Cinematic Soulmates: Death Race 2000 and The Running Man

Good satire is often timeless, even when the package it comes wrapped in is horribly dated and square according to current standards.  Such is the case with this month’s double feature.  Both Death Race 2000 (1975) and The Running Man (1987) contain social commentary that is eerily relevant to the events of today, despite several aesthetic trappings that root them firmly in their respective decades (most notably in the areas of fashion and hairstyles).

With Death Race 2000, director Paul Bartel is satirizing the American audience’s lust for violent entertainment, presenting us with a dystopian vision of the future in which a corrupt government maintains its power largely by staging a sadistic cross-country race in which the competitors score points by running over innocent pedestrians.  It is the ultimate in “bread and circus” style entertainment: an annual event specifically designed to satisfy the populace’s bloodthirsty yearning for violent spectacle, while at the same time keeping them distracted and afraid enough that they won’t venture out into the streets and riot when they realize how bad off they really have it.

Meanwhile, journeyman director Paul Michael Glaser (and one-time Det. Dave Starsky) used the bones of a Stephen King novella to tell a similar tale.  The Running Man depicts a hopeless and gritty future in which a corrupt government that seems to be controlled entirely by huge media conglomerates forces criminals and enemies of the state to participate in the titular game show, which has managed to become the most popular television program in history, thanks in large part to a poorly educated and willfully ignorant populace that thrives on watching people get slaughtered in inventive ways.  In that respect, The Running Man probably has more in common with the more recent Death Race (2008), a very loose remake of the original cult classic that is vastly inferior in nearly every respect.  However, since it is best to just ignore the existence of the remake altogether, let us instead examine the similarities between the two films that are the focus of this month’s column.

While both films were released decades before “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” was even a glint in the eyes of either Mary-Ellis Bunim or Jonathan Murray, each one predicted the rise and dominance of so-called “reality television.”  Indeed, one simply needs to spend half an hour these days flipping through channels to see that there are countless reality competition game shows that dominate the airwaves.  From “Iron Chef” to “Cupcake Wars” to “America’s Got Talent”, cheaply made game shows that exploit the hopes and dreams of common everyday people are the order of the day.  Granted, both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man take this concept and extrapolate it to a fairly illogical extreme, but given the American audience’s predilection for violence, neither premise seems terribly unlikely in the long run.  Seriously, one has to look no further than “Celebrity Boxing” specials or the recent short-lived fad of “torture” game shows (such as “The Chamber”, “Fear Factor”, or the upcoming “101 Ways to Leave a Game Show”) for proof of that.  While people may not particularly like these shows, they may still watch them out of a morbid curiosity, and thus drive up ratings and inadvertently send the message that this is what the people want.

This is the premise that fuels Death Race 2000.  Early in the film, Mr. President (Sandy McCallum), the shadowy, duplicitous ruler of the then future United States, looks right at the camera and says, “Once more, I give you what you want.”  With those words, the race begins, and the death toll rises once more.  While the resistance, led by the stern and matronly Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) would disagree with Mr. President, the traditionally high ratings generated by the race seem to bear him out.

Similarly, in The Running Man, sleazy game show host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson in a standout performance) takes great pleasure in reminding viewers that “The Running Man” is “the number one television show in the whole wide world.”  He flatters his audience, asking of them “Who loves you, and who do you love?” which results in a rousing chorus of “Damon!”  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, considering Killian’s first loyalty is to himself, and then to  ICS, the network that funds his extravagant lifestyle.  The viewers don’t even rate a distant third.  As far as Killian is concerned, they are little more than dupes, lapping up whatever he feed them.  Of course, he would never let them know how he truly feels, because Killian is the consummate entertainer, playing up to the audience while secretly holding them in total contempt.  As a result, he is massively popular with fans of “The Running Man.”  He is loved by the people he hates for one simple reason, and that is because he does indeed give the people what they want, or at least, what they think they want.

This brings us to another thread that connects both films.  In each, the audience that tunes into these brutal contests every week is being lied to by the very media that feeds their violent impulses.  In Death Race 2000, it is the government that deceives its people, ensuring that they never hear the truth about the growing resistance movement that has pledged to put an end to the race.  Instead, they are told that it is the French who are attacking the competitors in order to foment a war with the United States.  In The Running Man, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) becomes more popular than the Stalkers sent to hunt and kill him for the enjoyment of the viewing audience, so the network dispatches Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura) to kill off a digital double of Richards in order to nip any potential revolution in the bud.  In both films reality is being manipulated in order to keep the peace, but also to ensure that the ruling elites are kept in power.  It may be tempting to dismiss this aspect of both films as sensationalistic, but there is nonetheless a kernel of truth in it.  After all, the mainstream media in the U.S. is owned by huge multi-national conglomerates that funnel billions of dollars into the campaign coffers of prominent politicians, granting them unprecedented influence to the highest levels of power.  Additionally, it is far too easy for the 24 hour cable news networks to alter reality in such a way as to sway public opinion along partisan lines.  Thus life does indeed imitate art.

Finally, both films feature stars that would come to embody the masculine ideal of the Reagan era, but are somewhat undercut by or beholden to an opposing ideology.  In The Running Man it is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards.  During his tenure as the governor of California, Shcwarzenegger proved that he was as fiscally conservative as the most fervent of free-market economists.  Of course, he also proved himself to be fairly socially liberal, but that is a discussion for another time.  In this film, Richards is something of a bleeding heart, refusing to kill innocent men and women simply because they are hungry and dissatisfied with their living conditions.  Richards refuses to be a pawn of the fascist government that is severely restricting the lives of its people, and chooses instead to fight back against the repression.  Thus he becomes the human face of the revolution by the end of the film.

Then we have Death Race 2000, in which Sylvester Stallone plays “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo, a tough guy from the mean streets of Chicago who is quick to anger, and prefers to let his fists (not to mention the cartoonishly large blade mounted to the front of his car) do the talking.  However, during a climactic fight scene with the heroic Frankenstein, Viterbo’s masculinity is completely undone as he is roundly beaten by the stoic yet sensitive Frankenstein (David Carradine) whose real goal is to bring the reign of Mr. President to an end.  In reality, it may have been men like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, men who embodied the ruggedly individualistic tough guy ideal that replaced the thoughtful sensitive men of the 70s, but in both films, they each take a back seat to an opposing ideology.

While both The Running Man and Death Race 2000 are unquestionably rooted in their respective eras, the messages they convey are more relevant than ever.  They serve as warnings against complacency and an increasing desire for violence, but beyond than that, they both work incredibly well as rousing pieces of entertainment.  While both may contain some heavy subtext, they are nevertheless fun, witty, and hugely enjoyable films.

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