This film is a total sentimental favorite of mine, owing mostly to seeing the film in theaters when I was eight and having my mind completely blown. I watched it again a few years ago and was delighted to discover that, generally silly as it may be, it still retains a certain awesomeness that is still very potent and intact. Then recently I downloaded the 70s TV series based on the film to watch while on the treadmill, and despite the fact that it gets awful reviews everywhere, even from sci-fi fans, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it, which certainly started my desire to see this movie again [the series also stars Heather Menzies, legendary for Sssssss]. And, watching it again, I was delighted to discover that I STILL LOVE IT!!!
We open with a title telling us that it’s the future, the outside is contaminated and everyone lives in a giant domed city. They live lives of pure pleasure, but at 30 have to go to carrousel [why it has two ‘r’s here, I’ll never know, and it annoys me], where they are “renewed,” i.e. born again. Only, as we know—they AREN’T! They DIE! Can you believe it?!?! Then we have this repeated electronic sound that will become kind of a signature of the film, and we start heading over this model of a landscape toward the domed city. The thing is, you are SO OBVIOUSLY looking at a model, with totally fake trees STRAIGHT from the hobby shop and the whole thing not looking remotely real for even a second—that you have to love it. The city of domes is made up of what looks like overhead lightshades from the dollar store. They’re just these plastic domes with an EXTREMELY common texture, now found in lower-class households worldwide, and I’m sorry, I just love that. It’s cheesy, yet awesome and fun, and I tell you—35 years from now, no one is going to be looking back at bad CGI and finding it ingenious and charming, with a wonderful personal touch.
Then we go inside the domed city, where we see the vast model of the city and yes, it’s cheesy, and at the same time completely wonderful. You have these distinctive curved buildings, clear tubes with cars running through them [which BLEW my 8-year-old mind], and whole buildings covered with iridescent material that you might find at any AC Moore, or in the gift wrap aisles of Walgreens, as well as more little trees from the hobby shop. We then move in to one of these buildings, and if it kind of looks like a shopping mall to you, well, that’s because it IS a shopping mall! Everyone’s wearing these sheer tunics that reflect the color of their lifeclock, which is a glowing crystal in their hand that indicates their age. Blinking red means you have reached Lastday, when you must go to carrousel and be renewed. This is a lot to take in, no? We introduce Logan and Francis, two Sandmen, which are like police that hunt down runners, and they have a little discussion of renewal, trying to convey information about the whole deal of dying at 30 and being reborn. Thing is, there’s only so much information that can be conveyed, and I recall several major concepts that escaped me the first few times I watched—for instance, the whole idea that this entire society lives for pleasure alone and never has to work or do anything—and also concepts that suffer from being inconsistently described. For example, we are led to believe that everyone that goes through carrousel is born again [renews], yet sometimes they talk about “taking your chances” in carrousel, as though maybe you won’t renew. When someone runs, Francis and Logan say “Why didn’t he go to carrousel?” as though there is some choice other than carrousel—like you just report for death or something? I think some of this is the result of having to cram too many ideas into a movie, and some the result of changing some of the ideas FOR the movie—for example, in the novel, there is no carrousel, people fated to death are required to report to the sleepshop, where they are willingly executed. Sleepshop also makes more sense of the name Sandmen. Anyway, it doesn’t kill the movie, in fact, it sort of works in its favor, as it keeps you trying to figure things out, and gives the sense that there is much more going on than can be covered.
So the crowds are gathering for carrousel, which is our big opening showstopper, and one that was so unusual at the time it’s probably what most people remember when they think back about this movie. Aside from the general concept of what’s happening—a large scale public execution witnessed by cheering crowds—it also features an unrelenting series of striking visuals that ensure that the sequence is unforgettable. Hooded figures enter this circular arena with a glowing red flower in the center. They reveal themselves as wearing these skull-like plastic masks. They drop their robes to reveal white tights with red flames on the lower half. A tube of light descends from the glowing crystal in the ceiling. The people start floating, one by one, until we have this swirling vortex of people rising up in front of the cheering crowd. Then the floating people start to explode in showers of sparks, as the crowd maniacally cheers them to “Renew!” It’s all so bizarre, unique, strangely eerie and compelling I would lay odds that this sequence alone is largely responsible for this movie’s success and lasting place in memory.
Now, as we’re still in expository vein, we see Logan get a message about a runner. He and Francis go out into the mall, I mean, future city, find the guy, and start shooting. You’ll be so blown away by the awesome guns that blow out green flames in four directions that you’ll completely ignore the fact that when shooting straight ahead, the floor in front of the target is often struck. But the main thing to pick up is that not only is Logan good at his job—he LOVES it. He and Francis sadistically toy with the runner, purposely missing him before he finally gets hit and falls to the ground below. Logan picks up some clues, then calls the cleanup crew. Okay, now I know we’re only getting into this, and yet you’re already sick of hearing little details of this move that blew my mind when I was eight. Well, allow me one more, and then I promise to stop: When the cleanup guys come by on hovering thingamajigs and spray something on the corpse that completely decomposes it in seconds, that BLEW. MY. MIND. Especially the fact that the body looks like some reddish mud-sculpture as it goes—simultaneously totally fake and yet still gross—and most certainly the wet spot left by the body that lingers for a second before evaporating. I can remember thinking about this whole phenomenon SEVERAL times after that. In fact, it’s occurring to me that I really need to think about the major impact this film had on my overall mental development.
