliced open by surgical lasers, a scene of the surgeon getting sliced open to death by those same surgical lasers, and the mass slaughter of unarmed people by Sandmen. If this movie were made today, there’s no way it would have been rated PG, and probably if it were made today, all of the sex would be cut out and none of the violence and it would get a PG-13. I love the way in which people in the ’70s actually thought kids would be able to handle heavier or more grown-up concepts and scenes without being corrupted or turned into delinquents.
But, again, the end is where I start to not care as much. Logan and Jessica finally reach the outside and see the sun for the very first time. They spend the next good long while of the movie wandering around the desolate and overgrown area that apparently used to be Washington DC. They eventually meet an old man (played by the great Peter Ustinov) who doesn’t have a name and was actually born to parents instead of to test tubes. This is fine and everything, but even though the outside is much larger than inside the dome, the scope of the story seems instantly tiny. Ustinov is, apparently, the only person who lives outside (with a building full of cats, stereotypically enough) and he offers no explanation or excuse as to why there would have been a domed city of 0-30-year-olds in the first place. Logan and Jessica go back to try to free the people still caught in the machine, and succeed really quickly, but there is still no explanation; the people just are free and the city is destroyed. Okay.
But, all in all, to sum up, in conclusion, and other things my sixth grade teacher told me were good ways to end an essay, Logan’s Run is a very entertaining and very original, if visually dated and narratively muddy, movie with really good performances, great themes, excellent sets, effects, and costumes, and a whole lot of Jenny Agutter. I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before now, but I’ll probably have to add it to my list of movies about utopias versus dystopias. Yes, there’s a list.