Okay, I just downloaded the ebook. It’s official: I’m having a one of my mini-obsessions.
So Logan goes home and decides to check out The Circuit, which kind of amazingly predates internet hook-ups. Apparently you put yourself on, and are essentially beamed to other people’s apartments until one of them wants to have sex with you. This has the advantage over real internet hook-ups in: a) no waiting, b) none of that "Host or Travel?" bullshit, and c) it eliminates no-shows. You’ll notice that Logan initially gets a man in a cowboy outfit, who makes a fey, very stereotypically gay gesture before Logan keeps on browsing. They need to invent thumbnails. Anyway, next up is saucy dish Jenny Agutter as Jessica 6.
Then it's time for Logan to report to the master computer. Apparently Sandmen turn in the objects they picked up on any runners and get debriefed. Logan picked up an Ankh symbol from a runner, and apparently this is what causes the computer to tell him to come forward and have a seat for a nice chat. The computer [which has a nice impersonal female voice] tells him the ankh is a symbol of sanctuary, and is kind of a code with runners. Why they [including Jessica] can just walk around with it openly is left to guess. The computer tells Logan to pose as a runner, venture outside the city, find sanctuary, and destroy it. Oh by the way, it also tells him there have been just over a thousand unaccounted runners, which he somehow takes to mean that no one ever renews--they just die. How this conclusion follows is obscure to me. Logan says no one will believe he's a runner because he has four years left and--well, I guess he shouldn't have said that! The computer advances his "lifeclock" to blinking as though it's his lastday, then goes notably tight-lipped when asked if he'll get those years back. Logan goes off on his mission, and here's where you start to wonder why the computer picked him. Was it just because he found the ankh? We'll never know. Regardless all this, the scene retains a creepy power.
Here's where the movie starts to get quite episodic, which is kind of a drawback and makes the whole thing seem longer than it is, but also MAKES it what it is. First Jessica is bringing Logan to be assassinated by her runner friends who don't believe a sandman would ever run, then he gets a call to pursue a runner in Cathedral, which is where the cubs live. He takes Jessica with him [for some reason?] and we get a nice scene in one of the pneumatic tube cars, during which Jessica muses on what it might be like to know one's parents, which Logan thinks is just stupid. They get out and find the runner, and Logan lets her go, witnessed by Francis, who has come along separately. Then Logan gets attacked by the cubs, which are adolescents who live on the city's outskirts and attack anyone who comes in. I have now read the novel, and in the book they are called cubscouts, and they take a drug that makes them super strong and vicious. Here they just attack, Logan gets away, and they go back to town, making you feel like this whole scene just exists because it was in the book, rather than because it adds anything here. It also makes you start to think--isn't it his lastday? Isn't he going to start running at some point here?
They go to New You, which is where you get instant plastic surgery. Logan knows the proprietor is involved in helping runners, although he doesn't seem very keen on helping Logan. So he straps Logan to the bed and programs the multiple laser-thing above to slice him up. This leads to a big battle, including one tiny little element [also from the book] I had never noticed before: the doctor has this kind of baton that instantly freezes Logan's gun upon contact. Logan throws the doc on the table and he gets sliced up. By the way, did I mention that Farrah Fawcett is on hand, feathered hair in full glory, as his assistant? Yep. So they leave and have to go through--well, I forget what it's called, but here's another element that nearly cracked my horny little mind as a child.
The enter this red nightclub-type space. Smoke floats down from the ceiling that presumably intoxicates everyone who enters. Then all these nude women rush at Logan [in slow motion] and pull him off to have sex, while a bunch of naked men pull Jessica off into a corner to have sex. It's like this drugged-up non-stop orgy going on, and like I said, when I first saw this as a kid--woah. I was NOT prepared to process that. They escape through this back door into this whole sewer area. Francis is not far behind them.
They go down through these sewers and end up in these giant glass tanks with large fish visible inside. Francis shoots and one of them bursts, then before you know it, they're on this elevator taking them up into this frozen ice cave. See what I mean about this getting very episodic? And there are certain episodes I have discreetly left out.
So they're in the ice cave when they're confronted by this mirrored robot with arms made out of industrial tubing and this silvery face that allows you to see the real guy inside. It's all very cheap and cheesy yet simultaneously super-cool. This is Box, who was assigned to freeze all the food from the sea. Then the food stopped coming, but runners started, so he froze them. This is when Logan and Jessica see these rows of frozen people--all the runners. So basically no runner has ever escaped, and thus there is no sanctuary. Then box is going to freeze our intrepid friends, and here's the first of our examples of the classic trope where you shoot off one bullet--and the ENTIRE PLACE EXPLODES. Suddenly there is all this REALLY badly composited ice, each piece ringed by bluescreen visual noise, and at times piling up at the bottom of the screen, not matching the live action at all. There is one particular shot of Jessica standing, looking around with a bit of concern, not at all minding the deluge of ice that is supposedly falling all around her. A second later, after no particular end to the scene, they're walking out of the ice cave into the hot sun. Yes, the ice cave is just a few feet underground from the burning sun. That's just the way it is!
They come outside and wonder at the sun, which they have never seen, then wander down past the rushing waterfall, which will result in an unintentional laugh when, a few seconds later, they'll see a lake and shout "Water! At last!" One other amusing thing--the landscape they're walking through is clearly Southern California. Then they happen upon--Washington DC! At one point they are standing on a mountain in Southern California, looking at Washington DC. You know, from the vast mountain ranges that ring Washington DC. In here their love blossoms, and they also notice that their lifeclocks are now clear.
So they go into DC and see the Lincoln Memorial all overgrown with vines--shades of Planet of the Apes--and end up in the ruined capitol, where they encounter Peter Ustinov as Old Man. Here is where the episodic nature of the film starts to take its toll, as this is just kind of a twist too many, and you start looking at your watch. Ustinov is living there alone with hundreds of cats, and they are amazed at his aged face. He also tells them that he grew up with his parents, which shocks them. Then Francis shows up. They fight, and Logan kills him. They bury him, and Logan decides that they have to go back to the city and set all the people free. And they decide that they'll take Ustinov with them, although, geez, they came a long way through hard terrain, and this guy is pretty old... and we've never seen them eat once since they left... but whatever, that's what happens.
Logan and Jessica get back in, easy as pie, and appear at the top of a balcony telling all the people going to watch carrousel that no one renews, they can all live outside, and they don't have to die at thirty. He looks crazy and the crowd ignores him. Around now you may have time to ask yourself: If carrousel is every single day, don't people get tired of going to see it? Maybe you go if you have a friend dying that day or something. Logan is caught and brought before the big computer.
So the computers don't like Logan's answers and so they begin "surrogation," where [apparently] they make little Logan heads out of his unconscious that'll answer questions more forthrightly. These appear in little cylinders that drop out of the ceiling, and are obviously holograms--the type that are now long obsolete. Logan tells the computer that there is no sanctuary, which the computer cannot accept, and this causes the whole computer to essentially have a nervous breakdown and explode. Yeah! Some supercomputer. You'd think by the 23rd century computers would be a little less vulnerable, but there you are. Now, you recall how we had the thing where Logan got off one shot and the entire ice cave exploded? Well here, the supercomputer is brought low, which causes the building housing it to explode [this much we can buy], which in turn... causes the entire CITY to explode? Umm, I guess so. Just go with it, please.
Then all the people come out, why, RIGHT where Ustinov just HAPPENS to be standing! And one woman walks up to him and feels his face, because she can't believe people could possibly ever get so old and skanky. Then Logan and Jessica appear at the top of the hill, smiling wide as the city explodes behind them! No word on how all these newly-free people who have never worked a day in their lives and have no knowledge of farming or hunting or any sustenance techniques are going to survive in their harsh new world, but whatever, they’re FREE, okay? Don’t be such a spoil-sport.
MMmmmmm-mmmm, sci-fi goodness! So it’s obvious that this movie was a huge thing for me growing up, and perhaps helped SHAPE my tastes, but this is one of the KEY examples of the mini-genre I call thoughtful/ludicrous sci-fi, as well as solid member of the other sub-genre, cheesy/awesome sci-fi. Because you have just enough serious mind-blowing ideas, leavened with heavy chunks of total ridiculousness! And you have all this uber-cheesy stuff like the bad models made of common household materials, but at the same time they are all SO FABULOUS. And add to the plethora of really cool, iconic images, and you’ve got a winner!
The more I watch a ton of movies, I start to see a common problem of sci-fi film, which is when they have too many new and different concepts to get across in a short time. Many of them try to just cram things in without explanation, like say Millennium or Equilibrium, to the point where there’s just too much to wonder about and you just shut down. Other movies are able to successfully throw a bunch of new stuff at you in a way that makes it all seem really cool and evocative and keeps you interested, and this movie is one of those. The hookup circuit, carrousel, the tube cars, the orgy room, the plastic surgery place... this movie throws a bunch of them at you [and it doesn’t hurt that the “running” narrative naturally moves from place to place] and they all get you wanting to know MORE. In addition to the central plot, this movie serves as a kind of tour of many interesting places in this new world. And it also helps that most of the places it visits are TOTALLY AWESOME.
Yeah, everything just pretty much works here--the concept, the costumes, the actors, the settings--and makes it what it is, a sci-fi classic that may not be an intellectual powerhouse, but has coolness and style to burn. Although I have to be aware that so much of this is the fact that I grew up with this stuff and thus forgive the slow pace and lame special effects. I’m just reading reviews on IMDb from younger people who find this the slowest, stupidest thing ever. Ah well, let them have The Island.
YES! If you like cheesy-but-awesome sci-fi!